A brief history of Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers

In Yorkshire the main traditional dance is longsword, or Yorkshire longsword. At one time, many villages had their own dances but now only a few still survive. Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers is one of the UK’s remaining ‘traditional’ teams, meaning it has an unbroken history since formation.

Originally the team danced in Woodhouse, a village two miles from Handsworth. It is unknown exactly when the dance started but a local clergyman, C.V. Collier, wrote that he remembered seeing the Woodhouse dance as a boy in the 1870s.

By the 1890s the team had moved to Handsworth, where more of the team members lived. This team was captained by Harry Siddall, one of four Siddall brothers dancing at that time. Around 1926, the team captaincy was passed to Billy Siddall, son of Harry.

Cecil Sharp, founder of the English Folk Dance Society, saw Handsworth dance in 1913, just after he had published his second volume of Sword Dancers of Northern England. He visited twice that year to record the dance, taking notes and photos, which were included in volume three.

Handsworth Sword Dancers danced during both World Wars as the dancers were not conscripted because they worked in reserved occupations in the mines or steelworks. It is during the wars when many folk dance teams, such as longsword and morris dance teams, died out as their members were called up and subsequently killed in action.

“Handsworth is a suburb of Sheffield, in recent history a mining village. In this area there developed, some unknown time in the past, a sword dance for eight men, which is still performed today to the traditional pattern.

“The dancers wear dragoon-type uniforms and carry long-swords of inflexible steel about one metre in length. Shortly after the beginning of the ten-minute dance, they join to form a complete ring, and perform a series of complex ‘figures’, ending with a ‘lock’ of enmeshed swords, which can be carried aloft by one man.

“Traditionally performances take place at Christmas in the locality, and at functions and events by invitation at other places throughout the year … it is certainly one of the best and most inspiriting of the dances that still survive in Yorkshire”

Cecil J. Sharp, The Sword Dances of Northern England, 3 pt. (London: Novello, 1911-13), III, page 37

Longsword dancing is traditionally known as a midwinter dance, although it is danced all year. Handsworth danced around Christmas time, often visiting the big houses nearby. In 1963, it was decided to fix a traditional day of dance and Boxing Day was chosen. If this falls on a Sunday, then the dance is performed on the Monday. This tradition continued unbroken until 2020 when the global Coronavirus pandemic made performing and practicing impossible. To mark the year, the team released a compilation video of previous performances.