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
I wrote an article in S&TS (issue 68) in which I argued that the internet is perhaps
overrated as a means of communication. Id 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.
Well 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 youve 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 Id 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 Ill
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 cant dance directors accommodate
those of us who could thrash around at a ceilidh from 8pm to 3am - and after a day of
social dance? Im 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
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 dont 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 theres 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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