Searching for rappers’ roots

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RESEARCHERS are hoping that Northumberland residents will have sharp memories about a unique aspect of North East culture.

Until the 1930s, rapper sword dances could only be found in the region. Usually danced by coal miners in street performances or pubs, it became the subject of fiercely competitive tournaments and was at its peak in the 1920s.

Teams of five dancers, with their musicians and comic characters known as ‘Tommy and Betty’, originated in pit villages such as Ellington and Newbiggin.

Today the custom has spread its wings across the UK and abroad, with groups as far away as Australia and the USA.

But relics of its North East origins are becoming harder to find as every year passes.

Researcher Phil Heaton, who is currently writing a book about the surviving history of rapper sword dancing, said: “Only one of the pre-war ‘traditional’ teams still performs regularly so where once it was possible to meet the old dancers and hear their tales and experiences first-hand, most if not all have sadly passed away.

“But it is likely that some people have inherited artefacts such as old photographs, newspaper cuttings or even swords.

“All we would ask is to borrow these items to copy, record and then return to their owners.”

Mr Heaton and his team would also like to record reminiscences or other information, particularly from revivalists in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. To contact him telephone 01332 874186.