Sidmouth Folk Week 2008 - Social dance - in three church halls only - and were these really workshops?

With few exceptions all these events were well attended and with top rate callers and very good live music. Geoff Cubitt, Pat Murphy, Ray Goodswen and Chris Turner were in their own (very different) ways all outstanding. None of the others were a disappointment. It was all as good as it could reasonably be with hard floors and less of a festival atmosphere than in a marquee. Next year (if there is a next year) social dance will be under the control of a new dance director - Ray Goodswen having relinquished the post after 13 years.

A tribute was paid by Chris Turner who noted that Ray had taken the job on when the festival seemed willing to marginalise and maybe omit social dancing altogether. The same may be happening today with management's concentration maybe firmly fixed on the financial success of the Ham concerts - with nearly 1000 seats at typically 18 a time! It is worth recording here Ray Goodswen's devotion to his job as dance director - he was always to be seen checking on venues, taking feedback, and generally making sure everything went as well as possible. It will be a hard act to follow.

Yet there are serious problems with dance at Sidmouth Folk Week, as elsewhere. To much approval from one of his workshop audiences, Chris Turner touched on these matters during one of his workshops.

1. Basic teaching of dance is being marginalised or ignored completely. The only teaching workshops at Sidmouth and some other festivals are in specialised areas where you need to know the basics and be quite practised before you would dare take part. In contrast, there was some 'basic' teaching at Towersey Festival in 2008 but it was all too rushed and compressed for many complete beginners. The exception was a group from Brittany, An Danserien Noz, none of whom spoke good English. Yet the tutor was so proficient she explained some quite unusual dances so well that everyone in the hall, experienced dancers and novices alike, became almost mesmerised into doing exactly what she wanted them to do. So it can be done - and despite the handicap of instruction being in French!

2. Uniquely in England, we have lost the tradition of folk dance and customs from local communities. It is different in every other country of western and eastern Europe, especially in eastern Europe. Here, towns and villages have regular dances often celebrating local customs, local dances, and local costumes handed down over generations. In England there is nothing - except a few Morris dancers........

3. It is surely the responsibility of major festivals to undertake (or to offer to undertake) basic dance instruction both to help remedy the lack of interest elsewhere and to make festival dances and ceilidhs work better. At the moment these are spoiled somewhat by complete novices mingling with experienced dancers. But whose fault is it if they were never offered any instruction?

4. Having newcomers on the dance floor in fast dances can be dangerous. One example will suffice: I wouldn't rate myself as an accomplished Irish set dancer but I can do it reasonably if with a good partner. I managed some of Pat Murphy's workshops with a very experienced partner (she even said I was quite good!) but later, with a complete novice, we both tried doing what neither of us was too sure about and fell spectacularly on the floor - at the same time as another couple in the same set did likewise. The two accidents were perfectly synchronised - and fortunately there were no injuries. Wholly inexperienced people should never have been in one of Pat Murphy's workshops - they should first have had the opportunity to attend several hours of 'learn the basics' with a few good teachers and a few patient good dancers as partners. Having newcomers partner each other is a recipe for learning bad habits.

So where were these beginners workshops in Sidmouth? They would be cheap to run - no band would be needed and there would be no need for expensive professional callers. Indeed dances themselves would hardly be undertaken - it would be a matter of learning starting positions (longways, squares, etc), and maybe a dozen of the most common moves, endlessly repeated until they became second nature. Volunteers would run the classes and bring people up to the standard where they could join in a ceilidh or dance and know sufficient of the basics not to be a risk to others or feel they were making such a fool of themselves they would leave - perhaps never to return. This happens far too often!

The only 'workshops' amongst the social dance ones at Sidmouth that were worthy of the name were the Running Set series taken by Ray Goodswen. Here, you needed to be reasonably proficient as a dancer but were taught 20 new figures step by step.

scan in article from Herald

All other 'workshops' were more like dances with the only learning being a matter of experienced dancers being taught a few more tricks. Newcomers would have been totally out of their depth.

When Sidmouth 2008 was being planned, Chris Turner offered to hold basic workshops in English, American Contra etc. These were rejected by the festival management, maybe because there was not space in the programme, maybe because it was thought too expensive to use first rate callers to teach a few newcomers. But surely - basic instruction needs to start 'pre-festival', maybe on the Thursday for local people and continuing on the Friday morning in venues that are not at that time being use for the 'real' festival events. 'Learn the basics' workshops used to be held in the offices of East Devon District Council - maybe they could be again if the space could be made available free of charge - we should be so lucky these days!! The Anchor is somewhat of a 'teach-in' but the tarmac surface is hard and unforgiving and it can be too crowded and drinks orientated for beginners who really want to concentrate and learn.

There is no lack of enthusiasm for learning dance - just look at the packed crowd wanting to learn French and Breton dancing in All Saints Hall on the Tuesday, followed by an equally packed dance later in the evening. There were few if any French/Breton dances or workshops that were not 'house full' at some point during the evening.

Certainly something needs to be done. Dances and ceilidhs at many festivals are not as well attended as they surely could be and those that are include far too many people who don't even know the basics and who slow up the dancing for everyone else. Callers too must surely become exasperated by having patiently to explain a ladies chain when the rest of the hall is itching to get moving.

Some callers add to the problem - Fee Lock is fond of being terribly politically correct and telling people that it doesn't matter if you get it wrong so long as you enjoy yourself - of course it matters - you are likely to be spoiling the evening for everyone else! Sidmouth has venues suitable for showing off the range of expertise of its dancers - the marquee on Church House Lawn (now renamed Kennaway House) could have its side(s) opened to the world. A large open air dance might even be held on the newly liberated grass area of Blackmore Gardens. But only in a dry year! Ever since social dance was relegated to the distant church halls at Woolbrook and Sidford in 2005, it has been largely hidden away from view. It has also consisted (in the main) of the over 50s if not the over 60s. What is Sidmouth going to do to have its dance venues more populated with people in their 30s and 40s - and who have learnt how to ceilidh dance properly?

The Sidmouth International Festival of old was famed for its displays of superb dance from Eastern Europe and beyond. It is time Sidmouth Folk Week tried in some small way to recapture dance as a major part of the festival - even if it is not as financially rewarding as Ham concerts at 18,000 for two and an half hours.

Amazingly, in 2008, the management did squeeze 10,000 out of Devon County Council and this enabled them to bring two foreign dance teams to Sidmouth. But will it last? Folklorique d'Aramon from France were simply superb at the LNE venue - could dancers from any English town or village rival their display of expertise and precision? Gog Magog Molly bill themselves as a colourful alternative to Morris dancing. They are certainly highly accomplished but their displays owe perhaps more to colour and impact than they do to delicate precision. They are one dance team. Other countries could field dozens or hundreds of teams of equally skilled dancers.

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