Social dance at Sidmouth Folk week - better late than never for 2009?

And what about the vital matter of guaranteeing a sufficient number of stewards?

sidmouthsocial.jpg (68857 bytes) There were many doubts about how Sidmouth Folk Week would cope with organising the social dance after the departure of Ray Goodswen.

Initially, Andrew Swaine from Cambridge agreed to take on the role, but had to pull out owing to work commitments overseas.

His replacement (early in 2009) was Robbie Thomas, currently a member of Stick Shift, a contra band well known to attendees at Sidmouth 2008 and Eastbourne 2009 - amongst many other venues.

This scan from an early Sidmouth 2009 leaflet actually gives more information than was on the official website several months later!

In particular, the last (rather long!) sentence addresses a problem for all UK folk festivals - the lack of basic tuition for beginners.

What is needed for new aspiring folk dancers are workshops to teach them the basic moves and steps - rather than being thrown into a room full of highly experienced dancers and  being made to feel inadequate. There was one such workshop at the 2009 Chippenham festival - I was told it was much appreciated. My only comment to the organisers was why use an expensive 'top notch' caller like Martyn Harvey on such an event?  Memo to Sidmouth organisers: my fees are very reasonable!

The 2009 working programme helpfully shows dances billed as 'beginners/intermediate/advanced' - bringing back a system used years ago! There could be room for 'learn the very basics' workshops also, without the pressure of more experienced dancers wanting just to dance.

folkweeksocial.jpg (10481 bytes)

In contrast to the acres of colourful webpages on the official Sidmouth Folk Week website in late June 2009, this tiny item is all that referred to the social dance - once one of the major parts of an internationally acclaimed festival that attracted dancers from across the world. In their press releases, the organisers continue to claim that Sidmouth is still a major centre for folk dance. But that it were so! There are a few good ceilidh bands and callers listed for 2009 (if you discount the noisy heavy metal and rock bands selected to appeal to 'yoof') but sadly so few good ceilidh dancers!

Nevertheless, there are several improvements for 2009 - the craft marquee is being located on Kennaway House Lawn, leaving space to increase the size of the Blackmore dance marquee. But will it have adequate arrangements for ventilation this year - and including a sufficient number of stewards? Large dances are being held both at Blackmore and Bulverton - including the Pixies! Late in the day therefore, the line-up looks tempting. Let us hope dancers arrive in sufficient numbers. The highly popular Cornish Dalla are returning, as are D'Accord (but in a fringe French/Breton event costing all of 4.50 for 5 hours of dance!)

For 2009, the organisers seem to have consolidated their stance of giving priority to organising the Ham concerts (an essential source of revenue for the whole event) and to encouraging 'yoof' to the Bulverton. This included a 'Big Gig' combined Bulverton ticket - as if the ticket structure for Folk Week needed any further options! The Big Gig tickets seem to be aimed at youngsters who don't have a season ticket. They may be the latest attempt to fill the Bulverton - which has probably not paid its way in recent years. It is to be hoped this will not further degrade the average standard of attendees (i.e. the standard of dance) thus further alienating serious dancers. Curiously, this ticket is one of those only available until 26 July: most casual young attendees may not decide to attend that far in advance?

folkweektickets.jpg (34433 bytes) Complicated yet quite logical - but does it really have to be like this? The short answer is unfortunately maybe it does! Sidmouth could no longer sustain an all embracing single price season ticket - it would be too expensive. Yet in fragmenting their attendees, maybe the organisers have degraded the stewarding base upon which the whole week depends?

Stewards - they seek them here, they seek them there! But this is a serious problem: no stewards equals no festival.

folkweekstewards.jpg (35343 bytes) The organisers were clearly anxious to obtain more stewards.

This is the top of the  (modified) home page of the official website during June/July 2009.

There were several problems at Folk Week 2008 owing to too few stewards on duty - and including some who didn't turn up for duty. It would not have happened in Steve Heap's day! In mid 2009, there was still a reported shortfall of over 100 - far too many for comfort at such a late stage. It has been suggested (and not only by the SeeRed author) that there may need to be a different approach to encouraging people to steward at Folk Week. This could include offering 'part time' work in return for less than a full season ticket. This would further complicate the administration of stewards, but probably encourage more to volunteer. One of the problems is that Sidmouth is a full week festival. Many people either cannot or will not devote so many days to stewarding unless they are 'dedicated folkies'.

For well over a decade until its demise in 2005, the old International Festival at Sidmouth was a major draw for both social dancers and serious ceilidh dancers. Both groups were dedicated and had a longstanding loyalty both to the folk scene and to Steve Heap, and they tended to stay all week. Neither group has been offered much at Sidmouth under the 'Folk Week' management - the major problem is many people don't like the small church halls - so comparatively few now attend. This may be one reason why Sidmouth has lost many of its loyal 'middle aged and reliable' stewards. Will these really be replaced by volunteers from the 'yoof' who attend to thrash about to rock-ceilidh bands and have maybe little interest in other aspects of the festival? On the plus side, the organisers have clearly listened to the many comments made by dance attendees in 2008 (and including on this website maybe?) and have made many improvements. Having seen what is on offer in the working programme (available on-line 12 July) aspiring attendees may find that all caravan spaces are taken - a problem as early as May/June, see below.

Maybe the organisers have failed to appreciate the overlap between dedicated attendees and stewards - and the probably poorer overlap between casual concert attendees and stewards. This might prove a useful piece of analysis, especially as East Devon District Council are rumoured to be one of the strictest licensing authorities on matters of Health and Safety. Documents should be obtainable under the Freedom of Information Act.

Other festivals have a surplus of stewards, and at Towersey (still run by Steve Heap) the organisation, dedication and discipline of stewards is in my experience second to none - like Sidmouth used to be in the days when there were over 500 stewards (according to data in folk89). In 2009 the aim was to recruit 450.

folkweekcaravanspaces.jpg (35976 bytes) One unusual feature of the official website during May/June/July 2009 was the statement on the ticket page to the effect that there were no further spaces available for caravans and motorhomes. Extending the Bulverton campsite is an obvious option but seemed not to be available - maybe renting extra land would have cost too much? Camping prices at Sidmouth are already higher than at most other festivals and reflect local land use costs.

This may mean there are more people booked to attend one of the UK's most expensive festivals than in 2008 (which would be curious given the depth of the 08/09 economic recession) or it may simply reflect the increase in camping, caravan and motorhome sales in the UK during early 2009, as part of a move away from expensive foreign holidays and influenced by the sharp change in the /Euro ratio. One relevant anecdote is that many people who bought a caravan or motorhome in early 2009 were apparently forced to go abroad anyway - all UK sites being fully booked! Similar tales were told about UK camping sites.

The notice about no further caravan spaces being available was on the official website for some months - obviously resolution did not prove an easy matter, maybe because all existing (registered) local fields were fully booked anyway (nothing too unusual) and maybe because of problems in extending use of the Bulverton site. Utilising an additional field on a temporary basis might require EDDC approval - the FoI Act could be used to help determine if there were any unhelpful hold-ups owing to bureaucracy.

The surprising success of Folk Week in the last four years has brought two problems to the fore: too few caravan and motorhome spaces and maybe camping spaces also (why not just extend use of the Bulverton field?) and lack of dance venue space if dancers were to return in large numbers. There were many 'house full' notices in 2008. Could Sidmouth afford another marquee in town - and where would it be located now that the smaller lawn of Kennaway House seems destined to be home to the craft fair?

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