English Country Dance - Folk Dance Diary - April 2016 - a month in the life of an unlikely folk dancer.
If you persevere, you might find some small fragments of humour .........and quite a bit about EIFF - The Eastbourne International Folkdance Festival.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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". You can watch the film without a TV licence. 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