Observations from FolkWeek - 2014 and 2015.

Tom Hinds - a gamble that paid off - and a problem for the future!

Control of the social dance programme in 2015 had passed to Gareth Kiddier, well known as a member of two widely acclaimed folk dance bands - the English Contra Dance Band and PolkaWorks, as well as being a member of the lesser known The Watch.

Gareth's big gamble was to devote a large part of the dance workshop programme, and in the largest venue, to an American caller. He also rapidly made a name for himself during the week as someone who understood what dancers needed and listened to their feedback - good and bad. It made a welcome change for anyone from FolkWeek ‘management’ to be so visible during the week, not only listening to comments but asking for them.

When I and several other dancers first looked through the full Sidmouth Programme on-line, we thought there were a series of errors. Every morning, from 9.30 to 12.25, Tom Hinds was doing American dance workshops - and at a 9 workshop price. It seemed both incredibly good value and also impossible that one person could hold the attention of a critical dance audience for an entire week.

Yet it worked so well that it has given Sidmouth a problem for the future - what to offer in 2016 and subsequently that could meet our now heightened expectations?! Leaving aside the problems of the floor and inadequate stewarding and ventilation - all of which could have been addressed years ago by festival management - these events set a standard for the future that will not soon be forgotten.

Many dancers commented on the clear delivery, the understated humour, the attention to detail, watching the dancers whilst not appearing to do so, noting every mistake and then calmly correcting it with such a clear explanation that we were left wondering why we went wrong in the first place. And all of this for three hours every morning for seven days, in addition to evening events. It was a difficult and perhaps impossible act to follow.

One consequence of the early popularity of the events was that when the Blackmore dance floor was ‘repaired’ (and using methods I suggested to the stewards based on experience at Chippenham), they sensibly took the opportunity to extend it by two metres. Some of these events attracted 200 dancers, so it was fortunate that the weather was not as hot as it could have been.

Of course the music contributed - two excellent dance bands took turns to produce a memorable series of workshops. If a choice had to be made between Vertical Expression and Wild Ride - a spinout from Stick Shift which ‘hit the buffers’ as some bands and dance clubs do, then the fiddle playing of Vertical Expression would arguably be the deciding factor. All week their music was infectious, including at the last Blackmore Gardens ceilidh on Friday evening, this time with Lisa Heywood as a caller, and doing some rather silly dances. These seemed just too easy and childish compared to what we had accomplished during the week - with Tom Hinds we did daisy chains until they were second nature and ‘SeaSick’ until most of us could do it. In a word it was memorable, and in a way that very few dance events manage.

The Vertical Expression website has a useful series of links to other contra events in the UK - most of them unfortunately a long way from Sidmouth!

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