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A Tribute to Renaat Van Craenenbroeck

by Trevor Stone

On the evening of Friday July 6th I had a telephone call from Croatia breaking the news that Renaat Van Craenenbroeck was dead. Three months later, I face the painful task of preparing an obituary for this remarkable man.

I first met Renaat 20 years ago when his team, Lange Wapper, attended a Longsword weekend I organised in Malton in 1981. I had ben told of the existence of a Flemish sword dance team from Antwerp during a Longsword workshop at the Sidmouth Folk Festival. The information came from Roland Higson, a musician with Horwich Morris Men, a North West team who had regular contacts with Lange Wapper. It was a surprise to hear of this team for I thought that sword dancing on the Continent had died out, surviving only in England. Renaat and the Lange Wapper team opened my eyes to a world of sword dance outside Britain but more importantly the meeting was the start of a friendship that will live in my memory for many years.

Renaat and I travelled to events involving sword dance teams as far afield as Czechoslovakia, the Shetland Isles and Germany. I travelled with the team to Spain and Italy and Renaat made numerous visits to England, usually at Christmas or New Year, to see teams such as Flamborough, Grenoside, Goathland and Handsworth - some more than once. I made many trips to stay with Renaat in Antwerp usually for Lange Wapper's Half Lent event and, on those visits, I got to know team members of Lange Wapper and Renaat's family.

Renaat was born and brought up in Antwerp and he had a strong commitment to this Flemish speaking area. He was the only child of a tailor. His family experienced the shortages and deprivation which followed the Second World War. He had an education which took him towards a career in business and his prospects were greatly improved by his skill in languages. For a number of years he served as an official town guide to Antwerp and he tackled that task with the same energy and commitment that he brought to his other interests.

In February 1958 Renaat was involved in founding the folk dance group Lange Wapper
(named after a giant reputed to roam the streets of Antwerp).
After a few years the team added the word "Dansgroep" to their name, a significant choice
as the usual Flemish alternative "Volksdans" was regarded outdated.

 

In the early years, when he was forming his group, Renaat regarded the existing Flemish folk organisations as reactionary - so much so that he and his group attracted criticism for their approach to the dances. But, as so often happens, the opposition gradually melted away and Renaat's method of interpreting the dances became accepted and even copied, but Lange Wapper were left with the reputation of being a "difficult" team because they expected high standards. During this period Renaat was busy with research into the history of Flemish dances from the Brabant area. By 1970 he felt he had amassed sufficient information on sword dancing to be able to recreate a Flemish sword dance.

Renaat often took family holidays in England, in spite of his complaints about the poor standard of food available at that time, and the Lange Wapper team first visited the UK (Birmingham) in 1968. In 1972 they competed at the Llangollen Eistedford.

I realised, before I started work on this appreciation, that Renaat was a multifaceted person and that part of my task is to ensure that readers realise the wide scope of his activities. For example many UK sword teams knew of Renaat because of his attendance at, and involvement in, the organisation of the Sword Spectaculars held in 1996, 1998 and 2000. Indeed the idea of holding an international meeting of sword dance teams was Renaat's - he hoped to hold such an event in 1989 to commemorate six hundred years since the first written record of sword dancing which he discovered in the Bruges archives. Lack of funding prevented this plan from coming to fruition but he was a keen supporter when the idea was taken up by a group in England in 1996.

How many of Renaat's UK contacts knew of his extensive research work in his own country and throughout the Continent? (He was described by Steve Corrsin as ".... the leading Belgian authority and the single most important figure in linking continental sword teams.") He had widespread contacts with sword dance teams and researchers throughout the Continent. Renaat was an inveterate telephone caller - I could almost set my clock by his weekly calls and he always had something of interest to pass on.

Most people are also unlikely to know that he was a respected (and very busy) dance tutor who was in demand throughout Belgium and France by groups who wished to improve their dance skills. His series of tutorial video tapes covering Flemish Waltzes, Mazurkas, Schottisches and Polkas are an ideal starting point for dancers who wish to hone their dance skills.

It is hard for me to separate Renaat from Lange Wapper - he was one of the founders of the initial social dance group and almost a decade later he encouraged a team to perform a sword dance he created using references to dances from the Flemish speaking area and drawing on his extensive knowledge of hilt and point sword dances from other parts of the Continent. However, some of Renaat's activities did not involve the team. I am thinking of the times when he and I travelled together to see teams (such as the Papa Stour sword dancers) on their home ground. Many of the teams we saw were unlikely to travel abroad because of their remoteness.

Some years ago Renaat married for a second time and moved to the south of Belgium where his new wife Marie Christine (known as "Puce") is a G.P., but he regularly made a weekly round trip of 140 miles in order to direct the dancing at Lange Wapper's weekly practices.

Since his retirement some years ago Renaat has built an international reputation by making presentations at Conferences such as those at the Sword Spectaculars and at an International Council of Traditional Music Conference at Korcula in Croatia in July 2000. These presentations summarised his extensive knowledge of the history of sword dance on the Continent and aired his favourite theme which was to present his ideas and experiences in creating or reviving sword dances. Many of these events led to new contacts which, generous as ever, he shared with fellow researchers. As a result of his visit to the ICTM Symposium he made contact with a Spanish researcher who promised to provide information on sword dances from Andalusia and other parts of Spain. That was enough for Renaat - he set about making plans for the two of us to visit the area as soon as practical. His efforts were not confined to collecting dances, indeed he had arranged to meet John Forest later on in the evening on which he died in order to consider Flemish historical references to the Morris dance.

Renaat, together with Mark Van Orshoven, Lange Wapper's jester and a computer expert, produced a regular publication "t'zweertdanserke" which served as a team newsletter and as a vehicle for some of the many discoveries Renaat made about sword dancing. He and I exchanged our publications (and our video and photographic records) in an attempt to make our work more accessible to future researchers.

It is hardly surprising that the death of such a dedicated and important figure in the world of dance should attract widespread comment. I am sure that Renaat's family and my friends in Lange Wapper will be aware of the immense feeling of loss that I share with them. I think it may help to refer to some of the many messages from English, American and Continental teams and individuals who have contacted me. I have chosen to quote the following messages from some experts in the field of international dance and research.

John Forest (author of "The History of Morris Dancing") was in Croatia when Renaat died and he wrote: Beste Trevor,

Dear Trevor:

I thought perhaps you would prefer to hear this sad news from me rather than from more anonymous sources.

Renaat Van Craenenbroeck the leader of Lange Wapper, whom I know you knew, died during a dance on Friday night in the village of Vela Luka on the island of Korcula. Lange Wapper were invited guests of the moreskanti at the sword dance festival in Korcula town. I was there at a symposium run by Elsie Dunin.

We were in Vela Luka for a series of dances with the new chain sword Kumpanija which has just been revived. Lange Wapper were doing some dances in the town square to open the show and were just beginning a sort of comic peasant dance with Renaat leading the men in a chain around the women. Suddenly (with absolutely no warning at all) Renaat fell to the ground. At first we thought this was part of a death and resurrection play, so when they crowded round and shouted "doktor, doktor" no one did anything at first. Quickly, though, it became clear that something was wrong. There were several doctors in the audience plus some of us (such as myself) with training in emergency medicine. Despite heroic efforts on the part of all present there was nothing to be done.

The dance world has lost a towering figure. However, I give thanks to God that Renaat died doing what he loved most in the world. The moment before he died he had a smile on his face, and it is my belief that he died instantly and without pain.

I hope at some point we may meet under happier circumstances.

 

A Mass was held for Renaat in his home town Libin on Tuesday July 17th 2001.
His coffin was carried by members of Lange Wapper to a crowded Church.
The next morning a committal service was held at the Antwerp Crematorium
followed by a gathering at The Hopsack
(the pub at which the dancers gather at their Half Lent event)
prior to a special memorial performance of the Lange Wapper Sword Dance.

 

Steve Corrsin (author of "Sword Dancing in Europe: A History') wrote:

I've never felt so isolated from the British and continental world of sword dancing as now. So few American, or Canadian, sword dancers have been over even to England, and almost none to the Continent -- I remember at the 1996 Scarborough festival, at the late night Ceilidh when Renaat and Lange Wapper danced, I practically grabbed Sarah Henry from [the New York team] Half Moon Sword and told her to forget everything else, she had to give them her full attention.

I kept saying to myself, I'll go next year to Antwerp, I'll go to Korcula... and figured Renaat would be part of that. If Lange Wapper continues with the Half Lent event next year I'll be there. Too late but it's something. It was a comfort to know that John Forrest was there in Korcula.

Renaat was still sending me occasional corrections to my book, and also requests that I track down some American publication or other. Now a sudden end to those. You'll recall he and I had our arguments, mostly not too sensible ones, and I doubt we really understood much about each other; I wonder if he knew any other Yanks at all well. But he was wonderfully hospitable, generous in sharing his own work with me, and his dancing had a wonderful - in an American I'd call it swagger; but it wasn't really that; still it was a real confidence and command. About his "Speurtocht" articles, his investigations of the Flemish medieval archives; in my book, I said these brief articles were models of detailed archival work; they definitely are.

These days I'm mostly doing research on the writers and scholars of the 1920's-30's; not a generous time; men like Richard Wolfram and Rolf Gardiner shared nothing with others but their own monstrous egocentric visions. The very limited international contacts of those days among dancers cannot be compared with those recent ones which Renaat helped promote so much -- there's just no comparison. He clearly knew every sword dancer on the continent who was worth knowing. And he promoted the dancing in the most positive way imaginable, from Belgium to Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, England; a European in the best sense.

 

Usually Lange Wapper sword dance is performed only once a year in Antwerp at Half Lent.
In memory of their guide and leader for many years the team arranged for a special performance at the usual venue outside the Antwerp Cathedral on Wednesday July 18th.

Photo by Trevor Stone

 

A further message came from Prof. Elsie Dunin, organiser of the Symposium for the Study Group on Ethnochoreology of the International Council of Traditional Music (ICTM) held in July 2000 and our guide when Renaat and I visited the Lastovo Carnival in February of this year

Renaat Van Craenenbroeck participated in the 2000 Symposium on Korcula island and had returned to Korcula in July 2001 with his team, Lange Wapper, the group he discussed in his paper at the Symposium. This year [2001] his group participated in the opening of the fifth Festival of Sword Dances. The Festival overlapped with a mini-symposium entitled "Moreska: Past and Present".

On Friday night, 6th July 2001 we all travelled to Vela Luka, where Lange Wapper was to perform with two other groups (Vela Luka's new Kumpanija, and the Tatarata sword dance group from Casteltermini, Sicily) in the large square in front of the town's main church. It was in Vela Luka (on the western side of Korcula island), that we witnessed Renaat's sudden death. The programme began normally. In the third number Renaat was leading his men in a comic arrangement of a carnival dance. The audience was laughing. Renaat was in the middle of the stone square and fell to the ground. I and others thought he was doing a scene of "death and resurrection.' There appeared to be confusion among the performers, and one of the group called for a doctor (just as in these kinds of "plays"). Then a real doctor, from the audience appeared, and we realised that this was not a scene where Renaat would jump up in a rebirth. We began to realise that Renaat was truly resurrected as a spirit. Each of us will remember such a scene in this meaningful and spiritual way.

On Sunday before the departure of the Lange Wapper group, a memorial performance for Renaat was done by the Belgian group (with many tears) in Korcula town's "circle" by the sea, with representation, in costume, from each of Korcula's six Kumpanija and Moreska groups. In this way the dancers from the entire island spontaneously showed their respect and sympathies toward another dance group and their deceased leader.

 

but perhaps the last word should go to Marc Hanssens, long time dancer and the current Chairman of Lange Wapper:

Trevor,

To be honest, Renaat hasn't left my mind since that 6th July in Vela Luka. Whatever I do, think, live ... he's always there. I've never realised how much a human being can impact someone else's life. We had our differences and discussed some times on how to proceed with Lange Wapper. He had his ideas, I had mine. Now I have to go on with mine, every time trying to imagine what his point of view would have been. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

As with so many things dancing evolves. I'll never be a Renaat - I can't be him. But together with the other members of Dansgroep Lange Wapper we will proceed with what he has established. Some things may change and evolve as time goes by but we'll keep the tradition vivid, bearing in mind that it can't be kept at a "stand still".

 

 

I am sure that readers who knew Renaat will join me in wishing Marc and the team success in ensuring that Dansgroep Lange Wapper continues for many years to come.

The team, and indeed the world of folk dance, will miss his commitment and his enthusiasm - most of all I will miss his friendship.

Renaat contributed the following articles to Raffle Up My Boys:

"The Sword Dance in Antwerp" - details of the Lange Wapper team - issue 2, series 3. Summer 1991

Information about the Oki Kenbai (a Japanese team) - issue 2, series 4. Summer 1993

"An intriguing document - an ancient French illustration" - issue 5, series 5. Winter 1995, 1996

"Sword dancing in 1389" - details of a visit to Bruges archives - issue 3, series 6. Spring 1997

A review of Steve Corrsin's book "Sword Dancing in Europe: A History" - issue 1, series 8. Spring 1999

A report of a visit to a sword dance festival in Balingen, Germany - issue 1, series 9. Spring 2000

"Rules for a successful sword dance team" - issue 2, series 10. Summer 2001

A further "History of the Continental Sword Dances", based on Renaat's presentation at the last Sword Spectacular Conference, was almost complete when Renaat died.

See also the Lange Wapper teams' newsletter t'zweertdanserke (in Flemish) which was edited by Renaat.

Trevor Stone, September 2001

Issue 3, Series 10, Autumn 2001

Published by Trevor Stone, The Old Vicarage, Downe Street,
Driffield, East Yorkshire YO25 6DX
phone 01377 253 431 e-mail: trevor@jtstone.karoo.co.uk

 

 

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