New members for Handsworth Sword

In addition to my morris team, I’m also part of Handsworth Traditional Sword Dancers in Sheffield. And we’ve got some good news I wanted to share.

A summer trial project has resulted in three new members for the team, which has been struggling for dancers for a number of years.

Handsworth took the decision to hold two months of ‘workshops’ to teach new men a shorter, six-man version of the traditional dance with the aim of a dancing pub crawl in autumn. The team eschewed its regular practice space in Handsworth for a more central venue in Sheffield, making it more convenient for potential members to attend.

The change of venue, the idea of a quicker, shorter version of the dance, no requirement to commit fully, and plenty of bullying and cajoling by existing Handsworth members resulted in ten new men coming to give the dance a try. Although much of this initial interest dropped off for one reason or another, three of the new recruits have continued to attend practices and some of the others are hoping to return, time allowing.

The result is that the new version of the dance was performed in public for the first time this week, complete with a new kit which will be used for less formal occasions. Next week the team will take the dance around several pubs in the studenty West Street area of Sheffield. The new members are now also beginning to take part in the full eight-man version of the dance.

Here’s the first performance of the dance at the New Barracks Tavern in Sheffield on Wednesday 9th November:

Handsworth has now moved its practice venue permanently to the new venue. Its iconic, traditional kit of velvet jackets, leather gaiters and white trousers will continue to be used for the full eight-man version of the dance.

With the new members, the team has also been able to accept an invite to a sword dance festival in Belgium in May.

  • The main learning points for other teams struggling to recruit would be:
    Don’t ask for new ‘members’. Try to keep the offering informal and relaxed. We termed our summer practices ‘workshops’ to avoid people feeling like they had to commit to the team from the off. This softly-softly approach seems to have paid off.
  • Look at your practice venue. It’s hard when a team has practiced in the same place for, often, decades, but ultimately if you are seriously about attracting members you might need to move closer to your potential audience. Our move into Sheffield allowed students to attend practice and was also far more convenient for a couple of existing members who could then convince other local friends to come along.
  • Invites and events. Handsworth is a well established, respected team that gets invites to some great events. We let the new dancers know about the potential Belgium trip early in the workshops. It added as an incentive for some of the new dancers to keep coming and has allowed us to commit to going, meaning we’ve got them dancing with us for at least another six months!
  • Kit. No team should get rid of what makes them, them. However, we decided that this dance should have a simpler kit, which would be easier to kit new members out in. The full kit also carries a certain amount of pressure with it, and we wanted to help people feel relaxed.

Anyone interested in trying the Handsworth dance is welcome to attend practices, which take place at the Burton Street Foundation, Hillsborough, Sheffield, S6 2HH on Wednesdays 8pm-10pm.

The pub crawl takes place on Wednesay 16th November and will begin at Bar One in Sheffield Students’ Union at 8pm, before visiting The Hop (8:30pm), The Beehive (9pm), and The Cavendish (9:30pm). All welcome!

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