Sword Dancing - A Village Tradition

How many of the readers of ‘The Key’ visited the folk festival at Saltburn in August of this year? They would have been entertained by Morris dancers, folk singers and ‘black-faced’ clog dancers. The only sight missing was the sight of sword dancing which was performed in the past by a team from North Skelton.
Sword dancing is part of our pagan heritage of which Morris dancers, mummers and the Maypole are just a few examples. Readers of a certain age will remember seeing these dances and some must have even practised and performed the sword dance at school.
The sword dance was a ‘solar dance’ connected with the death and renewal of the sun. The swords, about 40 inches long and very heavy, were not weapons but symbols of the sun. The team consisted of six to eight men plus an accordionist to play the beat and various followers including the ‘fool’. The dances are rituals of the seasons and during the course of the dance, the swords were wreathed into the ‘lock’ or ‘rose’ which made the emblem of the sun. This was placed around the neck of the ‘fool’ who was ritually ‘slain’ to symbolise the end of the year.
During his research into folk dance, a Mr Rolf Gardiner visited North Skelton. In his journal he describes his visit, including some detail of the dancers practising in the ‘Band Room’. His visit led to a revival in sword dancing and, with the assistance of the Pennyman family of Ormesby Hall, eventually to the formation of a second team in North Skelton, the ‘Primrose’ team at Lingdale and further teams at both Boosbeck and Loftus.
Thanks to Rolf Gardiner’s involvement, the North Skelton team travelled all over the area and taught visiting miners from the Ruhr and Silesia and went on exchange visits with the miners in Germany. The team performed at the Albert Hall in London and, in 1932, acted as ‘guards of honour’ at Rolf’s wedding at Southwark Cathedral. Rolf Gardiner’s association with North Skelton Sword Dancers spanned the years from 1925 until 1939.
Sadly, sword dancing went into decline in the area but has recently been revived at Lockwood Beck Primary School, Boosbeck.

Bob Evans, of William Street, North Skelton, was a member of the sword dancer’s team and one day invited Rolf into his home for tea. Bob’s daughter Jean (now Jean Tokarski), as a child of 2-3 years, sat on his knee for most of the visit. Her Dad later told her that Rolf had made such an impression on her that on the day he got married she was broken-hearted! (Ed)

Ian Keeler

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