The need for better dance instruction, and problems at Sidmouth LNE events. - an article.

STEPHEN WOZNIAK ARGUES FOR BETTER DANCE INSTRUCTION - an article from STS magazine issue 86, March 2014

Following on from my letter in STS 85 about poor standards of dance, recent festivals have given cause for concern. At Towersey 2013 we didn't do anything as complicated as a grand square in the ceilidh dances all weekend. They were so simple and boring (and sometimes repeated by other callers) that for the first time in many years I just couldn't be bothered to dance every dance. In a word it was pathetic - and this at a festival where structured teaching of youngsters Is supposed to take place!

Towersey was also quite rowdy on one or two occasions and (so I was told) with drug fuelled misbehaviour being responsible for groups of louts who completely prevented dancers in some sets from achieving anything. We had Nottingham Swing at each end of a longways set down the length of the ceilidh tent one evening and with the middle part consisting of a melee best avoided by anyone not wishing to be injured. I am amongst the first dancers to swing people strongly and very fast (and sometimes off their feet) but I do ask them first and at least I know what I am doing.

At Sidmouth I was in a square set with plenty of room and several of us swung girls off their feet many times during the dance. I certainly did and they quite enjoyed it, If you know what you are doing, if there is space and if the concerned people agree, that is fine. One caller told a story of swinging a girl off her feet (I think It was at Cecil Sharp House many years ago) and with someone getting a stiletto heel through the side of their mouth.

I've never yet managed to attend an event at Cecil Sharp House In London but I'm told that many of the dances are spoiled by the influx of locals who thrash about and don't know what they are doing. If this is true I'll be happy to stay away! A similar problem is besetting ceilidhs In Exeter which used to be a highlight of the local dance calendar. Several dancers discussed recently why we no longer go. It is just too rough and with so many people who simply don't know what they are doing and yet want to thrash around from the word go. Years ago, good dancers were in a large majority and the events were eagerly anticipated. Now they are (so I am told) losing money and on a downward spiral. One key factor seems to me to be so many people attending who have never learnt to dance even in a half competent manner.

There was a prime example of inebriated behaviour at the 2013 Sidmouth FolkWeek too. A group of youths and a well known caller charged across a square set and bowled a young girl onto he floor before trampling her. Fortunately she was not hurt, and I spent the rest of the dance keeping my partner as far away from the assembled louts as possible. The other people in the set were similarly appalled by the behaviour of this well known caller and (so I was told) a band musician.

Alcohol sales at the Bulverton marquee increased by 32% in 2013, a cause for celebration for FolkWeek festival organisers and the Anchor pub in Sidmouth (who run that concession). But when you look at the damage caused to young people by the present sub-culture of excess alcohol consumption, there is surely scope for limiting the available of this substance In ceilidh dance venues. IVFDF ceilidhs are amongst the best and filled with young people - and no alcohol.

Outside of the social dance at Sidmouth FolkWeek (much of which was very good indeed) the standard of ceilidh dance was again less than inspiring. The bands ranged from excellent to awful, and many people said so. Notable ware the superb performance In the Bulverton marquee by the English String Band at the Monty Python theme evening and the abysmal performance by the Gloworms which left even their usual admirers asking what had gone wrong. It wasn't a fluke either - they ware almost as bad later In the year.

Moving away from dance to dance instruction, why is some at festivals so good and yet In other sessions teachers structure them so that it is virtually impossible to retain any information? Surely retention - remembering some of what you have an taught - is the prime measure of success, or is it measured via a fun-at-the-time index? Some teachers cram as much as they can into the session, every topic or dance Is covered fleetingly with the result you retain nothing, unless you happened to know most of one or more of the dances already.

For many years (20 minutes each year for maybe 4 years) I have been trying to learn the polska and usually taught by the wonderful Kerry Fletcher. Leaving aside that she tells us repeatedly how wonderful, fantastic and marvellous we all are (and most of us know otherwise) the problem is that Kerry's sessions are generally too well attended. There is often no room to dance and certainly no room to try and learn a difficult dance when half your concentration is needed to avoid other couples who are moving in a similarly haphazard and self conscious manner around a crowded room. At Sidmouth it was just impossible with far too many people in a church hall. At Towersey the session was poorly attended but in the splendid ceilidh tent so we had plenty of room. I did actually get the hang of it with a partner who was both quite competent and slender enough to be handled with ease. She was kind enough to say I was quite good but (as with most of Kerry Fletcher's usual commentary) I took it with a large spoonful of salt.

The common thread here seems to be that so many people are unable or unwilling to admit the necessity of good old fashioned and maybe boring and repetitious teaching of dance as opposed to thrashing about and having a good time in the manner advocated by some callers. Fair enough at a barn dance but even here inadequacies can be painfully obvious.

I went to a local dance recently. I started to swing a rather well built woman and rapidly came to the conclusion she had not the faintest idea what she was doing. So at the end of a most uncomfortable 4 or 6 seconds I offered to give her a lesson in swinging later in the evening. She was most indignant and told me she had been dancing like that for 20 years and didn't need to be told how to do it. Her attitude, coupled with an almost complete lack of ability, summarised the general problem quite well. I am told that many men are hopeless too.

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