What makes for a good social dance or ceilidh festival? This article suggests that infrastructure - the venues, the floors, the campsite(s) is at least as important as the bands and callers.

During the closing days of FolkWeek 2011 (during event 716) Derek Schofield may have been obliquely referring to this and other of my articles in S&TS when he said "we don't want any more rubbish published about Sidmouth in S&TS" - he was encouraging dancers to write letters to the editor saying what a wonderful time they had had. Make up your own mind as to whether my arguments are 'rubbish'!

Published in Set & Turn Single magazine issue 70, July 2011.

I am sure many people noticed how splendid the dancing was at Chippenham Festival in its ruby anniversary year. The social dance was lively and the ceilidhs were simply splendid - not quite IVFDF standard but close enough. I asked myself: exactly why does Chippenham continue to be such a success? The social dancing is thriving and new and/or bigger venues may have to be found (or ticket prices increased!).

I wrote an article in S&TS (issue 68) in which I argued that the internet is perhaps overrated as a means of communication. I’d now like to take this one step further. Lying awake under the stars (in a nice warm caravan!) I selected three key words to explain success or failure of a dance-oriented festival: Partners, Venues and Discussions.
We’ll start with the easy one - Partners. For many people it is the least important parameter: they bring their own! But having a good variety of able and attractive partners can make or break a festival for the myriad of single dancers (this includes ‘attached’ people whose partners do not dance). Also, married men often like a change (Surely not! -Ed)

Duration of a festival comes into the analysis here - the longer the festival, the more partners you need in order to avoid thinking that you’ve already danced with all of them six times and it must be time to go home. So the longer the festival, the bigger the venues may need to be before there is a risk of crossing the boredom threshold. I did this at Sidmouth the last couple of years - the first few days were fine but after that - same old faces, same small halls, same everything. Despite that I always start a festival feeling I’d like to dance every dance, I just went home or strolled along the seafront. At an ideal festival there would be enough skilled and attractive partners to make every day seem like a new start. It is possible to put numbers to this but I’ll resist the temptation lest I upset any readers (ref: letters column S&TS 69!).

And so to venues: Chippenham has some splendid ones! The two principal halls in town are spacious, easily accessible and with good facilities. These factors are important as people get older - and as we know most social dancers are! The Olympiad Sports Centre adjacent to the caravan field is almost perfect - the floor is too hard but the location, showers, toilets and seating areas are excellent. And this year they seemed to have better ventilation. Few ceilidhs are especially memorable but the Old Swan Band with Hugh Rippon calling was almost as good as it gets. A pity it had to end so soon- another three hours would have been the perfect festival finale. Why can’t dance directors accommodate those of us who could thrash around at a ceilidh from 8pm to 3am - and after a day of social dance? I’m not alone surely? Yet even at Chippenham I approached the boredom threshold after two and a half days of social dance.

Now we come to the link with my previous article: Discussion. Why do people decide to try a particular festival? Is it a pile of glossy leaflets, an attractive website or something far more prosaic? I think it is person to person discussion. Why (as something of an internet expert) did I first attend Chippenham, Eastbourne or Towersey? In all cases, it is because I had discussed them with at least one person who had already attended. The same is true for Whitby - which I may attend this year instead of Towersey - a hard choice.

So what was the value of the stack of leaflets advertising Sidmouth that were left around at Eastbourne and included also as a flyer in S&TS 69? They were attractive, colourful and (I would guess) almost useless alongside the interchange of experiences of the close knit groups of people who constitute UK social and ceilidh dancers. Why do people first attend? Because they discuss with other people. Why do they keep going back for more? It is not only their own experiences but the discussion with other people comparing one festival to another - A better than B, B bigger than C, the sound level at D is simply far too high, why don’t you try E instead, the ceilidh tent is superb - and so on. The internet has created a whole new layer of babble, pretence and gloss - yet conversation has remained much as before!

Despite the resources devoted to websites and a myriad selection of leaflets left around at festivals I feel that discussion is simply the most important parameter - yet it is one almost wholly ignored by festival organisers. Can anyone recall a feedback forum arranged specifically for dancers to tell organisers what they found good and bad? A few notes scribbled on a piece of paper or input to a website are surely no substitute for the dance or festival director making himself available for an hour, to talk specifically to dancers? Once you put numbers to all this you can start to analyse which festivals are likely to shrink or grow as alternatives become available. Chippenham should have no problems - but even its town hall venues would probably be too small for a week-long festival unless (for example) a few extra days were to be devoted to Irish dance tacked onto the end of the existing long weekend (now there’s a thought!) It is such a pity that some people have to go back to work!

Sidmouth in the ‘good old days’ had dance venues suited to a week of dancing - they were so large and packed with so many competent people that if you lost sight of a prospective partner you were lucky if you found her again all night! The present-day Sidmouth is at the opposite extreme - it is still a week-long festival but with most dance venues suited more to a single day or short weekend festival. Broadstairs has developed in the last few years but now needs additional venues. I have not mentioned here the two factors that some people cite as a reason for attending (or avoiding) a particular festival - the bands and callers. But how many people really attend or avoid a whole festival on these grounds? It is surely the infrastructure and everything that flows from it that is at least as important?

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