English Country Dancing - Folk Dance Diary - February 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.

In contrast to some splendid dance events in late January, early February was a let-down. Sidford with Gill Spence and Fresh Aire was an unusually poor evening - the dances were mainly childishly simple (I was not to only person to complain) and the music was far too loud. There were also many comments about this.

It was such a contrast to the Burns Night evening with Jane Thomas. It proved once again that whilst a live band can help 'make' an evening, events can conspire to make it far less satisfactory than one with good quality recorded music. But will Sidford survive without an influx of new and younger people? This is now a regular topic of conversation.

Wednesday saw the usual live band replaced by a selection of recorded music at Gittisham Folk Dance Club's Honiton venue, owing to sudden illness. It was unsatisfactory - too many hurried arrangements and we are obviously spoiled by having live music as a default position. It was an evening that was best forgotten.....except it did illustrate vividly how fortunate Gittisham is in being able to have live music every week (despite the odds of a small hall and many changes of management). Very few small dance clubs manage to do this - so in another section of my website I analyse why it succeeded to such an unusual degree in its formative years, if only to encourage others to follow a similar path.

Aylesbeare on the Friday was much better, and was followed by a rare Bridport ceilidh with the English Contra Dance Band. More will be published about this evening elsewhere on this website - it featured horrendous rain, flooded roads, and Monty Crook finally telling me he would refuse to sell me a ticket to any future event. It was clear that he had had this arranged well in advance - (add links, include emails from mid January to STS etc) - yet it was only chance circumstances that led to me attend at all. My usual partner was unavailable so I arranged a lift with the caller Jane Thomas. Had I not done this I would have travelled my usual route - and had to turn around owing to flood water at Colyford. Out of the 65 people who had booked tickets, only about 47 attended, and the band had a difficult journey too.

So many events would not have followed from this evening if I had had to abandon the trip. As it was, Jane and I had an interesting time almost being swept aside by flood water and wash from other vehicles as we made our way along the A35. A night best forgotten - but it can't be.

Sunday saw an early start for an Irish dance far away - one reason I was grateful for a lift the previous evening. Again - if it hadn't been the ECDB I wouldn't have bothered going to Bridport. Many past bands at Bridport Ceilidhs have been disappointing. The Irish event was very good but one north of Bristol I had arranged for the evening was a washout - literally. The vent from the septic tank at the house where I was due to stay had been immersed in floodwater, none of the toilets could be used, the private water supply was in question and so was the mains electricity supply. In any case the narrow access roads through a neighbouring village were awash. So I drove home instead. A whole weekend maybe best forgotten.

The next Tuesday saw yet another poor event - this time with local new band Mischief and Mayhem at Sidford - their sound equipment was somehow playing up. The whole evening was disappointing, despite Jane Thomas calling. I didn't do Gittisham on the Wednesday, probably because there was so much on later in the week. It was unfortunate that Jane had 'reshuffled' her dance cards for the Sidford evening - otherwise she would have been able to help me reconstruct the ECDB evening at Bridport dance by dance - all 22 of them.

Thursday saw the usual Willand evening, marked for me by extensive discussions concerning the Bridport ceilidh the previous weekend - these are detailed in what constitutes a contemporaneous record of events but without what I had hoped could be a dance by dance summary. Thursday was followed by contra dance in Exeter. Both were good evenings, as was Willand on the Saturday and Irish dance on the Sunday - it was a week with a possible dance (or two) 6 days in a row. There are sometimes three events to choose from on Fridays - French + Breton, Contra and Aylesbeare.

15 Feb - Sidford yet again, followed by Gittisham on the Wednesday and an early start to a non-dance event on the Thursday, after which it was the Willand Woolacombe weekend. Apart from the weather, this was very good indeed, including excellent music from Pendragon despite their usual fiddle player Andrea being on maternity leave. And no Monty Crook there either - splendid! I had some comments in a like vein - always comforting to know you are not alone. The weather was so awful (wind and rain) that I stayed in the hotel all weekend. Quite a few brave souls went walkabout in their waterproofs and stout shoes.

One regular and favourite dance partner somehow took offence at how I danced with her but offered no further explanation. I suggested to the club chairman it was maybe an example of attention seeking (unlikely in this case but not unknown amongst divorced women). The episode further heightened my interest in how readily I might be prosecuted if any formal yet vexatious complaint was made. What I found astounded me - many men had been prosecuted and some had been imprisoned based only on the flimsiest of evidence, or indeed on no real evidence at all. I did consider if it was safe ever to hold a dance partner again.

The regular Sunday lunch at Woolacombe didn't appear - the hotel staff having failed to realise we wanted the same deal as in all previous years. A computer glitch was blamed. The staff somehow managed to produce sandwiches for 60 or more people at short notice - and we all eventually got a 7.50 refund. This hotel is one of a 'dying breed' - it is tired, basic but with adequate facilities at a reasonable price and the food is excellent. Many similar hotels that have an adequate dance floor have either been substantially upgraded (with prices to match) or demolished to make way often for housing. The hotel used for Gittisham Folk Dance Club's Perranporth weekends in both 2014 and 2015 was of a similar type and vintage and has now been demolished.

If I had not attended Willand Club's Woolacombe weekend I would have gone to Dances with a Difference (DwD) in Exeter. It was maybe a good job I didn't because so few people turned up they had to cancel the whole event and refund money. But I thought at the time - maybe if I had attended and taken a partner (or two), the evening might have gone ahead with enough dancers to make up at least a single square set? It is such a pity that someone like Richard Mason with a local following (via the University) and with a good local band (itself spun out of University people) cannot attract a more loyal and much larger following.

Richard's dances really are different - I call quite a few of them myself - and I felt sad that this failed event might see the last of DwD in Exeter. (In fact it was the last of this format).

However, it did illustrate the difficulty of setting up a new folk dance club when the subject has such a 'boring' image - if Richard Mason can't do it, then who can? A new folk dance club was apparently tried in Yeovil not so long ago - that failed too, as did Jeremy Child's advanced contra evenings in Exeter - six people turned up so we did quite a few three couple sets. Some small local square dance clubs have also folded after a few sessions, other clubs have been on life support for years and few people are brave enough finally to pull the plug.

No sooner was I back from Woolacombe that it was Sidford again followed by Jane Thomas and Fresh Aire at Gittisham. I missed the following Thursday with Ray Goodswen at Willand - I was too busy preparing to go to IVFDF in Coventry, which also meant I had to miss Ted Farmer at Aylesbeare.

Overall, IVFDF was most enjoyable. I stayed with a dance partner (thank you G....) and we took turns to drive into the Coventry City Centre. Oh the joys of Sat Nav, programmed to within 3 metres of the intended city centre destination (thank you Google Maps). How did people manage without it? More about IVFDF here. I still had eye problems - but I did open them occasionally to see where I was going..... the IVFDF partners were all superb - one very chatty young woman spent some of a dance telling me about breast feeding and how she had been away from her dancing for too long (I'm unsure now if there was a connection.)

A new feature of IVFDF were notices about 'respecting personal space of dancers' and how to avoid being in photographs if you didn't want to be - the latter would have proved impossible as so many people were taking 'unofficial' pictures. It seemed to be just a layer of political correctness that had been imposed then forgotten about. Other clubs have told me they do it 'because another club did, so we felt we should too' - so political correctness can indeed be caught, like a type of infection! The only problem with IVFDF is that often it is so far away.

I also missed the Pixies annual dance at Branscombe the same weekend - but Branscombe hall is not ideal (it is often over heated and has poor ventilation) and often many of the attendees cannot dance very well. I was far better off in Coventry, despite the inner ring road having been closed on Sunday owing to a marathon race - how do you tell a Sat Nav that? I even managed to round off the weekend with an Irish dance in Gloucestershire, en route back to Devon. It was marred by my dance partner for the evening going down with a bad stomach - fortunately I didn't have the same meal she did. So February ended with a splendid IVFDF and a small Irish dance despite several drawbacks of venues, etc


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