English Country Dancing - Folk dancing in the UK - the 2017 diary of a folk dancer based in Sidmouth. First published March 2017.
In writing up one year of my dance experiences in 2016 in both local clubs and at festivals I alluded to some of the issues central to the survival of traditional English folk dancing in the UK. My principal aim in 2016 was to highlight on a week by week basis just how much enjoyment and social interaction can be experienced at small local dance clubs. I also highlighted some possible topics for the future, including health and energy use.
In 2017 I aim to complete the STS section - for more than a decade and until 2016 this magazine had been very much the 'voice' of English Folk Dancing. My own contributions were regarded by some people as having initiated a much needed debate.
This 2017 diary will be much shorter - it will be a record only of significant events, discussions and observations, not a week by week summary.
January saw the usual selection of English and Irish dances. French dancing resumed locally but in a larger hall near central Exeter. The first event was sufficiently well attended I thought I might try it again, after an absence of over a year. If there are a range of suitable partners present these evenings can be enjoyable. January also saw the usual Gittisham Dartmoor Pixies event. Numbers were down from the previous year at around 75. This suited the hall better then did the 90+ attendance in 2016. Curiously (or maybe not, given the present committee) the decision was taken not to try and make a profit on the 2017 event, and there was no raffle. This decision probably cost the club about £50. Strenuous efforts to sell event tickets in advance did however ensure that a significant overall loss could not occur.
In a repeat of 2016, Jane Thomas succeeded in making even Sidford dancers come alive for a Burns Night dance with some Scottish music. Jane used a few of the same dances at a Willand evening the same week - again it was superb, as was a 'faster mainstream' American Square session later in the week. So often, what is lacking at club nights is a caller who is prepared to push dancers closer to their limits. January ended with an excellent Irish Set away-day, a hall filled with good dancers and many lively dances, all expertly called (but it is time I learned more of the common ones off by heart).
31 Jan and 1 Feb were caller evenings at Sidford and Honiton respectively - a rare coincidence but one that illustrated a weakness of the Gittisham Honiton evenings - they are too infrequent to enable new callers to progress unless they get some practice elsewhere. So much has to be 'relearned' each month.This email refers (add link). The middle two weeks of February saw a dance almost every night - English, Irish, American Square and including the second French/Breton event in Exeter. The guest band was the Andro Sisters - a group of three men!. The music was acoustic all evening, played from the centre of the hall and excellent. The end of February should have been IVFDF in Cambridge but I didn't go for several reasons - at least there were three dances locally the same weekend as compensation. I missed what was apparently a good charity dance - so often (almost always!) these are hardly worth attending because so many of the people cannot dance well or at all.
Dull, boring and correct - or lively and just go for it?
Early March included an Irish set dance evening followed by three American square dances in a row, the last of the three being a 60th wedding celebration dance.This was followed by an Irish away-day to end the week.
At the Irish midweek evening a young newcomer appeared - having been encouraged for several weeks to do so by a couple of friends. This is the usual route to dancing - personal recommendation. She picked it all up very quickly. After one of my a one-minute lessons on swinging (followed by a few prompts during dances) she was as good after two hours as many English dancers are after several years. The difference is that people should listen to instruction. I danced also with a petite older woman I had seen only once before. I was amazed how fluid she was. I asked how long she had been dancing. "Five weeks" she said.
I would have guessed at five years. Some people are just natural dancers. One of the main points of my 2016 dance diary was to illustrate just how much fun you can have dancing even if it takes you years to learn. I often tell newcomers, if I can do it, so can they. It's probably not true in some cases though.
At the American Square celebration dance I had been discussing the nearby Exmouth Folk Dance Club - one I have not bothered to attend for probably 6 or 7 years. It is held in a small hall that is good acoustically but cramped with more than maybe 20 dancers.
The woman I was talking to was bemoaning its 'dull' and 'correct' atmosphere, some of the people in charge being of a 'church' disposition. I agreed that I remembered it as a club where having too much fun (or any fun at all) might be frowned upon. It nearly closed at the end of 2016 but was revived for another year, apparently after a good number of people had attended what was to be the final dance.
In contrast, the Irish away-day featured several new middle-aged couples - people who had hardly danced before in their lives. At Gittisham's Honiton venue they would have been treated to simple and probably boring baby dances. Any expert dancers attending would have found the evening even more tedious than it often is these days. Numbers attending have fallen from around 30 to 35 down to 15 to 18. It needs about 24 to break even.
I seemed to be too tired to do justice to some of the Irish set dancers especially after a long drive. The away-day cost me maybe £25 in car expenses and £6 admission - not bad for a whole day and including food. It illustrated so well what is wrong with dour, slow and boring English dance clubs - and the attitudes of the committees who run some of them.
The newcomers were split up, paired off with experienced dancers and away we went at full speed albeit with the usual expert calling after having walked though the dances first. The standard of instruction at most Irish dances is higher than at typical English dances - and with the added difference that most people listen. I swung a couple of the newcomers around moderately fast - until they almost became giddy on a couple of occasions, but far from this being deprecated, everyone treated it as all part of the fun.
There was the usual amount of teasing, especially with one lively woman who thought she had met me somewhere before but wasn't sure. Neither was I (not unusual with my memory). So what was the overall result of throwing these newcomers in at the deep end and not treating them like children who had to be cosseted with baby dances? They all loved it and vowed to come again. To be fair, Irish Set dances are always with a partner who is usually close to you at all times and so can assist more readily than is the case with many English dances. In some of these, a newcomer can find themselves alone and lost amidst a sea of bodies. To be fair also, Irish Set dances often have a sufficient number of expert dancers who can partner newcomers.
At half time we had a meal and music to dance to - not that many people usually do. I taught one of the newcomers the Gay Gordons (after I had figured out what I was doing wrong the first few turns), and later an expert Scottish dancer asked for a repeat performance - she hadn't done such a basic dance for so long. Her footwork was far better than mine. She claimed not to be able to waltz so I showed her - not that she needed much instruction. I was adamant the waltz didn't have a hop in it. It was a mix up of terminology - she meant a rise, which I do either unconsciously or not at all. If anyone wants to learn to waltz to a high standard then don't ask me to teach you! I only do the basics, except with women who can teach me a thing or two.
One of the newcomers came up to me at the end and said how much she had enjoyed the dances with me - and the swinging. I even got a hug and a kiss to prove it. One of the others merely said how much she had enjoyed the swinging - "especially when you went fast with me" - and this despite she had almost become giddy a few times. One regular partner who often encourages me to test her limits also left with a big smile on her face. What a contrast to some English Folk Club committees!
7 March: Sidford.
This was notable because the band was Meter Rite (containing Maureen Knight) and the caller was Graham Knight. They had failed to respond to emails about the Eastbourne Folk Dance Festival - so I took a cheque along and asked if they were accepting or rejecting it. Maureen said it wasn't the place to discuss it - but what was there left to discuss? Either they were accepting the payment or refusing to accept it in an act of discrimination. I asked them again - are you accepting this? Graham Knight said bluntly 'NO' - so that can form the basis of any claim for damages, etc. The dances were tedious but interesting in places, but it was all so slow, partly because one set needed a lot of attention to do the dance for 9 people often called the Prime Minister (originally an Australian dance New Parliament House jig or similar name). In all, it was no worse than many Sidford evenings.
The following Thursday was a superb and very well attended club night at Willand with Jane Thomas on top form - I have to say that because she mentioned this website and how she would have to be more careful in future about the jokes she used. Contra on Friday was in a different hall in Exeter, not ideal and with few people in the space. As a consequence the sound seemed a little harsh. It started terribly slowly with some newcomers - I was told afterwards I looked particularly glum. Yet Jeremy Child soon had the set doing fast simple dances even if a few people did need relocating at times. With a less 'enthusiastic' caller the whole evening might have remained unexciting. Towards the end with only good dancers in the room we did a interesting and fast square, one that was up to IVFDF standards.
Saturday saw one of the best Willand dances for some time with Eileen Nightingale calling with Pendragon - always a favourite band especially when Andrea is on fiddle. I hadn't seen them together for years. The dances were well chosen and a little challenging at times - we did the one with a grim dolphin reel (apparently a move created by Chris Turner), easy enough for me because I'd done it before at Sidford during a particularly disastrous evening, but for people new to it, the calling was rushed.
However, the biggest disappointment of the evening was the failure of a set I was in to do a square set dance properly - it included the teacup stroll move. This is easy enough if the women stay awake and realise that they always chain across when they are in head positions. But it went very wrong owing to a few of the dancers being too slow and hesitant. Indeed quite a few of the other dances were not 'autopilot' ones either, so I had to stay awake and pay attention.
At an Irish Set evening the natural response to a dance that went horribly wrong would be - let's do it again and get it right. This mirrors what I recall from a few years ago when dancing in Cambridge (it might have been Cambridge Contra, I forget). A set went wrong. In so many other clubs, and at Willand on this particular evening, the reaction was just to treat the shambles as a bit of fun. The Irish Set and Cambridge reaction would be 'lets do it again, get it right and learn from our mistakes'. It is an attitude that needs to become far more mainstream in English dance clubs.
There were far too many favourite partners available for me to dance with them all, so I had to suffer the usual comments "Are you ignoring me?", "I haven't seen you all evening yet..." The fault as always is that these evenings end far too soon - 2am would be better!
Yet the highlight of the evening for me was an occasional dance partner (a long standing member of Willand Folk Dance Club) telling me what she thought of my 2016 folk dance diary, one of the recent additions to this website:
14 March - an excellent evening (excellent by Sidford standards anyway with 28 people most of whom could actually dance) and with Jane Thomas calling. Jane practised a couple of unusual circle dances she may use when she calls at Sidmouth FolkWeek later this year. For a change, the hall may be packed with local dancers - most of whom usually shun FolkWeek because they say it is too expensive. I don't agree with them. One set got a routine square set wrong - but instead of just letting things go and moving on to the next dance, Jane insisted they did it again (twice!) until they got it right. This needs to be done more often - as indeed it should have been at Willand the previous week.
The end of March provided a rare chance to dance with dozens of highly competent dancers from the UK and overseas. I had to miss two local events including the Dartmoor Pixies at Branscombe, but it was worth the drive. A key observation is that the UK club that organised the event is very small (typical attendance is 8 to 12 people) yet their enthusiasm shines through. Most attendees were over 50, many over 60 years old. The only youngsters came from Eastern Europe - some driving hundreds of miles. This said a lot about the lack of involvement of youngsters in the UK - the home town of the club that organised the event has a population of around 100,000 - yet only two club members live there.
Highlights for me were dancing the Borlin set (with lots of doubling) and with a favourite local partner. One of the other women in the set was a youngster from Prague - she is a member of a display team as well as an expert set dancer. I have never before done so much 'doubling' with someone so competent. We also did the Plain set all the way through without stopping between figures. My favourite set remains the West Kerry, although getting the Caragh Lake and the Wessex almost wholly correct was quite satisfying too! Downsides were the hall acoustics (too much hard surfaces and reverberation) and the workshops that were too rushed - very few people actually benefited from them. This is a far too common problem at many festivals also.
The weekend ended with dancing in a restaurant - something Irish dancers do in pubs all the time in Ireland. Where is the enthusiasm for English dancing?
The latter part of March saw some usual 'club nights' as well as more advanced American Square dances. Notable here were the reasons why some dancers did not attend: they simply didn't like the competence or attitude of various callers. This cannot be a good thing especially in clubs where numbers are already close to the minimum required for viability. Some avoided Sidford because of Eileen Nightingale's past performances there, and others avoided Willand with Ray Goodswen calling. Not for the first time I wondered why numbers were so low for a 'nationally known' caller of some distinction. Several people told me they didn't like how he made less competent people feel they were being picked on or even manhandled around the room. It is a fair point - but as many folk dance clubs need all the members they can get, nothing should be done to dissuade the willing from attending, unless of course they are so incapable that the club would be better off without them!
At one of the last Aylesbeare dances Ted Farmer announced we had done 332 different dances in the last two years - and 160 so far this season. One woman remarked it must be one of the few venues where I have no enemies! The club is characterised by excellent dancers and a seemingly endless supply of interesting dances, few of which I have ever danced elsewhere.
On 1 April there was a once a year event in a school hall where 30 musicians practise in the morning and play for dancers in the afternoon. It was OK - made bearable because I took a favourite local partner along with me. I also encouraged several other dancers to attend also. And it was a good job we all did go! The afternoon highlighted the pitiful 'market penetration' of English country dancing - a few good dancers attended (those I had encouraged) the rest from a local club needed some basic instruction and teaching. Musicians spend literally days and weeks practising and yet many dancers seem so disinterested they can't be bothered to learn the basics. The following Sunday made up for it - a day of Irish Set dancing with expert dancers and once again, an atmosphere of 'let's learn and get it right'.
Folk dance section
Folk festival reviews 2016
Gittisham Folk Dance Club