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“Winter Sword Dancing: a black and white issue?” – a talk by Andrew Kennedy

Review of the talk presented by Andrew Kennedy on 29th January 2023 via Zoom.

Liam Hopkins of Grenoside Traditional Longsword Dancers, Sheffield, writes:

“On Sunday the 29th of January, I attended a Zoom talk given by Andrew Kennedy. This is the first of its kind I’ve been to, and was certainly a good place to start. This talk expanded on an article titled ‘Masquerade and Fun’, which Andrew wrote for the longsword magazine ‘Rattle Up, My Boys’, and attempted to examine the place of disguise and sword dancing in winter festivities.

“At the start of the session, Andrew made clear that he believed sword dancing was just one part of a much greater array of midwinter celebrations. It interested me how these traditions do not always overlap in records, and indeed in our modern experience of them. This point was put forward throughout the talk, Andrew wanted us to consider the idea that winter sword dancing was not necessarily the focal point of an event such as Boxing Day, but more an activity which people decided to partake in as part of the already present revelry.

Zurich dancers 1577
Zurich dancers 1577

“He then went on to discuss sword dancing as a historically masculine activity, where women were left to look after children and do the housework. He mentioned a memory from Saddleworth Rushcart, where he recalls seeing the morris men processing with vigour up a steep hill, pulling the rushcart, and the women (presumably their wives) were lagging slightly behind carrying all the bags and babies in pushchairs/buggies. This observation of course makes sense in a military context, given that men were historically always chosen for battle over women, thus being the ones to carry the swords. This inherent masculinity (and thus raucousness) is very apparent throughout most records of midwinter folk festivities, be it mumming or wassailing, especially as most records detail the arrest or punishment of individuals partaking in such activities! Comparatively, eastern sword dances, such as in China, prominently feature women as performers. However, it is through the intrinsic virility of midwinter traditions that the idea of ‘masquerade and fun’ also manifests. It was made clear throughout the talk that the colour black was emblematic of this ‘override of respectability’ (to quote Andrew himself).

“Next, Andrew considered the use of the colour black in winter folk costume, as a key part of the disguises found in continental midwinter celebrations. He used photos of the Venice Carnival, which allegedly began in 1162 and still continues to this day. In the photos, people were depicted with black and white and costumes. This caused me to think for a moment, as we typically associate the colours black and white with more one-dimensional behaviour, and bright, vibrant costumes with fun and merrymaking. Is it possible the darker colours in the costumes could represent the dullness of winter? It is worth considering the ‘topsy turvy’ feel that was so consistent throughout European folk customs, the world turned upside down, men wearing women’s clothes, the Lord of Misrule was king for a day, etc.

“Andrew then showed images of three continental sword dances including two paintings from Zurich in 1577 and from the Nuremberg Cutler’s Guild in 1600, and the third a photo of the current Uberlingen sword team with their continued tradition from 1646. He drew similarities between Nuremberg dancers and the Uberlingen team, comparing their formal and civic nature. Andrew considered the painting from Zurich to be more representative of revelry and fun, connecting this to the dancers blackened faces. The Zurich painting features dancers with white shirts and black trousers, with several ‘fool’ characters sporting more colourful costumes. The dancers from Überlingen in their present form also wear stately and plain colours, with dark blue tailcoats and hats, as well as sashes of red and yellow.

“Andrew mentioned that continental sword dance began in the city and eventually moved out to the countryside and rural communities. In its urban form it seems to appear much smarter and municipal, typically performed by apprentices and journeymen, whereas the sword dances found in villages, likely performed by miners or farm labourers are ‘rough and elemental’, to quote Lady Tweedsmuir’s account of the Grenoside Sword Dance. This is of course similar to the development of Morris Dancing, beginning as a medieval courtly dance and eventually spreading to the countryside, becoming a custom of the working class.

Perth sword dancers cap, Andrew Kennedy 2022
Perth sword dancers cap

“After this, we ventured to Perth, Scotland. Andrew showed photos of a costume dating from the 1600s. It featured a cap with nuts attached to string hung from the rim. This was compared to Australian hats with dangling corks. For me, it brought to mind both Hampshire mummers attire, where the string is replaced with ribbons, and also the equally esoteric fringe veil-masks found across shamanic tradition. Whilst on the topic of Scotland, he also mentioned the ‘Galoshins’ play, essentially a Scottish version of what we know as ‘mumming’ which also involved blacking up.

“Throughout the talk, Andrew made clear the variations in what was considered to be the ‘winter season’. In most cases it was considered to be beginning with Advent (the first week of December) and lasting through to Shrovetide (mid to late February). In some areas, the season began with All Hallows (Nov 1st). Andrew made a comparison between the civic nature of winter sword dance as opposed to the less formal way it is sometimes performed nowadays in pubs and at festivals, and of course often ‘out of season’. It is no coincidence that four out of the five remaining traditional English longsword teams have an annual dance on Boxing Day, of course being calendrically close to both the winter solstice or ‘midwinter’s day’ and the new year. Sword dance has clearly been part of European winter celebrations for a very long time.

Hansele (fool) Photo 2016, Schwarzwalder Bote
Hansele (fool) Photo 2016, Schwarzwalder Bote

“One of my favourite parts of the talk was Andrew’s section on the ‘fool’ characters and their role in sword dance. He mentioned the Hansele from Überlingen, a key instance of the use of black in the costume of a reveller. And the Hansele is exactly that, boisterous and rowdy, and by tradition, exclusively male, however, with the use of this disguise it is difficult to determine whether the Hansele themselves is male or female, which is again part of the ‘topsy turvy’ nature of the carnival. It is worth noting that in Überlingen, the fools actually greatly outnumber the sword dancers on their carnival day, with a procession of their own, tallying at over 1000 Hansele parading the streets and striking their whips. It is clear that the fool figure here represents licentiousness and absolutely ‘masquerade and fun’. I personally find the fool character to be a real curiosity, particularly the idea of him as a ‘king for a day’ figure. Andrew did an excellent job of considering its place in winter sword dance.

“Overall I thought it was a fantastic talk, full of very clearly thought out and conscious ideas and with plenty of room for discussion between participants at the end. It was also very seasonally appropriate as we are still currently in the throes of winter here in England. I greatly look forward to Andrew’s next talk and any others that the Morris Fed will be hosting. And a big thank you to Pauline for arranging the talk and asking me to write this review.

by Liam Hopkins of Grenoside Traditional Longword Dancers, Sheffield

Video Recording

The video recording is now publicly available on the MF YouTube channel (1hr 9mins).


If you’d like to read more about this and other aspects of sword dancing that have interested Andrew, please look at his website About Sword Dancing at For more info about sword dancing in general, see the Sword Dance Union.

Andrew Kennedy & Rattle Up My Boys magazineMore info on Sword dancing can be found in the sword dancing newsletter Rattle Up, My Boys – subscribe for a very reasonable £8 for one year (4 issues).  Email:

The back issues of Rattle Up, My Boys will soon be going online on our web pages.

About Andrew Kennedy

Having been an enthusiastic country dancer as a child, Andrew Kennedy fell into Morris dancing while at university before finding his way to rapper.  When he grew up he became a longsword dancer, going on to play for dancing and then to write a bit about it.

He edited the sword dancing newsletter Rattle Up, My Boys for a while and organised the overseas teams for the 2004 and 2008 International Sword Spectacular festivals.

He has danced/played with teams including Clydeside Rapper, Carlisle Sword and Morris Dancers, Sallyport Sword Dancers, East Saxon Swords, White Star Sword Dancers, Thrales RapperSouthport Swords, and the North British Sword Dancers.

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