The rapper sword

The rapper sword is a strip of spring steel, around one inch (2.5cm) wide and 18 to 28 inches (45-70cm) in length. There are handles at both ends of the sword, one usually fixed and one with a swivel-attachment, although early rappers had two fixed handles.

Picture of a Rapper Sword
The rapper sword

Its origins are obscure and subject to much controversy, but the limited evidence available strongly favours the introduction of the flexible rapper at some time in the first half of the nineteenth century, probably between 1830 and 1850. By the end of the nineteenth century it had completely supplanted the rigid swords described in early accounts of sword dancing in the area.

It is also beyond reasonable doubt that it was adapted from old pit tools rather than expressly designed for dancing. Many of the traditional teams are known to have improvised rappers by filing down the teeth on saw blades, using old bed laths, or from hoop iron (in Beadnell). The popular theory is that they were implements used for scraping the sweat from the pit ponies' backs, but the only known implements used to perform this function in the local mines did not resemble a rapper and were not so named, although horse scrapers resembling rappers are known to have been used in the south of England in the recent past.

There was a pit tool called a rapper, used as signalling device in the pit shafts so that the banksman and onsetter could indicate to the brakesman that the cage was ready to be lowered or raised, as well as whether it was carrying men or coal tubs. In the early days the operator pulled a long string attached to a hammer in the engine room, the number of raps indicating the desired signal; later these were replaced with electric buzzers. Unfortunately none of the known forms of the pit rapper even vaguely resemble the dancing rapper.

The most plausible theory that the rapper was invented almost by accident, when miners without swords improvised them from old saw blades, and discovered that the flexibility of the blades allowed a far wider range of figures than would be possible with rigid swords.

The rapper did evolve over time, and by the time Sharp encountered the rapper dance in 1910, purpose-made rappers were being used locally. The Tyzack's company in Sheffield later made rappers to order, partly at the request of the English Dance Society. The higher quality steels available in the twentieth century allowed high-strain figures such as the High Spen Bulldog to emerge, figures which would have simply snapped the blades of rappers made with more basic steels.

Further information