Walking up Dean Street in London after a delectable weekend brunch, my cousin and I noticed swarms of brightly-coloured-knee-high-sock-wearing people pouring into the Soho Theatre.
Intrigued by what we suspected to be an underground Hogwarts convention, we followed a few in and asked what was going on. ‘It’s the Rapperlympics‘ we were matter-of-factly informed. Scanning the slightly nerdy and extremely caucasian crowd, we politely replied with ‘come again?’.
‘It’s the annual competition of Rapper Sword dancing.’
On hearing a new wave was about to begin, we perched upon a table alongside an elderly lady (Doreen). Some polite chit-chat in, we found she was a previous rapper herself, and was only too happy to give us the low-down on this fast-paced and utterly ludicrous hobby.
The miners oop North used to use rapper swords (flexible metal strips with two handles) to scrape the gunk off the ponies when they came up from the mine. In the evenings as entertainment, and no doubt following a few beers, they would then do a little jig with these swords continuously connecting a team of five, with one or two announcers (Tommy and Betty), and a musician or two most commonly wielding a flute or fiddle.
The curious part of this bizarre pastime is that it is the meeting point of a very quick and perfectly choreographed dance, and complete ridiculousness in the form of a man dressed as a woman (Betty) with massive, er, eyes, and, in one case, a mop head upon his own as hair. The Betty and or Tommy (a gentleman in top hat and tails) serve to introduce the dancers, as well as make jokes and haggle with the audience throughout the performance. In many cases they also begin the ‘show’ with a nonsense song or rhyme.
We watched four acts perform, including Candyrapper, and Stone Monkey (as seen in my video). It was clear that the latter was Doreen’s favourite team – as she belted out the theme as the Stone Monkeys came out. What separated this team from the rest was that they were all men, a far cry from nerdy uni students from Massachusetts, and finally made the culmination of weird antics and Irish-like dancing seem to fit. Rather than a Betty they had a jovial Tommy dressed to the nines, and the collection of mixed ages ranging from around 25 to 50 gave one a glimpse into how this dance-form could have once truly been – a bunch of mining lads getting together after a tough day’s work and making merriment.
A Hogwarts intervention it was not, but a completely astounding activity none-the-less. I learnt a few basic steps, but one hobby I may leave to the professionals for street-cred’s sake.
- Cost – £
- Energy – Quick steps and hops are needed for this and as such Doreen has retired to the occasional accordion playing.
- Sociability – In a team of five and with light-hearted tomfoolery encouraged I imagine it to be quite social… Though with the bifocals and can’t-put-my-finger-on-it oddity of those who take part, they might not transform into pub buddies.
- Equipment needed – Official kit entails worker boots (or school shoes), socks in team colours, black rolled up trousers, a team-coloured sash around the waist, white shirt. Drag for the Betty is encouraged, nay, compulsory.
Want to (for some bizarre reason) give it a go?
There’s a workshop happening at Camden’s Folk Dance Society – Cecil Sharp House – on 21 April from £17. Check out the English Folk Dance and Song website for other dates.