Sidmouth Folk Week 2010: social dance and serious ceilidh - how long before it dies completely at Sidmouth?

So what happened in 2010?

A friend discussed with Robbie Thomas (the social dance advisor) that there were 40 fewer dancers in 2010 - it felt like that was an underestimate. Little in what follows reflects badly on Robbie Thomas - he seems to do what he can within the limitations that are placed on the social dance because of the lack of money (or lack of will) to provide better venues. There were certainly plenty of disgruntled people: here is one comment from Facebook:

I think there will need to be some good marketing for next years Sidmouth. I could write loads of negative stuff, halls, callers etc. If it wasn't for Geoff Cubitt (acting as stand-in) it would have been a total disaster. I was looking at some pictures I took at Chippenham. In every one more than half the people you would normally expect to see at Sidmouth were missing.

I'm not into Playford stuff, I like moving and not all the posturing that goes on. (Have you noticed how few people smile while dancing Playford?) Just hope Barraclough stays in the States. I've never forgiven him for wasting half a workshop talking at the dancers about armpits! First Friday night was dreadful.

There is little reflection either on the quality of the bands and callers. Geoff Cubitt and Mike Courthold are amongst the leading UK callers and Adam Hughes demonstrated how professional he has become in recent years. Whilst his Sunday 'Introduction to Country Dance' got a mixed reception (he spent too much time chatting and even then lost some beginners completely) his Monday 'Dances by Youngsters' was excellent - dances created by people he described as 'Morris Dancers with PhDs' - the dances were novel, interesting, occasionally complex and always challenging. Luckily I had a competent young girl as a partner (thank you Alison!) - so I coped quite well. Anyone who missed this event missed a treat.

Michael Barraclough seems not to be everyone's first choice of caller but he led some good events - but against his 30 July Welcome Mix event in St Teresa's Hall I have written a one word summary: boring!

In all however, there was not much wrong with the music or the callers. Of the bands, I would single out PolkaWorks as being a favourite - I first saw them at an Exeter ceilidh (Great Western Ceilidhs) and the sound is simply superb. Their ceilidh in the Blackmore Gardens on Thursday evening was first rate. But this evening illustrated the stark reality of having too few serious dancers attending Sidmouth: the social dance with Geoff Cubitt and the Bristol Players (again excellent music) was well attended. Mike Courthold with Pendragon managed only about 20 people and I would guess the event with Adam Hughes calling was poorly attended. There are nowadays just too few social dancers or good ceilidh dancers to go around and sometimes (as happened with Adam Hughes on the Monday night) an event had to be cancelled owing to low attendance.

If cost is an issue (albeit a minor one in this context) then there are many local bands in Devon and Somerset who would be pleased to play for social dancers at Sidmouth. There is some local disgruntlement that so many of the bands that are selected for Sidmouth are 'home counties'. I can think of at least one young local caller who could also make a Sidmouth debut. There has also been some local Press comment about there being too many 'big name' concert acts and not enough local up-and-coming talent.

As for the NuCeilidh events - the workshop on Tuesday with Bobbie Ritchie was sparsely attended. Her earlier event on the Sunday may also have fared badly because it had been brought forward and moved to a different venue - this was information in the Festival Newsletter but of course not everyone reads these as soon as they are issued! Her Tuesday workshop was quite fun if only because there was room to dance. With more people, Bobbie Ritchie could have done far better. I don't know what the evening ceilidh was like but I could guess at "packed and far too hot." I have been told that there was some discussion that the NuCeilidh events didn't really work - the mix of social dancers and ceilidh dancers meant that some people were dancing and other walking in the same set - but this often happens so it may not be a serious criticism of the concept. The organisers seemed to think the concept worked well.

Unfortunately so many of the people who could have benefited from the instructional workshops didn't attend. Later in the week I danced at the Bulverton LNE in a set where no-one else had much of a clue - and it included diagonal reels. If people (and not only teenagers) were forced to pay 5 or 10 extra to attend every LNE until they had graduated from a course of dance workshops it might serve some useful purpose in raising standards! Or maybe if they attend and do well they get a voucher to spend in the campsite shop - something of an extra incentive seems to be needed. People do want to learn - I often get thanked for helping them in sets and giving a minute or two of detailed one-to-one help - but somehow these potential dancers are not being attracted to learning events.

A few words about the Anchor Gardens where so many people get their first taste of folk dancing: I missed most of the events but the Monday afternoon French and Breton dance worked unusually well - these gentle dances with their slow steps are suited to this awful surface. And the music was superb. Early in the week, it might be a good place to advertise the availability of 'learn to dance' workshops.

Memo to festival organisers:

There is another important point here: there needs to be a sufficient number of competent social dancers available at all 'tuition' events to help newcomers. The best way to gain confidence is with a highly competent partner. Any future 'NuCeilidh Dance workshops' (or whatever they are called next year) should be advertised as a chance to learn with a good dancer - perhaps emphasise 'you get individual tuition that elsewhere might cost you five times as much!' - and sufficient people (beginners and tutors) need to attend. This may not happen if you (re-)schedule a workshop in parallel with a 1pm dance in Blackmore Gardens - this may attract most of the good dancers who are not at that time eating lunch. On the Tuesday, many serious dancers went straight from the morning social dances to the one and only French dance workshop with Kerry Fletcher (or to the Blackmore event) - and by 2.30 really needed lunch. So they skipped the 2.45pm NuCeilidh workshop. I did the lot - but I'm unusual. Once again, there were not enough good dancers to go round.

Further memo to organisers:

And while I am at it - it is hopeless to have workshops designated as beginner/intermediate when after 20 minutes it becomes intermediate and beginners get lost and leave. Several did just this - and they looked so disappointed. Beginners need true beginners workshops - where ten minutes can be spent learning reels, ten minutes spent practising many other basic moves, ten minutes spent perfecting grand squares so newcomers really know how to do it - and without feeling pressured. This simply cannot be done in a workshop where 90% of those present are experienced dancers who just want to get on with the next dance - and often with a partner they know. Similarly, some advanced dancers feel that Sidmouth has been dumbed down in recent years - and some no longer attend for this reason alone. I do wonder (and so do other people) if anyone in the present festival management knows anything about dance or dance instruction. Here is a link endorsed by Google - it is something that all new aspiring dancers should be encouraged to study in the weeks and months before they come to Sidmouth. A link on the official website might help!

Sidmouth Folk Week needs to decide what it is about: either being serious about social and ceilidh dance and raising standards (perhaps by emulating or surpassing the Shooting Roots programme at Towersey as well as providing beginners workshops and decent dance venues) or just continuing to slide into a mess of noisy thrash-about youngsters who know (and care?) little about dance and with next to nothing to offer by way of public displays of social dance in town centre venues. That being said, the displays by youngsters at Towersey in 2010 was not too impressive and with a poor attendance at their ceilidh on the last day. They were getting even basic moves wrong. Better might have been expected after several days of learning - if indeed proper teaching instead of 'self expression' is allowed on the agenda these days!

The problem of UK youngsters generally is often all too obvious when you dance with young girls - the few who attend from Eastern Europe are simply so good compared to many of their UK counterparts. And of course, you can always tell those who have trained in ballet or ballroom dancing. That being said - there were plenty of very good young dancers at Sidmouth. Often there was simply not enough space available either for them to dance energetically or to avoid people who were thrashing about. Towersey has a similar problem in its Festival Dance House - it can be quite full and some of the youngsters can present more of a danger than anything I have seen at Sidmouth. For example, someone trying to strip the willow whilst drinking beer from a full beaker can or bottle and swapping it from hand to hand. And (of course) the music is far too loud!

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