HUNDREDS of sword dancers will descend on York next weekend when the city plays host to the world's biggest festival of this ancient tradition.

Organisers of the International Sword Spectacular Festival are expecting more than 700 dancers, who will represent 50 groups from nine countries.

Taking place over the Spring Bank Holiday, from May 23 to 26, the four-yearly event has moved to York for the first time, with a new committee in charge following previous festivals in Scarborough and Whitby between 1996 and 2004.

When the first swords are raised next Friday, it will be the culmination of years of planning by the organising committee. Their aim is to showcase the English longsword and rapper sword dancing, contrasting them with the flamboyant sword dance styles from mainland Europe and the North American evolutions of British traditions.

Organising committee member Vince Rutland says York residents and visitors can expect a colourful weekend of free street performances: "It's a unique event because nowhere else can so many sword dancers gather together and share their dancing.

"What that promises for people on the streets is a great weekend and plenty of unusual and exciting dancing to keep everyone well entertained, spectators and performers alike. We firmly believe in taking the festival to the people and the atmosphere should be amazing."

According to Vince, most people do not realise that sword dancing is a very English tradition, with its roots in Yorkshire and the North East.

"Mention sword dancing to them and they think Scotland and kilts, but this is very different," he says. "Several villages around York had their own teams until around 100 years ago, and wouldn't it be great if we could spark a revival? The dances are all recorded in detail and the festival will include performances of those originating from Poppleton, Haxby, Escrick and Askham Richard."

Fifteen groups from Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Basque country, Belgium, Norway, Austria and the United States will be taking part, as well as 37 from Britain.

Most of the dancing will take place in city-centre venues such as Parliament Street during the daytime next Saturday and Sunday. Thanks to a £9,606 award from Big Lottery's Awards For All fund, extra events will also be included.

Young people at several local schools can learn about sword dancing next Friday when Clownfish Rapper, a group of American teenagers from Massachusetts, join the Newcastle's Sallyport Sword Dancers to demonstrate their skills, alongside young dancers from Loughborough and the Lark's Hill Primary School near Pontefract.

Following the festival, the lottery funding will enable professional sword-dance tutors to teach local dances to groups in two schools over the coming months.

Vince says: "The Awards For All grant will make a huge difference to our festival, particularly because much of it is geared at taking these unique dances back into the communities they originally came from.

"The past few years have seen more and more young people discovering sword dancing and taking it up as an exciting and enjoyable pastime and there are a couple of teams now in the York area.

"It would be great to think we could help revive one of the local village traditions, such as in Haxby where we'll be dancing on the Monday."

Next Saturday, the dancers and musicians will parade through York city centre at 10.30am before free street performances throughout the daytime. These will continue next Sunday from midday to 4pm before the festival's highlight, a gala performance by all the teams at York Theatre Royal from 4.30pm to 9pm.

"This will feature performances by all five surviving traditional sword teams in England," says Vince. A limited number of tickets are available for this event at £10 from the theatre box office on 01904 623568.

The festival will close with the aforementioned dancing in Haxby and Wigginton on the Bank Holiday Monday. This will include midday demonstrations of the original dances from the York area, not least one performed by dancers from Haxby - an original longsword village - until the late 19th century.

These sessions will include performances of all five local longsword dances from the York area: Askham Richard, Escrick, Poppleton, Riccall and Haxby.

Any members of the public keen to learn the Haxby sword dance can come along to Haxby Memorial Hall at 2.30pm to take part in a free workshop suitable for beginners.

Lectures on historical and academic aspects of sword dancing will complete the festival programme.