Sidmouth Folk Week 2010: social dance and serious ceilidh - how long before it dies completely at Sidmouth?
Can the decline in social dance be halted or reversed?
In 2010, the reasons for a continuing decline can be summarised quite easily - lack of large venues with decent floors and having a festival atmosphere. There is another less obvious but related point - many dancers who used to frequent Sidmouth were experts who wanted high quality (advanced) dancing almost from day one. Some now say that the event has been 'dumbed down' to help accommodate beginners in the workshops. The simple fact is that Sidmouth needs both classes dedicated to beginners and (from day one) intermediate and advanced dancing as is practised at Eastbourne Dance Festival, for example. This is further discussed elsewhere.
Blackmore Gardens will obviously stay as a venue for some dance - the 1pm dances worked well and there was room to dance. What is needed is two large dance marquees in the centre of town, one (or maybe two!) in Blackmore Gardens and one maybe on Kennaway House Lawn (Church House Lawn in the Good Old Days!).
Church halls are a poor substitute if they are either too small (which leads to overcrowding and lack of room to dance properly or too few partners if there is actually room to dance), or too far out of town (which not only is inconvenient but removes the visual appeal of the dancing from public view) or with solid floors (which can be hard on the feet after a while). In addition, in small venues you simply cannot attempt some of the more interesting dances involving large formations - there isn't room and there are insufficient people!
I have told the festival organisers (including John Braithwaite) on a number of occasions that of the 200 or so social dance and ceilidh people I know either well or by sight and who live in and around Devon maybe less than 10 come to Sidmouth Folk Week and of those maybe 4 or 5 buy a season ticket. I have suggested he finds out why, via a proper survey. There seemed to be no enthusiasm for this so maybe I'll do it myself during 2010/11.
Both Sidmouth as a town and the festival need to decide if they want (or can afford) to take steps to restore dance to its traditional place at the festival - and by traditional I mean not only during the 10 or 15 years prior to 2006, when it was run by Steve Heap as an international festival. It used to be the best festival in the UK, renowned throughout Eastern Europe and known throughout the world. It is now a sad also-ran both for dance and for its international content. Sidmouth also used to cater for complete beginners (including up at the EDDC offices) as well as having a great appeal to advanced dancers.
One elderly lady who was helping to serve teas in a Church hall summed up her distaste for how Sidmouth has developed: 25 years ago, she said, "we had open marquees where everyone could see the dance and join in - then they got all precious and closed off everything so you couldn't see anything. Dancers have always had the short end of the straw at this festival."
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