Social dance at Sidmouth Folk Week: time to start arresting the decline?

Letter sent for publication to EDS (English Dance and Song) - the magazine of the EFDSS, editor Derek Schofield.

The letter shown below was sent to EDS late in October 2010 in response to one from Joan Crump in the Autumn issue. The copy date was 1 November 2010 - so it arrived in good time. You would think that the editor would have waited until the copy date before deciding which letters to publish out of all those he had received.

However, one of the reasons Derek Schofield gave me for not publishing was that 'the letters pages were already full'. The rest of his email was so illogical no wonder he said it was 'confidential and not to be reproduced on the SeeRed website'. I will of course honour that.

I will also comment as follows:

My letter was sent after discussion with a number of local and other folk dancers - it represents a widely held view and one that Sidmouth Folk Week would be wise not to ignore if (as they claim) they are serious about building up the dance element of FolkWeek. It is pathetic to suggest that the contents of my letter were a matter for discussion with the festival organisers, and not suited to the pages of EDS.

I have previously suggested that Sidmouth FolkWeek organisers should try to determine why so few folk dancers who live in Devon attend their local festival. There seems to be no enthusiasm to do this. In the meantime, an extract from the 2011 Sidmouth FolkWeek website and newsletter is given at the bottom of this webpage.

In terms of marketing, it seems that FolkWeek organisers may believe that the way to attract more social dancers now and into the future is to give priority (and cheap tickets) to youngsters and to gear events towards 'thrashing about' rather than learning to dance. Most social dancers may take up folk dance in middle age (this is certainly true for many I know) and overly loud music is neither the way to attract nor to keep them. Joan Crump takes a different view, she seems to believe that dancers start young and simply progress to other tastes as they get older. There may be few such people. Here is a posting from Joan Crump on the Mudcat website:

The younger element is as important to the festival as any other audience - any festival hoping to replicate Sidmouth's longevity would aim to keep raising up the new generations. As they get older their tastes and needs will change - but hopefully at that point there will be new youngsters coming up to take their place. Hurrah for the multi-generational festival.

As a final comment, some folk dancers have been investigating holding an 'alternative' folk dance week but not in Sidmouth. The idea was to host the event around large university venues. In my view it would be better to concentrate effort on improving the facilities at Sidmouth and encouraging more people to attend - and to continue to make views known to the organisers.

Social dance at Sidmouth. (Letter as sent to eds, October 2010)

Many folk dancers who live close to Sidmouth or attend FolkWeek from afar have a different perspective than was given by Joan Crump and Robbie Thomas. (letters, EDS Autumn 2010).

The reason why some social dances were so poorly attended this year was not that there were so many competing non-dance attractions. It was because so few dancers came to Sidmouth! Up to and including 2004 the festival was characterised by a huge variety of events and with large dance marquees filled with social and/or ceilidh dancers - and with experts helping newcomers. It was routine to see ‘House Full’ signs.

For five years, dancers (and especially social dancers) have had a raw deal. Whilst everyone has admired the way that the new management team have kept the whole festival week alive it is clear that concert goers have been a priority - understandably so because concerts produce more income per square metre of marquee. Few UK folk dance festivals have a substantial participatory dance element: those that do need to be nurtured.

The Ham concert marquee is now bigger and better than it ever was. Unless social dancers are offered a similar quality of in-town venue it seems likely that they will continue to vote with their feet. Below a 'critical mass' social dance at Sidmouth will die.

Sidmouth is not an ideal festival town because large venues have to be constructed - unlike at Chippenham for example. It is also a long way from anywhere - which adds to the cost. The campsite is far from ideal, but in the days of the International festival all the drawbacks were forgiven - if not forgotten - such was the affection felt by all types of folkies towards ‘the first week in August’.

When the management next claim that local people are now so wholeheartedly behind FolkWeek perhaps they could reflect that out of maybe 250 folk dancers who live within 30 miles and who attend one or more of our thriving local dance clubs, about 3 buy a season ticket and probably fewer than 10 attend at all. Again, competing events are simply not a factor.

Dr Stephen J Wozniak (and others) Sidmouth

Note the Editor: the penultimate paragraph (Chippenham and campsite) could be omitted.

Extract from 2011 Sidmouth FolkWeek newsletter/website, December 2010.

Social dance

We've been talking to a number of people about social dance at Sidmouth. We are absolutely committed to maintaining and extending this area of the festival. In 2011, there will be more workshops every day, morning and afternoon, at all levels, and some of these will be in the larger venue, the Blackmore Gardens Marquee. As before, there will be evening dances, every evening of the week.
We recognise that the NuCeilidh was an experiment that didn't quite work out the way we intended. Our key concern now is to keep and grow the dedicated social / English Country Dance visitors to the festival. We will also be including contra dances and workshops, aiming to achieve a good balance of events. With the social dance workshops, we recognise the need to provide for experienced dancers, as much as for those new to dance, and will ensure that the programme is full and stimulating for dedicated and experienced dancers.

We are already talking to top-notch callers and bands, and when confirmed, the details will appear on the website.

Extract from letter in EDS from Joan Crump Autumn 2010.

Social dance at Sidmouth

The NuCeilidh initiative worked well, attracting capacity mixed audiences for the two evening dances in the Blackmore Gardens Marquee

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