Folk Dance Diary - October 2016 - a month in the life of an unlikely folk dancer.

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

"This is all so many dance clubs and festival dances need - a few people to put some real life into them."

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.

Early October should have been an Irish day away but it was cancelled at the last minute (the hall had been double booked by the 90 year old lady who looks after the administration, so I was told) The first week of October was a Contra week at Halsway - but strangely I couldn't get myself enthused to attend any of it. In any case, Tuesday was with Ray Goodswen at Sidford - 10/10 for effort but a pity that more dancers didn't attend. It was a poor show for a 'big name' visiting caller - only the usual 20 or so. It was slow throughout, but little more could have been expected.

Dances included a version of Hampshire Lass (or maybe it was a version of Shropshire lass, a 3-couple longways) and Retromove, a longways in which second couples moved down the hall. Quite a few of the dances would not have worked so well if Ray had not been busily shepherding the less able dancers around and directing them from the floor as he was calling. Few callers can do this (or elect to do so).

One interesting dance (I think it was a square) featured finding a new partner, immediately taking her in waltz hold and doing just 6 steps back home. Whatever it was, Ray didn't think much of how some people waltzed. He demonstrated a close hold - 'gapless' he exclaimed, showing the woman clasped close to his chest. So I tried it. Most partners were all too happy to join in the fun. One woman was terrified, holding me at arm's length as if I was about to strangle her.

Interestingly Ray told me he had started two new clubs in Somerset and each was stable with about 20 attendees. In an age when so many clubs are closing down that looked promising - but it may all hinge on one person's ability and enthusiasm. It may be easier to start a completely new club than try and get new attendees to one that is already in terminal decline with too many very slow elderly dancers.

At one point Ray called a longways set. I selected a willing partner and headed to the top of the hall. No-one else moved. Ray looked puzzled, as if thinking that maybe his microphone had stopped working. I explained that whilst he might well have called a dance, he had omitted to bring with him a crowbar - often needed at Sidford to prise people out of their chairs. We were down to 2 three-couple sets at one point - 12 dancers in a hall where there used to be 60 to 70.

But worse was to come.

At Honiton the next evening in the Mackarness Hall we had one of Gittisham Folk Dance Club's caller-evening dances. Janet Bulpin and I shared the time out - an hour each. I had spent literally days (it seemed like weeks) learning off by heart 5 or 6 interesting new dances, including a special one I had danced at Lichfield festival. In the shower, whilst washing the dishes or when walking around Waitrose they worked beautifully. Dancers were attentive, they did as they were told and they understood my every word. Maybe dreams are like that. I even bought 48 sticks of chalk for £1 to draw lines on the floor as an aid to teaching my Lichfield dance, using notes kindly provided by Roy Garrington.

In the end I spent so long getting the assembled multitude (all of about 16 or was it 18 people?) to attempt even the easy dances that I gave up completely on my piece-de-resistance. I did all the right things - I warmed them up with a couple of 'baby dances' (some callers do nothing else all evening), I told them a few jokes, and I told them they were doing well even when I knew differently. Half of them couldn't do a double figure of eight (couple facing couple to start) despite being taught. There were too many men too - so one or two had to deputise as women. One of our local bands, Jeroka, provided the music. They were as adaptable as ever, adding extra bars when needed to allow dancers to complete their moves, Even so, the evening was a complete let-down after so much preparation. The dance floor was OK though, just a pity about the rest of the hall.

Thursday was an afternoon of American Square dance - we had just enough people to make 2 squares so the organisers were happy. It was OK but it was only for two hours. Three would have been better.

Friday was Ted Farmer - another very poorly attended evening with only 14 people. Usually 20 is regarded as low, and 24 to 28 is average. It was fun enough with a few dances where we went wrong. But even this tiny hall felt half empty. As usual Ted proved some dances to tax the brain (just a little anyway), and a welcome change from the diet of baby dances elsewhere.

Saturday offered a multiple choice - Willand with Ivan Aitken (and no doubt a contra flavour), or a distant Irish Set birthday party, or a ceili near Bristol. In the event I stayed at home with a bit of a sore throat - something that had afflicted so many dancers locally in the last couple of months. I should have gone to Willand. I was told that J.I.P (the initials of the three band members) were superb and that Ivan called many squares, which I prefer to longways sets. The sore throat didn't come to anything, so I could have gone to Willand. Sod's Law.

Sunday was an away-day - a reason to be sensible and not have a late night on the Saturday. I missed what was apparently a very good Irish ceili in Bristol. Being sensible can be such a bore. We had a guest teacher and caller on the Sunday but unfortunately not enough couples for two square sets. Nevertheless it was a satisfying day with very good instruction on the Claddah and a spirited BVJ to finish.

Tuesday was Sidford again, this time with Jeremy Child and the usual selection of 20 or so dancers. It was OK, enlivened by doing Old Man of Ballengigh to a fast version of Cotton Eye Joe. We did one square that Jeremy said was difficult. It wasn't. Some of the music was very good - Committee Band tracks that brought back distant memories. At half time we had the club AGM - this was commendably short, only one person spoke (and only for a few minutes), it was agreed the club should continue without a formal committee structure just 'everyone helping when they could'. How refreshing! This is how so many small dance clubs are run (and should be run) and without the tedious formality and 'rules' that are infecting other clubs and festivals.

I opted out of Gittisham on Wednesday. I was told that Ted Farmer had to spend time with newcomers who couldn't do the simplest of moves. How long do some people take to learn the basics? Maybe no-one teaches them properly.

Thursday afternoon was American Square - annoyingly only 14 people turned up. With 16 we could have had two squares. I learnt a bit though - at least I am not bottom of the class....(not quite).

Willand the same evening with Ted Farmer was very good, although attendance was very low and with more men than women. I did suggest that one or two women from the band could be seconded as dancers. Some of the early tunes seemed funereal but later ones were much livelier. Dances included Sting in the Tail (one of Ted's regulars but we all know it by heart, it has 6 couples in an unusual formation). Also The Shortest Day an enjoyable 5 couple longways designed to test if dancers know their right from their left.

Friday should have been Contra but I just couldn't get enthused. I was later told that it was a good evening (Sod's law for the second time this month).

Saturday and Sunday were Irish Set days - excellent as ever. I really do need to learn all the common sets off by heart.

Tuesday was Sidford - the band were a depleted Jigs for Gigs (only Iain and Margaret Bryden) and with Eileen Nightingale calling. Again only about 22 people attended, some of whom hardly moved all evening. There should be a law against getting old. Fortunately, one delightful woman turned up without her husband - so that was me sorted for most of the dances. (We also did a few polkas around the hall in-between called dances. I later told her she had made my evening.)

Eileen produced a much better evening than she did at the end of season party night in May and with fewer people attending. We did a dance by Brooke Friendly (a caller from the USA) called Pony Express or similar. This had an unusual formation of three couples in a hexagon with everyone opposite to their partner to start with. It was different but easy and ended with a strip the willow move around the set. It had its own 'Playford' type of slow tune which the band had to learn and which Eileen used the first time. Then we tried it to a fast jig - it was fine with either but better learnt using the slow option.

Also we did Dolphins at Broadstairs - with dolphin reels through the side couples. Another square had a grand chain the wrong way around and which caused some initial confusion. The Mexican Waltz was so simple - an autopilot dance, once you had grasped that out/in/out was followed by in/out/in.

So an evening that could so easily have been boring and tedious was enlivened (for me at any rate) by one occasional partner and a few interesting dances. I learnt that the annual Over Stratton Folk Dance Club Saturday dance in April had 'broken even' but had been depleted by a competing residential event the same weekend. Also, it may not be held in 2017 - a pity if this is true. I also learnt that a key reason for the success of Ray Goodswen's new dance club in Langport Somerset is that he has the help of a 'very efficient organiser' who ensures leaflets and posters are put up everywhere. If it works good luck to them - but a similar 'blitz' of publicity and over a year or more did little for the now defunct Honiton Dance Club run by Andrew Mycroft. Quite a few new dance clubs thrive for a while and die. Gittisham Folk Dance Club has lasted over 10 years and is still going. Other clubs that have a 50 year or longer history have recently withered slowly and then died. I'll write some analysis of this.

Wednesday was Gittisham of course, and the second occasion recently to have Ray Goodswen as a caller. A local partner pleaded for a lift so I did a deal - she could have a lift if I could have at least half the dances with her. I knew that some of my other favourites were not going to attend. It worked well, the hall was too full with about 36 dancers and Ray was his usual competent and cheery self. We had to pay attention.

Thursday morning was a free financial planning seminar in nearby Topsham at the Exeter Country and Golf Club. How the other half live! I help a friend look after all her money, she gets the occasional invite and so I go in her place. As a contrast to the folk dance world and its petty intrigues and disputes, these events are always an eye-opener. I used to go to lots of them but I have somehow fallen out of the habit. The bacon sandwiches were late. Overly wealthy and gruff people muttered about terribly bad service.

The presentations were the usual selection of long term shares vs. cash investment history, with the usual 'fees omitted' and the lowest or average interest rates used for savings accounts. Thus the conclusions were biased towards the products that financial planners love to sell. But that is routine. I could have given most of the talks myself, but one interesting graph showed the 10 year decline in the viability of bonds as an investment class, showing not only the decline in interest paid (no surprise there) but the increased sensitivity to interest rates changes (this was called Duration, but I'm not sure why). In any case, bonds are not a favoured class of investment these days. I discussed with one of the presenters (an ex bank manager I think) my forays into many P2P platforms - we had a long discussion, I maybe knew more than he did, especially about the likelihood of a wall on money hitting P2P once the FCA authorise their F-ISAs. It's a serious problem now that so many investors are piling into the sector, and further complicated by HMRC insisting that transfers of existing loan parts into a new F-ISA cannot occur - you have to sell them and then buy them back. "Rules is rules" but these may produce a flurry of frenzied buying and selling.

Interest rate falls within P2P seem inevitable and indeed some are happening. Investors have been making hay while the sun shines. An absurd amount of food was provided at the seminar, almost none of it was eaten. I thought about people who exist on little or nothing. What was most depressing was the lack of concern for 'the world' in all the discussions. All that mattered was reducing tax (avoiding paying it) and how to ride the next upwave, wherever it was going to occur. Examples were given of how an individual had saved £24,000 tax in a year by rearranging investments, all quite legal. Another example was of a wealthy couple who had arranged to draw £50,000 a year income tax free, maybe it was £50,000 each, I forget.

I said I didn't mind paying tax - it helps schools and hospitals. There were blank faces. Somehow we got onto discussing cars. I said I could easily afford to drive an expensive car but I didn't want one. More blank faces. This led to investments aims - one of mine was to make even more money so I could give more away to charity each year (see HMRC letter). There wasn't even any discussion of how impending crises could affect energy sector investments (for example), just the usual 'we are in an uncertain world, expert advice is what you need'. As presentations go, they were better than some I have attended but the whole mind-set of financial planners seems to be so narrow.

Intellectually, it was a boring couple of hours but the venue itself provided amusing examples of how the other half live - trim 20-somethings from the club in tight little skirts, high heels and with too much makeup. All smiles and little brain? The comfortably off and comfortably retired spending hours putting balls into holes and (no doubt) discussing how the world has gone to pot. It was useful overall in confirming that I am not alone in having missed so many opportunities in life - by taking my eye off the ball? Many people find finance intensely sexual - and some incredibly bright women can be found in this sector. This clip is from a 2011film, Margin Call. It was linked from one of the P2P forums I frequent (sad I know!). If you want to understand the 2008 crash (or at least see one perspective on it) try this.

The event ended at noon, I spent some time wandering around Topsham (delightful little town) and made a major investment - four new wooden coat hangers for £1 from a charity shop. It put the millions of pounds, the credit rate swaps and the bond durations into perspective.

Thursday afternoon was American Square dance, enough people turned up to make it worthwhile but once again three hours would have been better. A favourite partner was still absent, having broken a toe some weeks previously falling over her brother in law. Some people found this story amusing - I'm not sure why.

Friday was Aylesbeare and what a difference to the previous week - a hall almost full with around 28 people and Ted on top form with some dances we (or at least I) had never done before. They were not so much difficult as unusual and we managed to get quite a few moves wrong especially in a dance called Two Five Morley (or similar?) an unusual formation of 7 individual dancers. it featured two cross-over dolphin reels with the other side doing ordinary three person reels. I have rarely experienced such merriment at Aylesbeare - it was worth going just for the laughter as various people (including me) were admonished for making silly mistakes. I told myself to remember my mistakes so I could probably do the dance correctly next time. In retrospect - it was easy, so why did we have problems? Only that it wasn't an autopilot dance, and we are too used to those.

Tea time marked a return to Thursday's high finance and cost benefit analysis. I had two cups of tea and five biscuits - included in the £2 entrance price. Why is folk dancing not more popular - it can be huge fun, it is inexpensive and most of the people in most clubs are pleasant company. On the downside, there were no young women with tight little skirts and high heels.

Saturday was a small dance in Exeter with local band Abacus and Richard Mason calling - and once again - oh dear me. Try as they might this team just don't seem to have much luck. It was a cold evening. The hall was freezing. People were wearing gloves. The thermostat or other control was locked away in the crèche room and no-one had a key (see this page for some advice on renting halls). I couldn't find a partner for the evening - one locally had just come back from a cruise and had caught a horrible chest infection. Most passengers were ill, three of them had to be put into ambulances when the liner docked. A wonderful advert for the Fred Olsen Balmoral - look up the 'Balmoral bark' if you wish, it may have less to do with 'dry air' as some people suggest, more likely a problem with dirty air-con or the fact that in the sealed cabins you have no choice but to breathe recirculated germ-laden air, much as on any large aircraft. You can also have problems with Legionnaires Disease on cruise liners - it was one of my research topics many years ago. It is one reason amongst many why I don't fancy the idea of cruising.

There was no air-con to worry about in the Exeter dance venue - just no heat and no dance partners. The evening started with 12 dancers, and me sitting out, freezing despite still wearing a coat. It was an interesting dance with a box circulate in columns. Things slowly improved and in the second half Julie Mason's 10 year old daughter agreed to a few dances - she knows me from contra and is very proficient when she's not being mischievous. She decided against either cross hand swings or normal ballroom swings, both of which she can do well when she's feeling so inclined, preferring to leap upwards and be caught, then to be swung around with her feet off the ground. Fortunately she only weighs about 10 kg. A good job no starchy people like Monty Crook or Maureen Knight were there - I might have been marked down for child abuse. Dancers built up to around 20 in number, but with far too many men. One or two danced as women - I do hope it never catches on.

The one really interesting dance of the evening was a square with chase the rabbit and chase the squirrel. Quite easy except I got it wrong, sometimes not being able to hear the call - the hall has dreadful acoustics and my brain seemed to have closed down, maybe because of the cold. The last bit with heads doing R and L through and yet the sides doing a ladies chain - that caught me out. Why I don't know - it was easy.

It was fortunate that a group of six people had booked tickets, despite that four of them were youngsters who had never danced before. They did very well but the evening reminded me of an earlier one in the DwD series where the success of the event centred upon a group of competent Irish Set dancers who just happened to attend. Without them, it would have been dire - or abandoned altogether. Tea and biscuits proved popular: early DwD events had been run straight through with no refreshments. At the end of the evening the band played a polka. I asked the older of the women in the group of six if she'd like to try - she said she couldn't polka but she proved very capable. I danced her around for quite a while, holding her very securely and  stopping only when she said she felt dizzy. She collapsed into my arms (I rarely object when women do this) much to the amusement of her friends/relatives.

This band and caller need to get their marketing right and maybe address the issue of 'social glue'. If Ray Goodswen can form a new group in the wilds around Langport (Somerset) and make a go of it with recorded music, why can't Abacus and Richard Mason have more success in central Exeter? Granted the hall is unexciting, it has poor acoustics, a poor floor and (on this occasion) no heating, but as a dance venue, I have known worse. And I have known bands and callers that are far less entertaining. All it needs is a group of lively and competent dancers as loyal attendees. On this occasion there wasn't even a competing dance event for miles. There were the usual cheerful discussions - the demise of Exeter University's folk dance club over the last 10 years and the decline and fall of Great Western Ceilidhs in Exeter. These used to attract 120 people, many of them loyal regulars.

Tuesday was Sidford again. It started off looking unusually grim despite local band Jeroka and with Gill Spence calling. As 8pm approached there were around 14 people and no partner for me. Then a new lady (Andrea?) appeared on the dot of 8pm and we had the first dance. She seemed incredibly fluid and balanced, a natural dancer.

I asked if she had ever done folk dancing before - "Yes, but a long time ago".

I spun her round in a close swing and asked if she minded. "No problem." So on the next turn of the dance I went rather faster - then faster still.

Was this still OK?  "Your swinging is cool."

I couldn't recall ever having been told that before, and especially not at sleepy Sidford. Then she told me she used to teach ballet. The only downside was that she was already married.

Women often tell me how good I am at swinging. One example came to mind at Sidford - an episode at Towersey in 2014/5 (add link to unpublished STS letter) when a delightful young woman told me my swinging was 'amazing'. On that occasion too I had swung her faster and faster each turn of the dance, to test her limits, and much to the disapproval of some people who thought I was abusing her. She didn't seems to have any limits. Towersey is like that most years - you meet a few superbly competent and fun dancers and yet so many seem to be one-time-only attendees.

The rest of the Sidford evening was remarkably enjoyable despite all Gill Spence's dances being 'simple' - what I term baby dances. One or two were a little interesting, The Royal Albert for example with its unusual setting step. My ballet dance partner taught me how to do it properly - not often that happens at Sidford. Having asked Andrea(?) if she liked to polka, I asked the band if they could play a suitable tune at the end of the evening - something that has never been done before at Sidford to my recollection and certainly not in recent times. So off we went around the hall, faster and faster. It turned into a marathon and (as has happened at a few other venues) I wondered if the band was trying to kill me.

We stopped at one point. Andrea thought I might need a rest - but I didn't want to admit it. So off we went again, Jeroka playing as fast as ever. Eventually I asked Jerry and Kay if indeed they had been trying to kill me - Kay said something to the effect that if you play a polka you might as well do it properly.

This is all so many dance clubs and festival dances need - a few people to put some real life into them. Just as a good fiddle player can 'lift' what might be rather dull keyboard music, so a few fast and spirited dancers can add 'zest' to an evening. It reminded me of the early years of Gittisham. At the time we said we should hire ourselves out to liven up other dance evenings. (add link to STS letter).

Wednesday should have been Gittisham but lacking a partner I didn't go. It was apparently a very poor evening - the music was described to me variously as 'awful' and 'terrible' and with only about 24 people there. Many of the best dancers were missing too. Instead I made the mistake of going to a tiny Irish Set dance - I drove into Exeter and a dance partner gave me a lift the rest of the way. The room was sparsely populated and freezing cold. I somehow missed out on the first dance but couples swapped in for each figure. By half time (there are no refreshments, just two hours of almost non-stop dance) I had warmed up a little but then I did the Borlin with a lightweight but not overly competent woman. "Just pull me around" she said. So I had to.

She hung onto me around my neck - the result being severely stiff shoulders the morning after. The Borlin has a lot of doubling in one of the figures - amazing to watch when competent dancers do it. I can only do it well with a competent partner - and one who doesn't mind being held fairly closely. The closer you are to your partner and the closer your feet are 'meshed', the easier it is to spin around. Some women are magical, others are incredibly hard work. My partner/driver for the evening declined to do the final BVJ (citing tiredness) but I was lucky enough that another and highly competent woman volunteered. She's both tiny and amazing - she's fostered dozens of 'difficult' teenagers as well as working.

Thursday was a depleted afternoon at American Square dance - half term week meant that so many were busy with grandchildren. We practised a few moves time and time again until we got them right. Folk dancing needs more of this - old fashioned teaching. Thursday evening was Willand with a replacement band - and very good they were too. Quite a few favourite partners were not there, but it was OK and with around 30 dancers. Eileen Nightingale again did Dolphins at Broadstairs. One partner said it was the third time she had done it recently. I learnt that Exeter Folk Dance Club has become quite lively with 6 or 8 youngsters from the university - a transformation from the past decade during which I had avoided the club owing to its reputation for slow and aged dancers. If it succeeds then good luck to them.

Saturday was an American Square evening in Sidmouth but arranged so that there would be a number of simpler dances that beginners could cope with. The main problems I have in learning is that some of the other beginners are just so slow on their feet. Quite a few folk dancers seem to gravitate towards American Square when they are either too old to move sufficiently quickly or they can no longer cope with fast swinging. Nevertheless in the USA and elsewhere it is popular with young people too - this video shows a team from the USA.

Sunday marked the start of winter time with the clocks going back.

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