Folk Dance Diary - November 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.

At this time of year I tend to browse the houses and apartments for sale in places such as Barbados and Hawaii. My thoughts turn to spending six months away from the gloom and darkness of winter, and maybe renting an overseas property out for the rest of the time. One major disadvantage is that I'd have to mix with (or constantly seek to avoid) spoiled rich Americans and similar people, much as on cruise liners.  And I would have to suffer the flights. So I doubt I'll ever decide to buy one (an apartment that is, not a liner).

The first dance of November was a Halloween party at Sidford with Jane Thomas using recorded music. Usually Jane produces a very good evening. This occasion was was not helped by her sound equipment failing to function at intervals (there is some innuendo in that if you read it carefully) and by the whole atmosphere being centred on silliness rather than on dance. I took a few pictures. A bemused photographer from the Sidmouth Herald came too. A couple from Bedford turned up - they were visiting a daughter in Sidmouth. No-one else new attended - despite a small article in the previous week's Herald promising a thrilling evening. The words ' thrilling' and 'Sidford' should really never be used together in the same sentence. In total there were around 26 attendees - the usual 'just about sufficient' number. My own pictures are here.

Wednesday should have been a caller evening with Stick the Fiddle at Honiton. I had sprained my back and in any case I can rarely get enthused about an evening in the Mackarness Hall. It attracted about 22 people - again just about enough. Luckily I saw Sue and Bruce from STF band at Aylesbeare a few days later. This was an enjoyable evening with about 26 people - that number feels OK in a small hall but not in Mackarness or at Sidford. One square dance stood out as especially enjoyable - Mississippi Mud Pie.

Thursday was American Square - again just enough people for a square set with a few sitting out. I have to admire the dedication of Jean and Janet - local folk dancers who have diversified into American Square and are now trying to set up their new dance club - they do hours and days of preparation for the teaching. We are making steady progress to 'mainstream' level. The dance itself seems so slow, but it does make you stay awake and think.

The weekend comprised a day away doing Irish Set. As good as ever with some favourite partners and a relaxed atmosphere. Sets included the Connemara Jig with the tune Freres Nantes. It has an unusual over shoulder hold at the start of figures - hold inside hands with partner in a circle and don't let go. We had live music in the afternoon - some dancers preferred the CDs! Only one set wanted to do the BVJ to finish. I never understand why some people get so tired just doing a few dances. One younger woman who seemed terrified of me a few months ago (she complained I held her too closely) now regularly asks me for dances - and she says how good I am. Could I disagree? I just need to be appreciated. In compact Irish sets you have to hold quite closely, especially when doubling.

Tuesday was a callers evening at Sidford - a wet and windy night but around 26 people turned up. The band originally scheduled were unavailable owing to illness so I recommended Stick the Fiddle. They willingly came all the way from Tiverton, a distance of about 35 miles. They were as proficient as ever, choosing different tunes for one of my dances when nothing seemed to fit. Most of the problem was the slow speed of some Sidford dancers, the other issue was that I was expecting them to do an allemande turn in 2 bars - easy enough in a fast contra dance and with dancers who are fleet of foot (and the rest of the dance was quite quick too) but it just didn't work for everyone. At an earlier callers evening at Gittisham a fast dance went wrong because 4 bars had been allowed for a turn. People found that doing it twice around fitted better. An allemande turn is either 2 or 4 bars, depending on the speed of the dance, and maybe how close you are to your partner when you start the move. As so often happens, the better dancers said they wanted to try my dance again sometime - that's the spirit!

My easier dances and most of those used by the other callers gave less trouble. Janet Bulpin lived up to her growing reputation for being able to do 'rapid fire' dances in which a lot of calling is required.

Tuesday night was also election night in the USA - with results available by the early hours. I didn't wait up. Hearing the result in the morning was bad enough. It reminded me of what can happen in a small dance club - one that worked perfectly for years then someone (and a committee) comes along and changes everything. The Obama environmental and healthcare legacy will probably be trashed - a slightly bigger issue than worrying about a small dance club. Putin will be delighted, he is a growing threat to Europe and especially the Balkan states. The Donald couldn't have got elected without millions of women voting for him - including apparently over 50% of white women. So much for all the smears based on historical allegations, some of which struck me as attention seeking by hedonistic women.

A perceptive summary was written by Naomi Klein. When she published No Logo I wasn't one of her admirers. Now I think she's right on many things but as a speaker she comes across as so 'politically correct' that the strength of her arguments is diminished - for example in her 2016 Sydney Peace Prize lecture. Her article on Trump is here on the Guardian website (add link). Also there was a perceptive article (add link Guardian 2) arguing that it was white American women who in effect allowed Trump to beat Hilliary Clinton - they voted for the Donald because they hated him less than they hated Hilliary. Similar psychology can be used to explain why some women hate seeing other women dancing with me and having so much fun. I digress - but only a little.

Wednesday was an evening at Gittisham Folk Dance Club. A local dance partner had recovered sufficiently from a three-week long illness to risk some dances. A very good crowd turned out - and no Monty Crook. No Maureen Knight either, which made it even better as far as I was concerned (more details in Eastbourne Folk Dance Festival section). We had a maximum of about 40 in the room - which is too many for comfort but it thinned out to 32/36. Local band Jeroka provided the music and some of the entertainment. I busied myself swapping between several favourite partners. The caller, Aileen Wills, tried to inculcate a bit of discipline on swinging. I thought I could have done better. When will dance teachers learn that a key piece of advice is keep your feet close together and close to the floor? This is why so many women feel that their feet are coming off the ground in a fast swing. It is their own fault. It was Gill Spence's birthday so we had a few special treat cakes at half time. Much to my surprise I was allowed two.

Thursday was American Square in the afternoon. It was OK, with just enough people to make two squares but lacking a few who make it more fun. The evening dance was at Willand and with Ted Farmer in great form. Music was the WCDB and much as many people like them it is just not to my taste. There were a good number there but lacking a few favourite partners.

Friday was Exeter contra and a special dance with around 20 students and ex-students from ICBINI (I Can't Believe It's Not IVFDF). It was quite simply the most enjoyable dance evening I can remember since IVFDF in Coventry. A contingent from Durham arrived, all very friendly. We danced spirited and fast contra and a few squares from 7.30pm to 11pm with a half hour break. Initially the room was too cold and I wanted the heating on. Soon afterwards we were opening windows and doors - and it was a very cold evening. Jeremy Child used the opportunity to test out a few dances for his impending visit to Alcester - one of the few large contra dance clubs in the UK. They all worked very well - maybe he could prepare all his dances with the same degree of care? He asked if we wanted a long tune or an even longer one for one of his contra dances. Obvious answer - the longest possible. It went through about 20 times. If only all dances (and dancers) could be like this.

Almost without exception the university girls were superb dancers, one had flown back from Poland just for the ICBINI weekend. I spun them faster and faster in swings - asking at intervals if that was still OK - which it usually was. Both Julie Mason and Jeremy's wife Sylvia are excellent contra dancers (they are members of the Firestone group too) and seem to have no limits as to what they can cope with. I often try to test Sylvia's limit - I'm beginning to think she doesn't have one. It's the same with some Irish Set dancers, they are simply so accomplished. 

Towards the end of the evening when a few people had left those remaining danced Colin Hume's square set "Busy Busy Busy" - and it was. I suggested we take bets as to whether it would go right through without mistakes. A couple of the university girls were initially fazed by flutterwheel and a quarter more, but soon got the hang of it. In the end we did the entire dance twice and without any mistakes. Jeremy added a selection of ad-hoc break moves. Again we got (almost) all of them right. So the evening comprised 3 hours of dance, many chocolate biscuits, two cups of tea and all for 4. And one of the university girls asked me for dances - which made it all the more enjoyable. Why can't every dance evening be like this?

Indeed, why can't all of life be like this? Why isn't folk dancing more popular if it can comprise this much fun? Maybe it's too difficult to get to this standard - but it's far easier than Jive and that is hugely popular. Very few of the regular Exeter Contra dancers attended - so as with DwD and its successor Contra Ceilidh, there is a need for a larger group of regular loyal attendees.

I went home, the students went on to a late night dance at a hall of residence. The next night was scheduled to be a rare opportunity in the south of England to dance to Vertical Expression and I had arranged a ticket via Julie Mason. But I went into Exeter on the Saturday afternoon for an afternoon dance held at the University. I was told curtly by an officious folk club committee member (Oliver Gromski) that I wouldn't be sold a ticket (for reasons summarised here and here) (add STS links). A couple of girls on the reception desk asked what was the problem? The interchange is recorded in these emails (add links). It all stemmed from a trivial incident over a year ago. So for the reasons explained in the email I went to Willand instead. It was always a toss-up which to go to - I had been unsure about a largely 'student only' event but the evening with Jeremy and the attitude of the university girls (several of whom I recognised from previous IVFDFs) had made me opt for Vertical Expression rather than the Dartmoor Pixies. If I hadn't gone into Exeter for an afternoon dance (and it was with a caller I usually avoid), the evening might have been quite different. Exeter University has recently been in the news for the intolerance of some of its students - it even made the Radio 4 news just before Christmas when Lady Deene mentioned Exeter.

Willand was OK - the Dartmoor Pixies a were their usual selves (predictable) the food was good (predictable again). At least one woman was mightily disappointed that I didn't go to VE - and I like to think a few more were too!

Tuesday was Sidford and with one-man band Chris Toyne and Aileen Wills as a caller. Fortunately a favourite partner who usually avoids Sidford turned up - so that was me sorted for half the dances. About 30/34 people turned up - a record for recent times. One dance was a square - Little Red Wagon which most sets accomplished without problems. The following day it was Gittisham with the Bridgwater band and Robert Blackborow playing and calling at the same time. Few musicians do this. It was enjoyable, and by coincidence we did the same dance again. The last 15 minutes when a few people had left were great fun - like Gittisham in the old days - and we really whooped it around the hall in dances that would have had me blacklisted at EIFF - yet my partners loved it too. We had enough dancers for three square sets which in that hall is a comfortable number.

On Thursday we had a special afternoon at American Square with a guest caller - John Bone. John used to do a lot of calling for English Country Dance in the UK but then moved to Spain. Now he is back in the UK he centres his calling on American Square. It was an excellent afternoon with very little sitting-out. We were told we were doing very well for beginners.

Friday was an excellent evening at Aylesbeare. Ted Farmer often produces dances with moves I have never done before and this evening was no exception - we had to do cross-over grimstock heys. At first I thought the dance was one we had done a few weeks ago - 2-5 Morley - but that has cross-over dolphin reels and a completely different formation. Couples 1 and 3 cross as their first move (as in all cross-over heys) and do not cross again. They get back 'home' therefore on the opposite side of the set from where they started. The original middle couple just do a normal Grimstock hey. Then the whole move is repeated to get everyone back to their original positions. Very easy once you'd got it! The dance required a lot of calling. Another interesting one was Walk the Dog (or similar title) a Sicilian Circle with constantly changing directions - enough to confuse anyone especially if they were lax about their position on the dance-floor.

Only about 20 people attended but it was great fun all evening. We even did Richard Mason's Weevil dance (which I sometimes call). I advised people several times to make sure that the 'threes' faced gaps in the 'fours' (which is the key to getting the R and L diagonal changes correct) and was told to shut up - I thought the woman concerned must have had a committee meeting recently. She usually gets bossy when her committee hormones have been aroused.

Saturday was a dismally wet evening - there was a LBGTQ ceilidh in Exeter organised by Jeremy Child. (LBGT = Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender - and maybe a few more variations yet to be invented). I had asked several dance partners ages ago about it - and we all decided to give it a miss. My main objection to these 'politically correct' dances is that (as with so many charity dances) they attract people who cannot dance well, if at all. Hence I view them as somewhat of a waste of time. In any case I needed to be awake for Sunday's Irish set dance. It rained so much that the river flooded. The EA issued a formal telephone warning - at 1.30am.

In the event I didn't go to the Irish dance because I had an oncoming cold. Also, three favourite partners told me they wouldn't be there - that was the final straw.

Tuesday was a remarkably enjoyable Sidford with Simon Maplesden calling, yet too few dancers to make 3 square sets. Dances included Trip to the Village (by Peggy Hazel?). I didn't go to Gittisham the following night - Graham Knight was calling to a smaller than usual number of attendees. I was told the evening was OK despite the low turnout.

Thursday was American Square in the afternoon - again low numbers and too few to make up more than one square. Several people were ill (winter colds and sore throats?). I nearly didn't go to Willand in the evening - but it was a splendid event with Jane Thomas in top form and The More the Merrier band providing the music. There were almost more musicians than there were dancers but with many favourite partners to choose from I was in my element - plenty of space, no grumpy people, an excellent dance floor and all for 3 (including many biscuits....).  Dances included one or two by Colin Hume - Chippenham Square and a square by Carol Ormond that used a Colin Hume chorus - one I recognised because I use it myself. Once again we did Dolphins at Broadstairs - a square set - was this the third or fourth time this year? We did spin the top and related moves - easy for me because I had done a lot of similar mental gymnastics in the afternoon. Ray Goodswen turned up as a dancer - it helped make up the numbers to 3 square sets. Doubly satisfying that he went wrong in one of the Dolphin heys - which made up for one of my mistakes in another dance. These dances are just too easy once you know them.

Friday offered a choice of evening dances - the regular Aylesbeare or a one-off at Kilmington on the far side of Honiton. A dance partner wanted a lift to Aylesbeare so she could be back home early, so that was my decision made. Only 13 dancers turned up - a record low number primarily owing to the Willand dinner dance being the next evening. This was unfortunate programming. However with a small number of attentive dancers Ted Farmer put us through our paces with several dances and formations I had not done before (or didn't remember doing). In all it was superb evening. The rival Kilmington dance attracted 30 people - adequate but not exciting and I have little doubt that the dances were far simpler than we enjoyed at Aylesbeare. A brief summary of one of the dances is here (add link) - it involved six couples in a square set, four round the outside as normal and two in the middle with their backs to each other.

Next evening was the annual Willand dinner dance. Maybe ten people went just for the dance. I was probably the only dancer who didn't bother to dress up for the event (no surprise there). There were 50 to 55 dancers. Ted Farmer and Jane Thomas shared the calling. When the band struck up I did a fast polka many times around the room with a favourite partner and didn't fall over. Jane and Brian Thomas followed my example but both lost their footing and landed on the floor, fortunately without injury. The rest of the evening was one of the best I can remember at Willand. There was no Monty Crook and no Maureen Knight to dampen proceedings. Towards the end we had a near riot of dancing. Things just got faster and faster. Jane Thomas called the Rifleman - a rant step dance popular at Towersey where it seems to be danced through about 47 times and often not very well. Not many people wanted to do it at Willand, but those that did danced with enthusiasm.

In a later dance Simon Maplesden danced as a woman (she does that sometimes) and this involved swinging each man in turn. Jane announced she would be watching when it was his/her turn swinging with me - I'm not sure who came closest to lift-off but it was maybe a draw. Behaviour like this would have been enough to trigger a lifetime ban from Eastbourne Dance Festival - it was far too exhibitionist. So we danced from about 8.30 to 11.30pm with a 15 minute break to allow the band to recover - and all for 7. Even allowing for 7 petrol costs the cost per dance would be well under 1. Where else could you do this with such a range of talented and appealing partners? So thank you Sally-Ann, Sam, Janet, Ann, Penny, Gill and probably a few more whose names now escape me. I could have danced for a further 3 hours. These events always finish far too soon.

Tuesday was back to life in the slow lane at Sidford. Yet with a guest 'live band' (Pigs Might Fly from Exeter) and Jeremy Child calling it was much more lively then usual. Yet only the usual 24 people attended. I sent an appreciative email to the band's leader (add link to email).

Wednesday should have been Gittisham - but I somehow couldn't be bothered despite the band being Fresh Aire. My usual partner and taxi service was away in London looking after a daughter - that might have been a factor. Apparently there were 30 people and it was quite lively with Simon Maplesden doing some interesting dances. Maybe I should have gone.

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