Sidmouth FolkWeek 2011 - comments on the dance (2): Social dance in the church halls.

This was a marked improvement on 2010 - but maybe not from the point of view of the organisers.

Many of the best social dancers in the UK didn't attend - some because Sidmouth 2011 overlapped with Warwick festival (it is usually the week after Warwick), some because they had other things booked and others because they felt Sidmouth no longer offered sufficient value for money. This latter point is important - season tickets offer very good value if you want to attend 5 hours of concerts and other 'spectator' activities each day but they offer poor value if you just want to dance for a few hours in a day. Individual event and workshop tickets can then offer better value - unless of course you attend concerts as well as dances.

The principal difference this year in the church halls was that there was usually plenty of room to dance - which must have meant lower numbers attending. Often, stewards were volunteered to dance - as in a few workshops in 2010 also.

The live music was excellent and so were the callers - but this was little changed from 2010, although to be fair to the organisers, they did book as many 'top notch' bands and callers for 2011 as they could. So no complaints there!

There was always a range of partners but in too many workshops there were more men than women. This simply will not do!

Some examples follow to give a flavour of the week for anyone thinking of coming next year - but if many more dancers attend we may be back to the sardine conditions of previous years, unless the 'new' promised larger venue materialises. The numbers denote events as shown in the printed programme. Unless stated, these were the ones I attended.

105 St Teresa's social dance - not well attended, tailed off a lot towards the end as people went home for an early night after their journey. This was nothing exceptional for the first night. I didn't go myself. There is a photo on the previous page.

sidmouth event 204.jpg (152865 bytes) St Teresa's hall for an early dance - billed as suitable for complete beginners.

As usual it was populated mainly by experienced dancers and beginners would either get swept along or fall by the wayside.

Complete beginners need classes devoted to slow learning.

sidmouth event 205.jpg (163633 bytes) One of the first social dances in the Methodist hall - event 205 with Bill Kinsman.

If nothing else - there was room to dance!


226 St Teresa's again for European dance basics with Kerry Fletcher - this was packed - about 70 people and very well received.

240 St Teresa's yet again. American dance with Colin Hume - again packed out.

325 St Teresa's and once again packed for another European dance workshop - there may be a lesson here - European dance, Cajun, anything unusual may be popular next year. JigJaw produced their usual infectious enthusiasm.

405 Methodist hall and Colin Hume's Dances with a difference - billed as advanced and rightly so, but very satisfying when you got them right. Colin related his near-death experience in local self-catering accommodation.

437 All Saints and hardly packed out. Dancing for singing and vice-versa. Not really my type of thing so I left early. Too much emphasis on singing (too much for me anyway)

447 Methodist hall - excellent event with Colin Hume again - my notes say what a splendid floor compared to the appalling surface of Blackmore Gardens marquee I had suffered during event 415. The floor surface really does make a difference for experienced dancers.

471 Monday evening - and already the numbers seem to be falling away - Mike Courthold had very low numbers for his East meets West dances - probably the Playford Ball had something to do with it? This was one of the first indications that we needed more dancers in the church halls (but not too many more).

546 - Some very interesting dances from Barrie Bullimore and once again I have a note of how much easier it was to dance on this floor than in the Blackmore Gardens marquee. Other people were also commenting on this - and it was only Tuesday.

554 - the first of Jerry O'Reilly's three Irish Set dance workshops - all well attended, his CD music used in the first 2 workshops was appalling quality but it simply didn't matter - the instruction was clear and I had an able partner (thank you Sheena...). This event really did serve to emphasise that it is the types of dance, the quality of partners and the quality of instruction that are important. Some organisers think it's all in booking the best bands - that's rubbish. I'd go again to these workshops even if I knew in advance how poor the music would be. The emphasis here was on learning - something that Sidmouth rarely does well.

569 - All Saints evening contra dance: I didn't go myself (a big mistake apparently) it was said to be brilliant, house full and too hot! So well done yet again to Barrie Bullimore and the English Contra Dance Band (ECDB). The parallel dance in St Teresa's with Madeleine Smith was poorly attended.

605. Wednesday morning, and things are starting to flag a little with only 32 people for some more interesting dances from Barrie Bullimore. Also there were too many men for the available women. Young stewards were volunteered.

618 Again in the Methodist Hall and interesting dances from Colin Hume including the Fandango. Once again, not packed out. The weather was becoming very humid, which made overheating of venues less bearable.

650 Methodist hall again. The only Running Set workshop of the entire week - and yet I still remember the series that Ray Goodswen did some years ago at Sidmouth - they were brilliant. This one was 'OK' it was well taught but somehow lacking in numbers and in dancer enthusiasm. I would have expected it to have attracted more people.

657 Irish Set dance again - comments as above

673 Back to St Teresa's for an excellent evening with Mike Courthold (despite a few mistakes calling...) and the ECDB - my notes include 'super floor surface' compared to the dullness of both Blackmore Gardens and the Bulverton. 'Very good indeed' and some excellent dancers. The rain set in for the night which made getting to the campsite and Bulverton venue a pain for many people.

705 Thursday (and wet during the morning!) and an excellent session from Mike Courthold and (once again) the ECDB. It was not packed but there were plenty of dancers and room in which to dance.

716 as above but at 11.15am, and some Mid West Contras. marred only by Derek Schofield's speech at the end saying how wonderful it had all been all week (hadn't it?) and that everyone should write to Set & Turn Single magazine to say so - and bring your friends next year. He also pointedly remarked that there should be "no more rubbish about Sidmouth in S&TS" - perhaps a reference about my contributions? He went on to say that FolkWeek management 'almost cried' when they read some of the social dance feedback forms from 2010 and although initially they thought it was the venues at fault they then realised it was the programme. Again this seemed designed to rebut what I had said in S&TS about the importance of infrastructure. But he then contradicted himself - saying that this year (2011) we have given you the Blackmore Gardens and next year (wait for it...) there may be a new big venue in town for dance. So venues and infrastructure don't matter Derek?

753 The last of the Irish set workshops, this time with live music (which arrived late!). A maximum number of dancers was specified as 64 - and Irish Sets are compact compared with some other dance types so this gives a sensible upper limit on the number of dancers in St Teresa's hall. For many dance types, 50 would be sensible - yet 70 or more have been packed in in the past.

765 - Thursday and I finally got bored with American dancing and the ECDB. It wasn't at all packed, the music was good, so was Lynne Render but I just went home - the prospect of being deafened by the undanceable Glorystrokes at the LNE was just too awful to contemplate.

805 Friday morning - everyone danced out and flagging? The event started with 10 men and 5 women and it was a similar situation in Blackmore Gardens (event 802) but the latter improved a lot during the morning - so I stayed there instead.

If I had bought workshop passes, I would have used three books at 38 each = 114 just for 18 workshops in church halls. When you add in the Blackmore Gardens events and the LNEs, an 'early bird' season ticket at 158 looked good value for an 'extreme' dancer, but maybe not for a more normal person!

Overall impressions of the dancing in church halls in 2011:

The music and calling would get around 10/10, so would the stewarding arrangements - these were flexible, friendly and accommodating whenever the dancers needed an extra body or two or we needed a fire door opened. The only music that was below par was in the Irish set - but as noted above, that didn't matter, so competent was the instruction and so lively were the sets.

A few workshops ran very close to hall capacity and if the weather had been hot, dancing could have become uncomfortable. The hall floors are all solid (at least they feel solid) but we can forgive them that because of the polished surfaces that made swinging and other fast moves so much easier than in Blackmore Gardens or up at the Bulverton. Some social dancers avoided Blackmore Gardens simply because of the floor surface. One even said to me she avoided it because of the slope (which was not too bad). If the 'new' promised venue in Sidmouth materialises let us hope experienced and critical dancers have been consulted about the floor surface. We don't want anything remotely as dull as the Sports Hall floor at Lichfield folk dance festival - that was so mesmerisingly awful it put some dancers off ever again attending.

One problem with Sidmouth's dance workshops is that they can run close to or exceeding their comfortable capacity - and if word gets out that social dance at Sidmouth is reviving then they could once again become too crowded. If it is desired to boost numbers in 2012 - the Olympics year - then there is an easy way to do this - offer cheap tickets to members of local folk dance groups. Given an incentive we could easily provide an extra 150 quite accomplished dancers (not all at the same time!) and this would boost numbers in both church halls and Blackmore Gardens - and local people could nip back home for their Olympics viewing. Using Blackmore Gardens for many workshops was a good idea - it was never packed out so if your chosen workshop was full you could always do another type of dance in Blackmore. In past years, if all halls were full, your only option was to mope around - or go to the beach or to some other non-dance event.

As for basic teaching (as in LEARNING and remembering and getting new people genuinely interested) Sidmouth has a long way to go - yet as a full week event it could so easily become a centre for revival of traditional English dance, as well as a centre for teaching of other related styles. What seems to be lacking is management interest and/or understanding. Specific suggestions are made on a later page. None of the workshops I attended were really suitable for complete beginners - with so many advanced dancers present things move ahead too quickly for beginners to keep up, and despite Kerry Fletcher telling them (as she always does) that they are doing brilliantly.

Few of the dancers who attend the workshops are 'poor or novice dancers'. For example, few cannot swing reasonably and quite a few are superb. It is a wholly different story in Blackmore Gardens in the evenings and at the Bulverton, yet at the workshops there is little opportunity for basic learning.

Many youngsters at the Bulverton and many of the parents who brought their children to Blackmore 'family' dances had clearly never attended even one proper learning session. They had merely picked up the general idea as they went along and were getting a lot wrong. At one progressive dance at the Bulverton I was swinging one girl after another (and trying my best on that awfully dull floor). Their ability ranged from average to absymal - until I danced with one girl who was first rate. She obviously had the same problem with men - "Oh God, a man who can swing properly!" - and then she was gone. It was a typical Sidmouth experience - and so unlike Chippenham ceilidhs where the expectation is of competence.

Standards can only be improved by including far more opportunities for slow, structured and basic teaching. Boring or tedious it might be for a while but I don't see there is any other way. Sidmouth needs a whole new range of basic dance workshops.

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