Kirkburton Rapiers celebrate 40 years of Yorkshire long sword dancing
- Credit: Joan Russell
A long-time tradition will never die as long as a group of men continue to dance to the tune of times gone by as David Marsh discovers
Head to the attractive Pennine village of Kirkburton and you may well find yourself being entertained by a group that is helping to keep a great Yorkshire tradition alive.
For the past 40 years the Kirkburton Rapiers have been delighting audiences with their expertise at Yorkshire long sword dancing.
They are one of only about a dozen groups in the country performing the age-old style of dance and their New Year’s Day performance in particular has become a fixture on the village’s entertainment calendar. The Rapiers can also be seen at pubs, festivals, carnivals and fetes across the county as well as much further afield. In the past they have toured Ireland, Belgium and Germany.
In 1974 a group of friends, aware there had been a Kirkburton long sword dance, decided to revive the tradition. Bob Schofield, one of the Rapiers’ founders still involved with the group today, said: ‘It really came about because we were looking to do something at New Year.
‘One of the lads had found some research about there being a long sword dance in Kirkburton at one time so we got together and decided to have a go. Long sword dancing had been popular at one time but during the Victorian period the authorities frowned on it because they associated it with drunkenness, so it fell away.’
Rehearsals started in late 1974 with the first performances given on New Year’s Eve that year and New Year’s Day 1975. ‘We danced around the village on New Year’s Eve and finished at The George pub,’ recalled Bob. ‘We didn’t think there would be much of a turnout to see us the next day but there was a large crowd and we had started something. Other bookings followed and here we are still. We collected £20.52 from our first performance and donated £5 towards the old folks’ treat.’
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Mark Shaw, the Rapiers’ secretary who joined the group in 2005, said: ‘People in Kirkburton appreciate our efforts and our dances always get a good reception. Long sword dancing is fun, helps keep you fit and there is a good social side to it. Obviously one of the main reasons we do it is to keep the tradition alive.’
The group rehearses fortnightly at the Carlton Club in Kirkburton and new members are always welcome.
Long sword lines
Long sword dance involves a team of six and a dance captain who form a circle and perform steps in which they clash swords - these days a length of steel with a file handle. They are accompanied by musicians and their dance costume is a white shirt, red kerchief, dark blue waistcoat, black trousers with ribbons attached down the side. Clogs are worn and the captain carries a sword with ribbons attached at the point. The final tradition, that of blackened faces, is only adopted during the New Year performances. Song is an important part of the entertainment. Each singer asks a question of the captain who sings the answer. It is a past-time with a long history. Banned during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, it was revived during the reign of King Charles II. During the Victorian era the dance’s popularity waned and by the early 20th century it was no longer being performed in Kirkburton…until now. Find out more about Kirkburton Rapiers at kirkburtonrapiers.co.uk
Kirkburton itself also has a long history and is noted in the Domesday Book. From the late 18th century the population and prosperity of the area grew thanks to the expansion of the textile industry. Coal was also important and at one time about 20 small mines were operating in the area. While, as in so many places, those traditional industries are largely no more, Kirkburton and its surrounding villages and hamlets remain thriving communities.
The village sits south-east of Huddersfield on the edge of the Pennines, in an area of wonderful rolling countryside, attractive stone villages, independent shops, historic churches and fine pubs. One of its best known landmarks is the Emley Moor television mast standing at over 1,000ft tall. Kirkburton is linked to the coast-to-coast Trans-Pennine Trail at Penistone and is popular with cyclists, horse riders and walkers.