English Country Dancing - Folk dancing in the UK - the 2016 diary of a folk dancer based in Sidmouth. First published January 2017. Revised February 2017.
In writing up one year of my dance experiences in both local clubs and at festivals I have had in mind to address many of the issues central to the survival of traditional English folk dancing in the UK. I am here discussing ceilidh dancing and social dancing, not Morris dancing.
Selected highlights from my dance diary are in no particular order - to encourage you to plough through the whole text. In the full diary I aim to illustrate - week by week - just how much enjoyment and social interaction can be experienced at small local dance clubs.
It will take you several hours to read all the diary - but I hope you'll come to understand the reasons why I have drawn some of my conclusions. The diary is complemented by reviews of some UK folk dance festivals and also by my summary of helping to run a folk dance club. Some people will not agree with my conclusions and views - but others do, and (so far) the UK is still a free country where different opinions may be expressed. I am also reproducing the many letters and articles I wrote for STS magazine. These were regarded by some people as having initiated a much needed debate amidst the cobwebs of English country dance. At least one commentator from the USA, Henry Morgenstein, said as much.
Thus, there are several new 'folk dance' sections to this website as of 2017. All the individual pages will not be completed and reordered until maybe 2018. There is some inevitable overlap of material. There are also some new webpages dealing with the arguably grossly unfair treatment of men who have been falsely accused of all manner of sexual abuse. This overlaps in a minor way with folk dance primarily because of the attitudes and behaviour of some folk dance and ceilidh organisers. The topic is covered in more detail elsewhere so, rather than repeat all the arguments, links are given to other websites.
The new 'folk dance' material is therefore as follows.
Amongst the specific issues addressed in this diary are:
Folk dancers who live elsewhere in the UK sometimes say 'how lucky you are' when I tell them how much folk dancing is available in Devon. Whilst there is even more available in some areas (around Bristol for example), swathes of the UK are folk dance deserts.
If you persevere in reading this diary you'll find some small fragments of humour .........and details of some of the feuds and vendettas that have characterised many types of dance over the centuries. Some historical perspective on dance styles and feuds is given in part of my summary of folk dance clubs.
At the present time (2017) folk dance festivals are thriving, buoyed up in part by a generation of wealthy recently-retired people who learned to dance in their earlier years. They are the generation for whom austerity never happened. Within local folk dance clubs however, numbers are falling and average age is increasing. Few new members are attracted to what are often seen as dull, lifeless and uninspired gatherings. Yet it is in the livelier local clubs that the best value folk dancing can be experienced. In an age of supposed austerity they should be thriving. Sample calculations are given to support these arguments.
The text is rather disorganised and duplicated in places - I'll try and tidy it all up in 2017/18. I might even do a tripadvisor tour of UK folk dance clubs.
Please send any comments to stevewozniak42(AT)hotmail.com - and obviously replace (AT) by @
My folk dance diary for 2016 - how did I ever come to be a folk dancer?
I came to live in Devon in March 1997. A minor factor was the Sidmouth folk festival which I had wandered around whilst house hunting in previous years. It was only a twist of fate, one of the nodes along the road of life, that ever brought me to the West Country.
I first attended the Sidmouth International Folk Festival (as it was in those days) in 1997 also. It was a memorable week in mid-summer because it never stopped raining. Festival venues were swamped. It was before the days of digital cameras so there are probably few photographs or videos. It was also in the days when there were two late-night dance marquees at the Sidmouth Folk Festival - one at Bulverton, one near the Bowd.
I started dancing in about 2000 - very little, very badly and only at Sidmouth. I didn't get seriously into the hobby for quite a few years - I was held back both by innate shyness and an almost complete lack of natural dance ability. In fact, it wasn't a pastime that suited me at all. Yet the sights and sounds of the dance in the large marquees at Sidmouth must have proved irresistible - and I slowly began to learn folk dance in local clubs.
Looking back, the standard of instruction (in as much as I can remember it) was poor - which is maybe why nowadays I find it so satisfying to teach newcomers in a structured and logical manner. One of my dance partners in the early days was Gill Spence, now an established local caller. We learnt folk dance together - indeed I introduced her to the subject. One of my few memories of these early years is dragging Gill up to the Bulverton marquee to participate (probably very badly) in what were, in those days, late night ceilidhs attended by hundreds of highly competent dancers from the UK and overseas. These were the last days of the International Sidmouth Festival run by Steve Heap - it may have been around 2002/3 and I was almost completely out of my depth. I can vaguely remember one 'newcomers' dance instruction session in the offices of EDDC at the Knowle - run by the late Mick Brookes.
By about 2005 I was regularly attending local club dances around Sidmouth and also ceilidhs in Exeter, Bath and Stroud and occasionally elsewhere. My first festival away from home was probably Chippenham in about 2005, followed in 2007 by Towersey and some time later still by Eastbourne (which I had been advised to avoid until I was quite proficient) and Lichfield in 2009. I also attended a couple of 'oddment' festivals, Bridgnorth (which became Shrewsbury), Wadebridge (before I started going to Towersey) and Bromyard in 2008.
Looking back, I was incompetent on the dance floor at these festivals (but maybe no worse than most people) and it was the lack of proper structured instruction that for many years held me back. No-one even told me about the booklet written by Hugh Stewart - details here. In 1997 the Internet hardly existed and it would be many years before it became a ubiquitous household resource.
An article from 2012 explaining in more detail how I became involved in folk dancing is in the STS section here.
Stewarding, finance and Set and Turn Single magazine (2011 to 2016).
I started to take an interest in the organisation of festivals when I was a steward at many of them for several years. Later I helped to run Gittisham Folk Dance Club, being treasurer for 5 years. In these early years my regular local dance clubs were Sidford, Gittisham, Willand, Exmouth (occasionally), Ide for French and Breton dancing, and Saturday dances further afield, such as at Totnes and Taunton. Later I took up Irish Set Dancing. Unfortunately I didn't keep detailed records. I have no photographs and few detailed memories of my early dance years.
However, in March 2011 I contributed for the first time to a small folk dance magazine published in the UK. This was the springboard for five years of controversy - and some later vendettas against me.
I'm summarising my contributions in another section of this website - many of my articles and letters were deliberately 'tongue in cheek' as I sought to liven up what appeared to me to be a rather dreary, inward looking and sometimes petty series of discussions. My contributions were neither immediately popular nor universally understood, but the editor did tell me that he had gained quite a few more subscribers on the strength of the debates I had initiated. The magazine ceased publication in 2016 and became a little-used on-line 'forum'.
I can't remember more than a few isolated events of my early dancing years, each lasting a few seconds. So I thought I would document a year's worth of events to complement my contributions to STS, both as an additional record for myself and to help highlight some of the 'successes and failures' of current folk dance clubs and festivals in the UK - as informed by specific events, people and evenings.
Death - and presumably taxes.
One of the problems of the digital age is what happens to a website when the author dies. Some 'private' sites are worth preserving, for example if they contain historical material or technical information or even advice about mending classic cars that is not readily available elsewhere. I get hundreds of emails thanking and congratulating me for parts of this website.
Some small websites - those where no monthly subscription
or hosting fee is payable - may continue for decades after the author's death. Others,
created in the days before free platforms such as wordpress and wix, may vanish as
soon as executors cancel the deceased's credit cards and the monthly hosting payment is
discontinued. Brexit has added about 70p per month to my hosting fees........My ownership
of seered.co.uk is currently set to expire in November 2026 - or maybe sooner if I don't
live that long.
Some people ask for their Facebook account to continue after death, as a record of parts of their life. In many cases the profiles may be maintained simply because executors do not know passwords. I have not yet sorted out what will happen to this website if I die sooner rather than later, but if it suddenly vanishes, you may draw your own conclusions. I may at some stage turn some of the folk dance material on my website into an e-book.
Life after digital death: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-36226376
Quantifying dance events, assessing dancers, and carbon dioxide emissions per unit enjoyment.
In totalling up dance-events per month, an evening dance could be counted as one unit, a full day event as two units and a weekend away as four to six units - this is give some idea of the number of 'single evening equivalents' of dances per month. One 'unit' would be two to three hours of dancing or between 5 and 20 actual dances pending on whether the unit it was an advanced workshop or an evening of easy dances.
Since writing the early diary pages I decided simply to use hours of dancing as a parameter (to include sitting around and eating time). Thus with an average monthly total of 20 dance units, each of 2.5 hours duration, the annual total is 600 hours and maybe 2500 actual dances - about 50 per week. Thus over a dancing 'career' lasting 15 years, and with the last 10 years being fairly intensive, I may have danced around 30,000 times.
The most useful parameters apart from hours would include cost per unit enjoyable dance and travelling time per unit enjoyable dance. My December dance diary contains specific examples.
As a further refinement, a 'quality' mark could be awarded to each event or festival if it was more than usually enjoyable, potentially doubling or even trebling the monthly 'score'. For example each of the Tom Hinds workshops at Sidmouth FolkWeek in 2015 would be awarded a 'quality mark' of at least 2, as would some of the IVFDF events at Coventry in 2016. Both were superbly enjoyable.
The 'quality' concept could be applied to dancers as well as to events. Each dancer at a festival or ceilidh could have a numbered badge and after each dance, their partner would 'score' them from 1 to 5 (using an app on their smartphone of course) and at the end of the evening those men or women deemed to have given the most pleasure to the largest number of partners would be awarded a prize.
In some parts of the UK it is difficult to find a single folk dance event to attend every week without travelling a considerable distance. The concept of a 'dance gypsy' could be useful here. I was told at Eastbourne Folk Dance Festival (EIFF) in 2016 that a dance gypsy is someone who will spend longer travelling to a dance than the length of the event. Thus, travelling for 3 hours to attend an event that lasts for only 2.5 hours might make you a dance gypsy - but I'm not sure if travelling time is counted in both directions.
It would be interesting to analyse these further to estimate cost per actual dance at each type of event, For example, an evening at Sidford costs me £2.50 (£3 from September 2016). Similarly I often get a lift to Gittisham Club so that costs me £3, again for maybe 14 to 17 dances. An enthusiastic and competent caller can get through as many as 22 or 23 dances in a Saturday evening. An evening at Willand costs either £3 or £8 entrance, plus maybe £8 in car running costs.
Festivals can be far more expensive in terms of cost per dance, depending primarily on travelling and accommodation costs. Some dancers who attend Sidmouth FolkWeek estimate that the week costs them nearly £1000. If they have 100 dances in the week that is still £10 per dance. But it is possible to manage far more than 100.
A long weekend at Towersey costs me around £200 yet in 2016 I had only a few 'enjoyable' events - the rest being dominated by music that was far too loud. So the cost per event that I actually enjoyed might be about £50, and the cost per actual dance perhaps £4 to £10. That starts to look expensive.
As shown here, in 2016 I did 40 hours of dance at Sidmouth for about £150 - less than £4 per hour. The cost per actual dance (and most them with superbly competent and selected favourite partners) would be well under £1 and that includes the Sidmouth atmosphere.
It would be possible to compute the carbon overhead (carbon dioxide emission) of each dance - this would be high for someone who travelled a long distance to an event and danced only a little, but low for a local dancer - yet maybe not in the winter.
The carbon overhead of a winter festival could be lower than for one in the summer - the travel costs (and carbon loading) would be much the same as for a summer festival but if people left their homes largely unheated (or with the room thermostat turned down) whilst away at the festival the energy saving could more than offset the energy consumed by travel. The cost of the travel might be greater - but that is because car fuel is heavily taxed whilst home heating fuel is not (and neither is aviation fuel, which is why we have the absurdity of louts from the UK going on drunken weekends to Prague or Barcelona).
Additional factors include the greater carbon emission of people whilst they are dancing (owing to increased metabolic rate). In fact, I might sometime try calculating the carbon emissions and costs per unit of pleasure for different forms of activity. Once an energy scientist always an energy scientist.....sad I know. I am sure someone has done this already.
Sir James Lovelock (of Gaia fame) was once asked what was the best way to reduce the carbon emissions leading to global warming - he said 'stop breathing'. This was a serious point - one of the principal problems for the world is that there are far too many humans as well as food animals (cows, pigs, sheep etc and the latter also emit large quantities of methane - a very potent greenhouse gas but one with a lower residence time in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide). The world needs far more trees and far fewer humans - and those remaining need to live lower impact lifestyles. I return to this topic when discussing wealth and happiness.
Lower land use and carbon loading could be achieved by moving humans to a healthier lower protein diet. There would also be large benefits for wildlife - but as with all things, it's not as simple as that. The calculations are again quite involved yet interesting (if you like that sort of thing). They are unpopular amongst vested farming interests. I digress....... some initial figures and ideas are here.
So now to the dancing during 2016.
Folk dance section
Folk festival reviews 2016
Gittisham Folk Dance Club