The Ampleforth Sword Dance is danced by Morris Men around the world: just look on Google and YouTube. It was documented by Cecil James Sharp (1859 – 1924), the founding father of the folklore revival in the early 20th century.
The dance is a long-sword dance, apparently associated with pre-christian rituals and part of an associated folk play. The folk play describes a stranger who is killed (possibly beheaded) by the 6 dancers with their blocked swords. A doctor is called to perform a cure but is pushed aside by a clown who, making mystical signs, brings the man back to life.
Cecil Sharpe obtained details of the dance from George Wright, a retired railway worker in Darlington, who was born in Ampleforth in the early 1840‘s and said to be the only surviving man, at the time, to have preformed the play, acting the clown. This may not be true, but it probably means that it was danced by villagers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and before. A photograph below shows dancers outside Beech House in the West End of the village. The photograph belongs to the Fox family who also have an English Folk Dance Society badge. The Society was founded in 1911 and existed up to 1932 when it became the English Folk Dance and Song Society, so this helps to date the photograph. We understand that the dancers include Bensons, Chases and Foxes and we are trying to find more information about them.
The dance was revived by Father Damian Webb, a monk from Ampleforth Abbey, with team of 6 college boys. Replica swords were made from one, supposedly found in Coxwold, which had survived from an earlier performance and was being used as a poker. Father Damian was assisted by Doctor Huw Ballard Thomas, tutor in literary studies. In 1950 the first public performance for years was held at the Ampleforth College Exhibition, in June. The college team went on to perform the dance regularly, including an appearance at the Royal Albert Hall. It was last danced in Ampleforth at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, by college boys, outside the White Horse pub. There is also photograph inside the pub.
An image of dancers in the West End of the village outside Beech House. Click here for larger image.
An early picture of the dance at Ampleforth College. Click here for large image.
The English Folk Dance Society badge. Click here for larger image.