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At the heart of English folk
Tower Ravens

#11: Interview with Laura Smyth

Laura is one of the members of the London-based sword-dancing team, Tower Ravens. She is also the Director of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, performs at folk clubs with her partner Ted Kemp (they have an EP out now called The Charcoal Black and The Bonny Grey, which can be purchased at Cecil Sharp House) and plays with ceilidh band, The Spring Heeled Jacks.

 

Who are the Tower Ravens and what do you do?

Well, to keep with the team's publicity blurb - “Tower Ravens are London's premier (well only) all-female rapper sword dancing team”. It used to also say “most attractive”, but I don't know why that was dropped... Rapper dancing is a traditional form of dance which comes from the North East of England – specifically the coal mining areas of Durham and Northumberland. It usually consists of 5 dancers, all connected via short bendy swords with handles on both ends (called rapper swords and which don't look like swords at all) which are used to make intricate patterns and locks. There is a “character” member dressed in fancy dress who introduces the team and provides light humour for the spectators. The origins of the dance tradition are somewhat hazy, but Cecil Sharp collected a lot of rapper dances in the early 20th century.

The dance can be pretty fast, energetic, and includes complex footwork. This combined with the fact that it is often performed in pubs on a monthly crawl means that it is pretty appealing!

 

Did Tower Ravens consciously choose to form an all-female team, and if so why?

Tower Ravens formed in the wake of DERT (Dancing England Rapper Tournament) 2012, which was being hosted by London's male-only team, Thrales. A couple of the girls who formed Tower Ravens had danced in various other rapper teams around the country, and since moving to London found that the rapper provision for women in the Capital was somewhat lacking. They decided to form their own all-female team, basically because the men were already catered for. Some people also think single-sex teams look better, but I don’t think that was a factor for Tower Ravens.

 

 

Could you say something about the kinds of responses/reactions you've received (from other teams / the rapper sword-dancing community / friends / family etc.) in relation to you being an all-female team / based in London / anything else which is important to your group identity...

Since rapper is a dance form from the North East, it's much rarer to get rapper in the south and there was the concern that a London based team might suffer some flak. So it was decided that the team would embrace its London roots and try to use it to its advantage. The team’s first practice hall was a stone’s throw away from the Tower of London, so the team decided to take its name from the ravens which are said to habitat the Tower. Folklore suggests that the ravens' presence at the tower ensures the security of the nation, and this is often mentioned as part of our performance. We also have a character dressed as a beefeater (we're not sure if this is illegal), who sometimes introduces the team in pubs by blowing a bugle. She's not a trained bugler by any means, but we feel it's effective at getting attention!

 

Do you think attitudes surrounding rapper sword-dance have had to evolve to accommodate a more diverse spectrum of teams that exist nowadays? If so, in what ways? 

I think of all the traditional dance forms, rapper dancing is one of the most progressive. Teams embrace the tradition, but are not afraid to develop their own dances, dance figures, costumes, and team identity. All-male, all-female, and mixed teams are all flourishing and compete equally against each other in the national rapper tournament, DERT. Because of this ability to adapt (and a good dose of competition) the dance form is healthier than it ever has been.

 

How would you describe the team dynamic/structure outside of the performances themselves? Have you certain roles/jobs you each do/don't do, eg making the costumes, organising practice, arranging crawls etc, or does it happen more spontaneously/impulsively? Or maybe you've another way to describe it?

Tower Ravens is a relatively large team which meets once a week on a Monday for practice. Because of differing circumstances some members are able to attend more frequently than others. Those more dedicated members often take on other roles within the team, such as secretary, treasurer, costume organiser, crawl organiser, teacher, publicity officer, and the all-important “cake organiser”. When I first joined the team I was pretty surprised at how formal the structure and organisation of the team was, with AGMs, EGMs and weekly catch-ups. But because the team is large it makes sense for a single person to take responsibility for a single role and to make key decisions at a formal meeting. Despite these formalities the team has a good dynamic and we tend to end each practice with a trip down the pub.

 


 

Find out more about the Tower Ravens: Facebook | Twitter

 

 

National Youth Folk Ensemble

National Youth Folk Ensemble

 

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