Social dance at Sidmouth FolkWeek 2011 - the start of the recovery?

Starting at the Eastbourne Dance Festival, the organisers of Sidmouth FolkWeek seemed determined in 2011 to encourage a resurgence of the social dance programme at Sidmouth. This follows extensive criticism in 2010 - and not only on the SeeRed website.

At Eastbourne, a few hundred of the UK's more experienced (and older!) social dancers attend for a long weekend. Notable this year was that a large pile of glossy leaflets advertising Sidmouth were left for participants to take back to their clubs - yet few seemed to be taken. This may be a lesson in marketing - this generation of dancers do not much use the internet (a fact I know from my own researches and also from the responses to this article) - and neither may they be much impressed by glossy leaflets. Their prime source of information is simply other dancers. Few of them even seem to know of the SeeRed website and it's coverage of Sidmouth.

Therefore, whilst these leaflets (shown below) are splendidly produced they may, by themselves, not have the desired effect.

The major problem has been simply one of inadequate venues. It is helpful here to step back to 2005 to recall the degree of enthusiasm that greeted the 'ad hoc' series of social dances organised by Ray Goodswen. Even in 2006, such was the support given to the 'new' festival organisers that almost any venues would have been accepted.

Yet this was an unsustainable position. Even by 2007 the emphasis had switched to criticism of the failings of the provision for social dance, especially compared with the expense and effort already being lavished on concert-goers. This has continued - and with small and sometimes crowded church halls in the centre of town being rated as inadequate - in contrast to 2005 when halls outside of the town centre were readily accepted. Also, Blackmore Gardens marquee has more of a festival atmosphere than do the church halls.

Locally, there remains a lack of support for Sidmouth FolkWeek amongst folk dancers - of the many hundred I know by sight (and dozens I know quite well) only about 5 who live in Devon bought a full 2011 season ticket. Maybe a dozen bought a few event tickets and hundreds (as usual) did not attend at all. Indeed - I considered not attending myself - having been rejected as a volunteer steward in the Box Office on the orders of the Festival Director.

Something surely needs to be done to determine the reasons for such widespread non-attendance. A survey may be undertaken next dance season. Yet the key factors seem well established - crowded venues and lack of a sufficient variety of dance partners to make it feel like a real festival. In 2009/10 even I found that the workshops and some of the evening events verged on the boring - same small venues, same crowd of people, same limited number of partners. Only by providing much larger venues and attracting many more good dancers (and encouraging newcomers to learn) may the decline be reversed. Using the Blackmore Gardens marquee for more social dance events is a step in the right direction - provided that the floor is of adequate quality!

Another disappointing feature of the festival in 2011 was the lack of local bands and callers - after all - this is a festival that makes (made?) much of its renewed local connections after the acrimony of the last of the Steve Heap years. In those days it was truly an international festival - and people expected to see the best that the world could offer. In 2005 and in subsequent years there was substantial emphasis on local involvement. This now seems to have disappeared. Indeed the principal 'local' involvement now seems to be the members of Sidmouth Town Council - who collectively have probably a zero genuine interest in the folk scene outside of ensuring that as much money as possible is spent in 'their' shops!

The following letter appeared in Set and Turn Single magazine, issue 35, September 2005:

Dear Chris,

Those who decided to wait and see what happened this year to the Sidmouth Festival missed a unique event and an absolute treat of a week of dancing. The dancers were privileged to have so many top callers and bands giving their time for a pittance, whereas previously we have had fewer working themselves into the ground (not to say that this year they didn't work hard - they certainly did). As this was a stop gap, when Ray made a tremendous effort to keep the dance part of the festival going, it is unlikely and unreasonable to expect that these talented people will do the same another year.

The spirit of pulling together in adversity was strongly evident and there was a warm, friendly feel to all the workshops and dances. Stewards volunteered and tea makers and washer uppers were readily willing to do their bit.

Obviously the Festival was not the same, as the dance venues were out of the centre of town and therefore a quick walk along the esplanade between workshops was not possible nor a quick foray into a pasty shop, which was probably just as well for those watching their weight! However the quality of the calling, music and dancing was more than compensation for any inconveniences. It was just different from previous recent Sidmouths. St Francis' Hall is a lovely place to dance and Sidford Village Hall was fine. The weird one was the Youth Centre where callers with one leg shorter than another had a distinct advantage (it had to be the right leg unless they stood with their backs to the dancers) as they stood on quite a steep slope! Also the musicians were virtually behind a hatchway in another room, but a lot of fun was had here.

Many Morris dancers still performed on the esplanade on Sunday and there were various displays at the Connaught Gardens. There were many concerts in the Ham Marquee, music sessions were in the usual venues, such as the Bedford Hotel, and the jig competition still took place. There were many other events in the Manor Pavilion and the Arts Centre.

The Blackmore Gardens had a marquee as usual used, among other things, for evening ceilidhs and there was also a small craft tent there. The Bulverton Marquee was there for various events, including Late Night Extra, which, I understand, were not as well attended as usual, (maybe because the price of a ticket was 10!) so there was plenty of room for the dancers who did attend to leap around.

The most noticeable features missing were the Arena and the international teams that used to appear there, and also the children's events. I understand that the people who organised the separate sections of the Festival this year will be making efforts to co-operate with each other with a view to combining and co-ordinating events next year to make one united Festival. This would be wonderful, especially if there was again a season ticket to cover all events at not too high a price.

However, as long as there are the brilliant musicians and the talented callers who make dancing such a joy, the dancers will be happy. All the people I spoke to had thoroughly enjoyed themselves and those who previously harboured doubts but had come to support the efforts made on their behalf to keep the event going, had not been disappointed. In fact, on the contrary, most were delighted.

Thank you, Ray and Frances, for your hard work before and during the Festival and to all the callers and musicians for giving us such a good time.


Val McIntosh

In 2011, these leaflets formed part of the publicity drive to attract dancers who attended other festivals: there is even some thinly disguised acceptance of past failings:

"(Social dance) has perhaps lost out a bit in the last couple of years...".

The promised greater use of the Blackmore Gardens marquee for social dance was a positive development.

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