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M@HoT – a traditional music and dance project in Teesdale, including a Longsword revival


January 19, 2016 by tommy

Patrick Langdon (ex Spen Valley Longsword) sent us some information on the Music at the Heart of Teesdale (M@HoT) project, designed to increase the involvement of youngsters in the traditional music, song and dance of Teesdale; a beautiful valley in the Northern Pennines. 

Teesdale Longsword revival (photo from M@HoT)

The main focus of activity is a youth band; Cream Tees, and they also have a longsword dance team, Teesdale Longsword. All the dancers attend Teesdale School, the secondary school in Barnard Castle. They are fortunate in having a core of enthusiastic youngsters who practise every week, either in the school or at a local youth centre (The Hub), and who are also willing to use their free time to go to folk events in the region. They have danced at local events such as a village Maypole dance and village festivals. They have also traveled to higher profile regional events; Belfagan’s day of dance in Cockermouth, the Morris Federation day of dance in Keswick, and most recently the Sword Dance Union AGM in Goathland.

Teesdale Longsword

Teesdale Longsword (photo from M@HoT)

The team is now well established in Teesdale School and has gone from strength to strength. It has performed both near and far under Patrick’s guidance – from the Ovington Maypole celebrations to national traditional ‘Days of Dances’, where in both Keswick in 2014 and Cockermouth last May (seen right) we have been the only youth Longsword dance team invited to take part. Last autumn for the first time, and in order to generate further interest in school, we ran our first ‘Interhouse Longsword Dance Competition’. Teams from the school’s three houses competed – ‘Strictly’ style! – in a dance-off organised as part of the school’s end of term ‘WinterFest’ production. The winners were presented with medals and a specially engraved ‘John Browell’ trophy. John used to perform with Patrick down in the Spen Valley in West Yorkshire in their own dancing days, and donated a complete set of steel swords to the team – previously they’d had to make do with a set of wooden ones hand made by Patrick.

Teesdale Longsword

Teesdale Longsword (photo from Redcar website)

Having successfully established a Longsword dance team at Teesdale School which performs regularly in the area, the organisers are also now starting to introduce the tradition in the feeder primary schools. Last year they ran a pilot programme in Bowes Hutchinson primary school that culminated in a performance from two teams at the village’s Christmas Fayre. Building on the success of that project, this summer they have been working in three primary schools – in Gainford, Green Lane in Barnard Castle and Bowes again. And, drawing on the letters of Alice Edleston now in ‘The Full English’ archive, the Gainford performance even included a version of the ‘Sword play’ performed by the pupils and musicians too!

Patrick writes; “as for a history of the dance, there are references to dances being done here in Gainford and in villages near Barnard Castle. There is a scrap of tune notation in Alice Edleston’s letters, which can be seen in The  Full English archive – search for ‘Gainford’. There is next to nothing to give any idea of the dances themselves. When we began teaching the team, there were three of us, two musicians, Mike Bettison, who has a lot of experience in morris and folk bands, but not longsword, and Neil Diment and me in a school hall. I was the only one with any longsword knowledge.”
“I decided on what the Teesdale dance should be. I was guided by what I thought the pupils we were teaching would be able to do. Bear in mind that they had no model. They couldn’t see a team and then learn from that. It had to be moves they could get a sense of achievement from within the first half hour or so. There is no direct historical reference or justification for the figures in the dance. I just decided.”
“However, I also considered historical probability. Was it likely that sword dancing originated spontaneously in Teesdale without any influence from any where else? No.”
“Where would the most likely influence be from? The main local employment was agriculture. It is not a mining or steel making area. So any one moving into the area and already knowing sword dancing would probably be from the Vale of York. The nearest recorded dances would be Bellerby, Thirsk and Kirkby Malzeard. There would have been trade and some communication with the lower Tees Valley and Teesside. The dances there are Skelton, Redcar and many others in that area. Ampleforth and Helmsley are also not far away.”
“I took the common moves; walk on, clash, shoulders hilt and point ring and lock, all of which had to be in the dance, then added an arches/guard of honour move and (when the dancers were more competent) an over the sword move similar to an Ampleforth figure.”
“The dance we now have is made up, but definitely within the tradition of longsword dancing. It is also evolving. I am more than happy to let the youngsters alter and adapt the dance. My philosophy is that it is not my dance, it’s theirs. We adults help them with their dance.”
Further information can be found here

1 comment »

  1. Certainly seems like the right way to go in reconstruction or in establishing a regional dance. However, I have recently come to the conclusion that the terms ‘longsword’ and ‘rapper’ (both 20th century inventions) may be a limiter on creativity in these circumstances. The nearest sword traditions to Gainsford appear to be Eppleby and Aldborough to the south-east and Arkengarthdale to the south-west. Your area is an area of lead-mining and the Arkengarthdale dancers were lead-miners. So… not intending to throw a spanner in the works – on that basis, might your local dances have been danced by only five dancers? Additionally, we don’t know what the swords used in that area were made of, if wood there’s no problem but, the minute metal is mentioned you might like to consider whether that is flexible or rigid.
    Sorry, I’m just being a bit mischievous here – I enjoyed reading the report and a very big congratulations to all of you involved in the project. 🙂

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