Grenoside Sword Dancers

The Grenoside Sword Dance
The text of a publicity pamphlet written by the much-missed Peter Clarke in 1995.

Boxing Day. The "splendour" of the 1951 jackets is
highlighted by the low mid-day sun!


This dance belongs in the village of Grenoside on the north-west edge of Sheffield. It still forms an important mid-winter ritual for the village when we dance outside the Old Harrow in Main Street at 11 o'clock on Boxing Day. It has been danced in the village for many years: the earliest printed account was in the Pall Mall Gazette in January 1895, there is a photograph dated 1885 and a written record which probably dates from the mid 1700s. At times it has seemed that the dance may die, but men have always sprung up to learn from the old dancers and to carry on the tradition. Our fiddler's grandfather was in the team and there are still other family connections with the dance. Dancers from before the war still live in the village. The dance continues to evolve: Cecil Sharp's account does not match our present dance precisely and before the last war the stepping was more elaborate and the dance was followed by Ring 0' Roses in which each man stepped a solo.

At that time each man's jacket was different and the Captain's helmet was covered by a rabbit (or hare?) skin rather than the fox fur of today. At other times the music has been played on a melodeon instead of a fiddle, but the four tunes (Drops 0' Brandy, Roxborough Castle, Wonder Hornpipe and Smash the Windows) remain the same.

The Captain and the six men dance a series of figures which are similar to other long sword traditions and cycle round the six swords in turn. However the sequence and style of the dance, the break step between figures, the songs, the beheading of our captain, the music and the costume make this dance unique. The 'new' swords of Sheffield Steel date from 1933 and the scarlet paisley jackets with green and red braid and rosettes were made for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Our iron shod clogs sound best on good flagstones. We do not dance simply for the pleasure of it, for beer money or a good day out; we dance because this dance, this tradition matters to us. We often speak of 'our' dance but in a sense we belong to it rather than it to us. It may signify much or little, one thing to one dancer and another to another, but it marks the season for all of us with a special sense that we have performed an important rite for ourselves and our witnesses. For some of us and of the bystanders, the Boxing Day dance gives a perceptible shove to the turn of the year and encourages us to believe that winter's dark and cold will again yield to warmth and light before we give up hope - and reminds us that life follows death as death follows life.

At other times and places we dance to share the dance with friends and to improve our funds, but the Boxing Day ritual has a meaning of its own. In 1994 we revived the custom of taking the dance around the village later in the Christmas period. We have not toured the 'Big Houses' for miles around over several days as the team used to do but on the Saturday nearest Twelfth Night we dance at shops and pubs and houses where the dance is honoured. These days we may be seen in newer duller jackets because the stature of the dancers has changed over the last forty years, and because we have so far been unable to find material to match the splendour of the 1951 jackets. When we dance indoors on delicate floors we muffle our clogs with rubber.

The ceremony has been recorded on film and video, and was studied in depth in the 1980s.