The Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers emerged victorious in all categories at the Sword Dance Union (SDU) national longsword dancing competition, held in Southport.
The team picked up all four of the awards on offer; Best Traditional Dance; Best Own-Dance; Best Musicians; and the Audience Reaction prize.
The SDU competition pits dance teams from around the country against each other to perform traditional ‘longsword’ dances. Sometimes known as Yorkshire longsword, the form of dance is peculiar to a number of villages throughout Yorkshire, from Redcar in the north to Sheffield in the south. Over the years each village developed its own style, music and costume.
Today, there are few ‘traditional’, village-based teams left (such as Handsworth and Grenoside in Sheffield), but the dances continue to be performed and kept alive by dance teams up and down the country.
The Handsworth team performed two dances for the judges; the Handsworth Sword Dance in the Traditional class; and a more recently-written dance called Medlock in the Own-Dance category.
The Handsworth Sword Dance is thought to be at least 150 years old, and has been danced continuously by the Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers throughout that time. The dance is performed by eight dancers wearing dragoon-style jackets, white trousers, leather gaiters and boots. A full performance lasts around 10 minutes and involves around a dozen intricate figures.
The dance was collected in the early 1900s by folklorist Cecil Sharp, co-founder of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, and published in his Sword Dances of Northern England in 1913. In it, he calls the Handsworth dance “…certainly one of the best and most inspiring of the dances that still survive in Yorkshire.”
The team’s Medlock dance was written just before the pandemic, and only performed in public a handful of times before the competition. Performed by five dancers, it was devised to be danced in smaller spaces, such as city centre pubs and in a less-formal kit. It is named after Medlock Road in Handsworth, where many of the dancers in the 1920s team lived.
Team captain, Simon Brock, said: “We’re absolutely delighted to have had the quality of our dancing and music recognised at this national competition. All of the teams present danced incredibly well, so it was a real tribute to the dedication and practice time the team have put in that we came away with a clean sweep of prizes.”
It is likely that the 2023 SDU competition will be held in Sheffield, which boasts more morris and folk dance teams than anywhere else in the country.
The Handsworth Sword Dancers practice on a Wednesday night, 8-10pm, at the Burton Street Foundation, Hillsborough.
They will be hosting give-it-a-go sessions on Wednesday 19, 26 October and 2 and 9 November, open to anyone who wants to try Yorkshire longsword dancing.