English Country Dancing - Folk Dance Diary - January 2016 - a month in the life of an unlikely folk dancer.

If you persevere, you might find some small fragments of humour .........

If you've never thought about learning to dance consider this - if I hadn't persevered I would probably be spending many evenings in front of a television. Which offers the most enjoyment and exercise? Which best aids both physical and mental wellbeing? In the last fifteen years I estimate I have danced 30,000 times and with hundreds of different women (and I wish I could remember half of them).

Take a few hours to read about a year in the life of an unlikely folk dancer. If I can learn to do it, so could most people. Quite a few women even tell me how good I am these days. I never disagree with them.

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My dancing year started on a damp note with a weekend event at a small club - the rain was torrential, the roads and farmland around Honiton and into Somerset were flooded and I wondered if anyone else would attend. Fortunately, a few did. As I drove through Devon into Somerset I was stuck in this intense band of rain.

I thought to myself - 150 miles for a few dances and on a dreary day - is this madness or obsession? How many miles did I drive per dance? What was the total cost and carbon emission per dance? I didn't even win the prize for the most distance travelled.

How environmentally friendly was this hobby compared to either staying at home, owning a dog for company or going on a cruise? Energy scientists tend to think in these terms.

As usual, the emphasis was on a laid back and friendly event with dance instruction and practice in the morning with a ceili in the afternoon. Finding partners is often more of a problem at Irish Set than it is at English dances - there are sometimes too many men. The drive back was easy - in the dark of course but the rain had passed.

The following week saw the usual Sidford folk club dance - I can walk to the venue, but the high note of the day was my car passing its MOT. I didn't go to Gittisham's Wednesday evening calling at Honiton owing to what felt like grit in my eye - surely this was not early hayfever? Maybe some grit from servicing my car?

On Friday I missed an evening with Ted Farmer at Aylesbeare - I had simply forgotten to put it in my diary. I was most annoyed, especially as local caller Jane Thomas was there and in need of a partner. Willand on the Saturday was as good as ever with one of our local bands - Fresh Aire.

Sidford on Tuesday 12th was notable for Eileen Nightingale accidentally pulling a large powered speaker off the stage at the end of the evening - it crashed own onto the floor below and split open - but the circuit boards looked undamaged and the casing looked repairable. I was going to offer - but she has her husband Colin Osborne for that sort of thing. Wednesday at Gittisham Folk Dance Club saw the hall far too full with 42 people including several less than able newcomers - it was not a good combination.

This highlighted one of the weaknesses of Gittisham's folk dance club - the hall is just too small on 'popular' evenings. One member asked why we didn't find a larger hall - I told him that had been tried before (add link to history of the club).

Thursday saw a splendid evening at Willand with Jane Thomas calling and Stick the Fiddle playing. I wore an orange shirt - the band's trademark colour. As is so often the case at Willand, a club night in this large spacious hall with its excellent floor can be almost as enjoyable as a good Saturday night dance, and certainly better than some Saturday events I have attended in other areas of the UK.

Friday was Contra in Exeter - I took along a woman who had never danced before and she was uncertain about the idea, owing to an existing troublesome leg. She managed, but decided folk dancing was not for her - not at the moment anyway. Jeremy Child was his usual ebullient and sometimes perplexing self.

Saturday saw an occasional Dance with a Difference event run by Richard Mason with Abacus ceilidh band. The previous one in December had been held in a one-off venue in Exwick, near Exeter's St David's Station, and was only moderately well attended. But it was arguably difficult in that most of the people were students - friends of the band and caller. It therefore felt uncomfortably like a student-only event. It was disappointing that more of Devon's experienced dancers didn't attend - one reason was a date clash with a rare Great Western Ceilidh (GWC) just up the road. I had made arrangements for reduced price tickets to be available to latecomers to the ceilidh so people could attend both the DwD (7.30 to 10pm, and the later ceilidh (until 11.30pm). It just didn't work. Somewhere on youtube there may still be a video of me dancing Helicopters - a dance I sometimes call.

The GWC ceilidh was poorly attended also - a feature that has dogged GWC for several years. But all that was back in December. The January DwD was far better - a group of Irish Set dancers appeared and added greatly to the overall dance ability of the evening. It highlighted how a number of good dancers can transform an evening - especially when there were 7 of them and only about 16 dancers in total. DwD events were never run for profit - the band were happy just to cover the hall costs. Abacus love playing for good dancers - as do many small bands. So the evening was a success.

Sunday was an Irish Set event with the ever enthusiastic Maggie Daniel from Newton Abbot - these events are always enjoyable despite the varied and variable attendance - you are never sure who is going to turn up, but enough usually do (and often too many men).

The following week saw the usual Sidford and Gittisham dances, both were OK, followed by Aylesbeare on the Friday which is usually assured of good dancers and interesting dances. Completely laid back, there are no checks on the money, no restrictions on biscuits (usually) and no bureaucracy - it is an English dance club run as informally as are many small Irish groups - run for the love of dance and not for a love of form-filling and committee control. It is run much as Gittisham Folk Dance Club used to be.

Dartmoor Pixies in January.

On Saturday 23rd January Gittisham Folk Dance Club held its annual Dartmoor Pixie dance at Broadclyst near Exeter. The hall will take 80 comfortably but 100 people attended, including over ten who had bought tickets from me via the internet - a system once denounced by other committee members but one with which I had persisted (add links to STS letters). The dance made a large profit - 100 tickets at 7.50 each, the band and caller cost the usual 350, the hall cost around 100 and the raffle made about 60. At a hurriedly convened committee meeting at half time it was agreed to give the raffle money to charity - I advocated ORBIS (to whom I sometimes send money to help reduce my annual tax bill) but other committee members wanted a UK charity - so it was agreed half overseas and half to a charity operating in the UK. I was then allowed to announce this from the stage during the raffle draw. I found this rather surprising in view of on-going friction with other committee members.

But I await to see if the money was actually paid to the charities that were agreed - ORBIS (agreed and announced on the night) and Cancer Research (suggested later as the UK charity). Nevertheless the evening still proved hugely profitable - a satisfactory outcome for me because I had always advocated Saturday dances making a profit where possible as they often attract many non-club members, and why shouldn't these people contribute to overall club funds when it is the club who organise the dance and take the financial risk? As it was, 50 tickets were sold in advance, which reduced the risk of a loss on the night almost to zero. That is the way to run Saturday dances - except if you are a club like Willand who run them regularly and know from decades of experience that they will balance out over the year.

Quite a few 'one-off' Saturday dances are cancelled owing to poor advance ticket sales - the sensible solution is to push advance sales very hard and without offering a discount on the ticket prices - that can lose a lot of money. This is further discussed here (add link to discussion). The dancing on 23 Jan was fine, albeit Sarah Bazeley had to 'tone down' her programme in view of the number of inexperienced people in the room. Normally, Sarah can be quite adventurous at both Gittisham and Willand Saturday dances because she knows both clubs contain many accomplished dancers.

The final comment was left to a fellow member of Gittisham Folk Dance Club - in commending the club for organising the dance she said to me 'And wasn't it so much more fun without Monty Crook and his grumpy wife there?" I had to agree - but added that her comment was a little unfair on Monty's wife. (more on this in another section of my website)

The final week in January was 'all-go'. Tuesday at Sidford Folk Dance Club was excellent with Jane Thomas calling using recorded music. She did a 'Burns Night' theme with Scottish dances and tunes. The dancers somehow rose to the occasion - even at sleepy Sidford. I took what for me is a most unusual step - I asked for the microphone at the end of the evening to thank Jane for what had been an exceptionally enjoyable evening. Gittisham Folk Dance Club the following night attracted over 40 people - again too many for the hall and the atmosphere was 'frosty' according to my notes (but in writing this a month later I can't remember exactly why, probably a reaction to all the bad feeling engendered by changed ticket arrangements for the Pixies).

Thursday was Ted Farmer at Willand - always a good combination of interesting dances and (usually) commensurately competent dancers. Ted did get a few things wrong, which helped to balance out the number of times he gets mildly cross with us. He often calls women 'dear' - a habit which endears him to many women (sorry about the pun...) but not to a few ageing feminists.

On Friday I made my first ever visit to Exeter Folk Club in central Exeter having been encouraged to do so by Julie Mason of Abacus. I had avoided this club for a decade owing to its reputation for having primarily slow and older dancers. The music from Abacus was fine, some young dancers there were fun to teach (later I met one of them at IVFDF so we had yet more dances together) but overall it didn't seem worth a 15 mile trip into central Exeter with fraught parking. The club has been struggling for some years and had recently been taken over by a couple of girls from the university. I thought they would have a job on their hands to keep it going - and what an indictment. It seems to be difficult to assemble even twenty moderately competent folk dancers in central Exeter with tens of thousands of people living only a short distance away. Like so many English folk dance clubs it seems to be surviving on a year by year basis. Jive evenings held nearby attract up to 100 people - despite that they cost almost three times as much. More on this topic here.

Saturday could have been a party night in Broadclyst but I didn't go - I was too busy, there was too much politics and I had busy all day underneath cars including diagnosing the very stiff steering on a friends Citroen Berlingo. She had complained about it the previous evening: I had a quick look at it by torchlight, in my dancing clothes and in the middle of Exeter. A week or so later I was very pleased with myself for correctly diagnosing a stiff intermediate shaft roller bearing. I cured it by injecting a little gear oil with a medical hypodermic needle, a job I remembered doing on Gill Spence's Ford Fiesta about 10 years previously, except on the Fiesta it was easy and on the Berlingo it entailed half an hour of tortured access. Isn't it strange how men can remember some things and yet forget their wife's birthday?

Sunday was a very early start to drive nearly 100 miles for an Irish Set day of dance - it seemed worth the trip and was followed by yet another drive to near Bristol (for a quick meal) and then on to more Irish set dance in Bristol - again with someone who had never done Irish Set dance before. We managed - somehow. I was still tired coming back home the next day. As an end to January it had been quite an eventful week.

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