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

"...........folk song and dance, like so many other hobbies and activities, is not immune from feud and vendetta."

If you persevere, you might find some small fragments of humour .........and quite a bit about EIFF - The Eastbourne International Folkdance Festival.

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.

April started with an Irish away-day followed by a short non-dancing holiday in Cornwall. This was followed immediately by an Irish Set weekend away. If only all life could be like this, but with less traffic......It meant missing Aylesbeare and also Willand - but dancers can't be in three places at once. Halsway was an enjoyable weekend and like many people I 'camped out' in the grounds - and again I was grateful for a heated mini-motorhome. The nights and mornings were very cold. The 'camping out' at Halsway is appreciated by many attendees and provision may need to be increased once the new larger dance hall is constructed (if it ever is in my lifetime).

Unlike at the last Halsway Irish set weekend there were almost enough women to go round. A similar event the previous year was memorable for a workshop with about three women and eight men. We should have been given a refund.

The following week was again a 'six dance nights in a row' week - except I could hardly be bothered. Sidford was a rare callers evening and went quite well except for the poor turnout - about 20 people. It was announced that guest callers would not have to pay their usual 2.50 entrance fee - a friendly gesture from a club that now has low financial reserves.

Gittisham the following day was with Fresh Aire and Graham Barratt calling - and what a difference to previously. The sound level had been turned right down, we were not deafened and we could concentrate on the dances. Graham did quite a few triple minor dances and it was a very good evening overall, and very well attended.

Thursday was Willand and the last session with veteran caller Frances Hilson before she moved 'up north'. Unfortunately the sound equipment didn't seem capable of accommodating her very quiet voice - and I wasn't the only person unable to hear properly. A disappointing last night for Frances then. Friday was a well attended and enthusiastic contra dance evening in Exeter - one of my favourite dancers and callers turned up (I had not seen her for months) so we had quite a few dances. A very good evening albeit in a very small hall. But it works and often works well - let's hope attendance keeps up. The nearest well-established contra club is in the West Midlands - at Alcester, about 170 miles away.

Saturday was the annual Over Stratton dance at Barrington village hall - usually it is very good (albeit with number of attendees who can't dance well) and in 2015 it was booked out in advance. This year it was not, I was encouraged to go but somehow couldn't be bothered, not being able to find a partner for the evening. It was probably the first time in 10 years I haven't gone to a Jigs for Gigs evening with Jane Thomas calling. I hope the lower than usual attendance doesn't prevent them holding the same annual dance next year. But I did go to an Irish dance on Sunday - well worth the short journey.

19 April - an unexceptional evening at Sidford - and again the usual talk was of whether the club will survive another year. Wednesday saw me chop down part of a tree for a dancing partner - a branch had such a weight of ivy on it that in a gale it had bent right over a neighbours garden. But a chain saw on the end of a 5 metre long extendable pole soon had it chopped off. Wednesday was an excellent evening at Gittisham with Simon Maplesden calling. There were 42 people in the hall which was maybe 10 too many - there was insufficient room in which to dance.

Friday saw the last of the Aylesbeare dances for the season. Ted Farmer announced that we had done 182 dances - with some repeated. It is little wonder that Ted has such a loyal following. Surely all clubs should aim for such a mix of always interesting dances? The last week in April saw an uninspiring evening at Sidford with only about 22 people and Jeremy Child using a few tunes that some people seemed to find unappealing.

Gittisham Folk Dance Club then hosted a callers evening - one of few arranged these days - and unlike at Sidford club we had to pay our usual entrance fees. Gittisham club is flush with too much money in its reserves. (add link to discussion) About 40 people attended (very good for a club callers evening) and it all went rather well, despite that it was too crowded and too noisy. Thursday would have been Jane Thomas at Willand but I was too busy preparing for the Eastbourne Folk Festival - a tedious 180 mile drive on a Bank Holiday. The journey there against the prevailing traffic flow took me 5.5 hours. It took some people from Cornwall 7 hours. I did wonder if it would be worth it.

Eastbourne International Folkdance Festival (EIFF)

2016 was enjoyable overall. It took place just after publication of an article in STS in which Monty Crook highlighted that he would refuse me entry to future Bridport Ceilidhs - so it was doubly satisfying that so many women at Eastbourne asked me for a dance.

I know various women who particularly enjoy dancing with Steve Wozniak because he can usually be relied on to liven things up. (STS issue 89)

In fairness, few of the attendees had probably read STS magazine (the issue had only just been posted) and probably few of them read it anyway. Hardly anyone in Devon reads it as far as I am aware. However in the large venues it was easy enough to avoid sets with Monty Crook in them - and I explained to all my regular partners why I was seeking to avoid this self-appointed arbiter of dancing etiquette. Also I had been forewarned that 'the Eastbourne International Folkdance Festival committee was 'out to get me' so I had better be on my best behaviour!

The Irish Set workshops were moderately well attended and competently handled by a visiting American family of caller + musicians - Jim Morrison et al. But they couldn't compete with dedicated Irish Set weekends away, especially those in Ireland. One woman couldn't cope with swinging - and Irish Set dance has a lot of it. Many men who are competent in Irish Set swing even faster than I do - so women who cannot cope need either to avoid the genre completely or ask every man they meet to swing slowly.

A less well attended workshop series was Gog Magog Molly. They provided their usual expert and very clear instruction for what at first sight were complicated dances. The specially written Gog Magog dances are just rather unusual - they are easy enough to learn but difficult to execute with the degree of dexterity, accuracy and speed required in arms and legs - so best left to youngsters. I was reminded of their session at Towersey in 2015) Again what stood out was the clarity of the teaching - probably to be expected from a collection of computer scientists and theoretical physicists whose lives are centred upon logic.

Cis Hinkle was brilliant as a caller in the major American dance sessions. Some of her dances I can still remember - the square with the Chinese fan move - apparently I had done it before (so I was told) but I couldn't remember. (We subsequently did it again at Sidmouth in 2016). Then we did a square in which both men and women did contra corners at the same time. Easy once you got the pattern. That's the problem these days at club nights and even at festivals - most of it seems too easy. So many callers settle for 'comfortable' easy dances, wrapping the dancers in a blanket of cotton wool, lest any should feel mildly discomforted by having to think.

Despite the festival having been enjoyable I left well before the end of the last session - unusual for me but it was a long trip home and I had somewhere to call en-route.

Different dance styles - experience at Eastbourne Folk Festival (EIFF) and Sidmouth Folk Week. (cut and paste into separate webpage  sometime)

But as noted above - and given what a few malcontents would argue, that my enthusiastic and often deliberately flirtatious dance style is disliked by women - it was especially pleasing to be asked by so many women at the 2016 Eastbourne International Folkdance Festival (EIFF) if they could have a dance with me. In my early years at EIFF (going back to when Ray Goodswen was in charge)
most women hadn't danced with me before and they didn't quite know what to make of my enthusiastic style. It was in parts a rather dreary festival in those days (or maybe I just thought so at the time?)

It is routine in contra dance in the USA for women to ask men to dance, but not yet in the UK. In one session at Eastbourne in 2016 I was asked four times in a row - obviously confirmation of women in general seeking to avoid me. Here are some notes I made at the time (if only to ensure I remembered!). I only knew one of these women by name, the rest were just partners who knew (or saw) how I danced and wanted more of the experience. In the case of the young woman detailed below, we had never met before.

"Could I possibly have the next one Steve, or if you're booked, the one after that?"

"I know you've probably got someone more attractive lined up, I don't mind if you say no, but could I have a dance?" - and this from a not at all unattractive woman from Herts. I asked her during the dance if she'd like a faster swing - so we did a few turns quite fast - she quite enjoyed it, and told friends so.

"Oh that was lovely Steve, some really good swinging" - again from a woman (a caller too) who had asked me for a dance. Her husband is a good dancer but slower than I am.

And from the youngest and one of the most attractive women in the room "Could we possibly have the next dance - you swing so well...."

Regular partners also sought to avoid me:

"I've hardly seen you all weekend - where have you been?" (Answer = Irish Set and Molly Dances)

So here we have universal condemnation of my dancing style - which is always aimed at injecting some enthusiasm. Some dances (and dancers) at Eastbourne Folk Dance festival need it. Of course, the malcontents or the simply jealous (many of the women I don't ask to dance and/or those men who are simply incapable of keeping up my pace and/or people who just have an axe to grind?) may seek to promote the view that all women seek to avoid me. This is what Monty Crook of Bridport ceilidhs might wish you to believe, also the ubiquitous Robin James and of course Maureen and Graham Knight - another two self appointed arbiters of what is acceptable within dance. The fact that so many women seem to enjoy dancing with me is further confirmed in a 2014 letter in STS89. Some of my own published comments about malcontents were published in the same issue.

It is much the same story at other clubs and festivals - so I'll just keep on doing the things that so many women seem to find so appealing - and ignore, as far as is reasonably possible, people like Monty Crook, the self-appointed high priest of dance etiquette. It is less easy to ignore the 'committee' of Eastbourne International Folkdance Festival who have for years apparently been 'taking notes' of my alleged misdeeds. Here are a few examples from 2016 that the committee might like to ponder, as indeed might any court. The committee is seeking to banish me from the 2017 and subsequent festivals. There is more discussion here also.

Further examples of 'inappropriate behaviour'.

When with grace (albeit tinged with reluctance) I accepted the invitation for a dance or two with perhaps the youngest and arguably the most attractive woman in the room I swung her around fairly fast and asked if that was OK. I told her I could go much faster if she wished. "Oh I bet you could" she whispered in my ear "but not in a room with so many people". Flirtatious or what?

I probably responded by whispering something suitable into one of her ears (I don't exactly remember) but whatever I did, it would have been behaviour that Maureen Knight or another member of her Star Chamber would have noted down as 'inappropriate'. It would be yet another hearsay witness statement for their collection. Yet it was the woman who asked me for dances and who both encouraged me to swing her faster and who initiated the flirting. (And you think Donald Trump has problems being misunderstood!)

But where is the harm? English Country Dancing (folk dancing) has a dreary image and needs to be livened up. The harm only exists in the eyes of the malevolent, the prudish and the inwardly jealous - and there are quite a few of those at Eastbourne Folk Dance Festival. (see for example this letter). I am reminded of a comment by Chris Turner at Eastbourne many years ago (it may be cited somewhere else on this website too) - that if you wanted to study a collection of variously mad people you could do no better than look around the room.

Here are yet further examples from Eastbourne Folk Dance Festival in 2016. I'll call the women Annie and Amanda.

Annie is well known as a flirt on the dance circuit. She even has a dance named after her. At Chippenham many years ago she christened me 'medallion man' because one of my shirts had lost a couple of buttons. At Eastbourne Folk Dance Festival in 2016 she was a steward (or maybe pretending to be one?) and asked for my identity badge. I told her it was inside my shirt. She proceeded to unbutton it to the great amusement of those present. I pretended that I was being assaulted. So where is the harm? Folk festivals have always had an element of teasing - it livens them up. Towersey in a typical year has far more than Eastbourne could ever aspire to.

Amanda is  a jolly woman who I had previously only ever met at Bridport ceilidhs, many years ago. We somehow took to 'mutual hugs' after each dance together much as some French dancers do as a matter of routine. I had not seen her for some time. Yet at Eastbourne I avoided her simply because she had come with Monty Crook and his wife. They seemed to go around as a 'package' probably because Amanda was new to Eastbourne. Also, she is not a very experienced folk dancer.

Towards the end of the festival when, once again, I saw her sitting out, I meekly asked if she might like to dance. I was expecting that she would have been briefed by Monty Crook to refuse any dances with me. Instead, she nearly leapt into my arms - "Oh yes please Steve!"

I told her that she'd be in trouble for dancing with me. Her reply was something along the lines that she was in trouble so much that a little more wouldn't matter. Even so, I didn't dance with her with the same degree of enthusiasm that I would normally do - because Graham Knight was in the same set. I knew from past experience that he has been known to go around at Eastbourne 'looking for trouble' - asking women if they've been upset by dancing with me. He asked one who was a particular friend - and the story got straight back to me.

Is there any other folk dance festival on the planet where incidents of normal dance behaviour are logged and recorded to be used in evidence?

On the theme therefore of different styles of dance and often conflicting personalities, I often get comments from women about how nice it is to be held 'properly' instead of as if by a limp lettuce leaf. Many years ago when I used to attend evening ceilidhs regularly, one man was nicknamed 'lettuce' because he seemed frightened to touch a woman with more than a limp finger around her back. (insert link to STS letter)

A woman at Sidmouth FolkWeek in 2015 commented that I was the first man she had danced with all week who 'held her properly' - the rest being both limp and making her feel as if she was wearing the wrong deodorant. I remember the event vividly because she was quite scathing about men in general:  "Am I not attractive to hold?" It was a very poorly attended French workshop in the draughty and pitifully empty Bulverton dance venue. She was not at all unattractive but was unusually outspoken about what she saw as the inadequacies and timidity of so many male dancers. This was probably the last time I ventured to the Bulverton marquee. There was always the feeling that it couldn't be as bad as the last time - but almost invariably it was.

How to re-invigorate local dance clubs - and maybe even a revival?

and "Breaking the Spell of Loneliness".

One thought did occur to me at Eastbourne - why are dance weekends away and festivals are getting more popular (and with higher dancing standards often evident) yet small local clubs are becoming dismal, smaller and often closed? Eastbourne Folk Dance Festival nearly folded a few years ago, Ray Goodswen took it over and revived it, and now Maureen Knight and her helpers (The Star Chamber?) seem set to continue what is once again a popular event. It is a similar story at Chippenham - venues full to overflowing, house full signs, crowded dance halls and often an unending supply of willing and capable partners. Social dancing at Sidmouth FolkWeek has been reinvigorated - so much so that the town centre venues are now full to overflowing despite (in the case of Blackmore Gardens) having its floor area increased. And yet local dance clubs are closing all over England, new clubs are finding it difficult to start up and some ceilidh venues are far less well attended than a decade ago.

It is almost as though a generation of people who learnt to dance properly in their youth now have more time and money on their hands (having maybe retired recently) and are swelling numbers at the handful of folk festivals at which there is good quality participatory dance. Maybe many of these people cannot be bothered with dismal local dancers. I know several women who just attend festivals - they don't folk dance anywhere regularly during the year because they simply can't tolerate the poor standard in their local clubs.

There may be scope therefore both for reinvigorating local clubs, via an influx of good dancers and some new people, and also for a few more folk festivals to offer good quality social dance. I have tried (and so far failed) to interest people in a joint venture between dating sites and folk dancing. Here is an article from STS , a response, and more replies. The sums of money expended on usually fruitless on-line dating dwarf those of folk dance events.

My analysis of a couple of dating sites was first published many years ago - and even the BBC once became interested. A researcher asked me how many of the hundreds of dating sites I had analysed. When I confirmed it was only two - albeit with anecdotal evidence from a few more - they lost interest. They really expected a full analysis of maybe 100 sites. Nevertheless, I have continued to gather anecdotal evidence of the behaviour of women in general and divorced women in particular. In one of  my first letters in STS (add link) I said I could write a book on the psychology of women in dance halls. Maybe I should?

But as a serious note - there is a huge amount of loneliness in present-day English society and maybe hundreds of thousands if not millions of people anxious to chat, to meet up, or even occasionally to mate.

Some months after Eastbourne Folk Festival I was reminded of the 'loneliness' aspect by an article in the Guardian on 3 October 2016 by George Monbiot, a leading thinker and writer from the centre-left. His website is full of well written and thought provoking material - a sort of one-man TED.com. Two years previously he wrote a piece for the Guardian about loneliness, arguing that it is now an 'epidemic' (wrong word, that implies you catch it from other people?) and that it may cause as many premature deaths as smoking or obesity. That may be questionable, but it is certainly a characteristic of an age in which more households than ever before are 'single person'.

The article provoked a deluge of comment and led to a BBC documentary "The Age of Loneliness". More recently the article and documentary led to a new album "Breaking the Spell of Loneliness" in association with singer-songwriter Ewan McLennan, and to a series of proposed 'gigs' to try and bring lonely people together. The album was reviewed in the winter 2016 issue of EDS - the magazine of efdss. The reviewer, Jacqueline Patton, noted that "the final track is We Shall Overcome, the anthem of the Civil Rights' Movement." Maybe we could have some Civil Rights at Eastbourne International Folkdance Festival - like no punishment without a fair trial?

So if nothing else, Eastbourne in 2016 provided me with a few ideas as well as one or two memories.

There are more general details of Eastbourne International Folkdance Festival (EIFF) 'politics and personalities' in the folkreview section and also here.

Folk Dance Diary - index page

Folk dance section

Folk festival reviews 2016

Gittisham Folk Dance Club

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