Folk Dance Diary - June 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.

June started with a quite successful evening at Honiton - the 'first Wednesday' venue for Gittisham club. There were only 3 club callers - Mark Moran being indisposed. This left Monty Crook, Janet Bulpin and me. It meant we could do 4 dances each, and this format worked well. Local band Jigs for Gigs (J4G) stood in for Ivor and Holly - who again couldn't attend owing to illness. I started my session with an old Bob Cann favourite - Ripple on the Teign and had them dance it many times through. I said they needed the exercise. There were one or two newcomers in the hall and this (as usual) rather precluded doing anything too adventurous. I followed this with a square I had picked up at Towersey 3 or 4 years earlier, and then a square by Peggy Hazel and a double contra by Bob Dalsemer. They were all easy dances.

Monty Crook announced that letters of appreciation had been received from the two charities to whom money had been sent as a consequence of the huge profits made at the 23 January dance - but they were not the charities that had been agreed at the time, and in particular they did not include the 50:50 split between overseas and UK based charities that had specifically been agreed on 23 January - and announced (by me) to the entire assembled 100 dancers!

The 50:50 split was further agreed at a previous Honiton meeting at which it was decided to increase the sum given to each charity, despite my misgivings (add link) that this is a misuse of club money. This turn of events was not unexpected - it was merely another example of how 'committee people' work - they agree one thing (or pretend to) and then change it when people's backs are turned - or in this case when I was no longer a member of the committee. In behaving in this way (all too common in government too) these people were merely seeking to exercise the petty raw power of being a 'committee person'. There are some weasel words on Monty Crook's Gittisham website.

It is all trivial of course - but provides a splendid reason why the handling of money in Gittisham club should more fully be documented, as an aid to getting the logic of both club finances and charitable giving better understood. This will be done elsewhere on this website where charities and charity dances and their promise and pitfalls are discussed.

The following day was 'all change' with many hours being spent with one of my honorary grandchildren on a local airfield - nothing to do with dance but a welcome diversion. The weather was kind the the flights very successful.  Friday was an occasional Irish ceili - well attended and great fun despite the crowded venue. We had five sets in a room better suited to a maximum of four, but as Irish dancers are used to keeping their sets 'compact', it wasn't a problem.

The weekend was again Irish Set and an event that somehow reminded me of the early days at Gittisham - home made quiches and cakes, warm weather, a complete absence of 'administration' and a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. En-route I delivered a chair I had mended for a fellow Gittisham dancer - and on the way home I made a 30 mile detour to fix a lawnmower for an Irish dance partner. She had taken the whole thing to pieces because it had stopped working and couldn't get it back together again. It turned out to need a new handle (part of the on/off switch). I can be so useful sometimes......and I'm so little appreciated.

Monday 6 June is maybe best forgotten. it comprised primarily a visit to the dentist to have two replacement fillings (no real problem) and an old root extracted. A 40 minute appointment turned into 50 minutes. Despite numbing injections I had in mind the torture chambers of Syria (in some of which political prisoners have been held for 15 years without access to daylight and, probably as an incidental punishment for daring to question 'the ruling committee', have all their teeth and nails removed using pliers).

It reminded me why I prefer to give money to charities who work overseas - no-one in the UK is really hard up or suffers much, even when a dentist is digging away (unsuccessfully) at an old crumbling root for 15 minutes. At the time, it took me a few minutes to work out why so much pressure was being applied downwards into my gum, rather than upwards to pull out the root - my dentist was forcing thin pliers of some description deep into the gum in an attempt to grip bits of root. The pressure and the time it took were almost surreal - life seemed to go into a sort of slow motion.

(add link to Syria torture, copy from article in Times also add BBC link)

I didn't go to Gittisham on the Wednesday - it was just too hot (23C) and I had worn myself out gardening - maybe as a deliberate distraction from increasing toothache. The remains of the root reminded me that life can be ended so easily via septic shock - or so I felt at the time. In any case, it was Willand the next day with Fresh Aire, and followed on the Friday by a Contra evening in Exeter with Jeremy Child.

It struck me later just how different these two evenings were and how in their different way they illustrated so much that was right and (arguably) wrong with how folk clubs are run. So at the risk of upsetting yet more people - here is a comparison of Willand on Thursday and Exeter on Friday.

Thursday at Willand was a club night - but the last of the season so there was a 'bring and share' meal and dancing later than is normal. it was still very warm but Willand Village Hall has excellent ventilation so this wasn't a problem. Other dance halls would have been almost unusable: more discussion here.

Fresh Aire were splendid and (yet again) not too loud. Gill Spence called all the dances but with one exception they were all so easy that calling was almost unnecessary given the expertise of most of the dancers. In other clubs, offerings such as Christmas Hornpipe or Christmas at the Heath (keep your partner but keep your wits about you in the reels) might have been challenging but to most Willand/Aylesbeare dancers they were routine -  and just too easy because we know them so well.

Gill's one unusual dance was an offering from Chris Turner - a square set that started with the heads doing dolphin reels through the side couples then vice versa (easy) then a series of stars and half turns that was too hurriedly explained and with people making too much noise. My excuse for getting it wrong was toothache - it wasn't at all difficult, it just needed tighter calling and people to be told to keep quiet and pay attention during the walkthroughs. Done properly it would have been a very satisfying dance.

As a club evening and party night it worked very well indeed. It was just uninspiring in that only one dance was at all challenging.

Friday's Contra dance started slowly with only one square set but built up to about 24 people - about the same number who had been at Willand the previous evening. I was (so I recall) the only common factor. Contra evenings are usually fun and especially if well attended - Jeremy's dances are more often than not unknown (at least to me) and interesting once we had understood what he thought he meant to say during the walk-throughs.

Whereas Gill did dances that were (in the main) so easy we hardly needed much or any calling Jeremy spent too long failing to succeed in walk-throughs. Exasperation morphed into annoyance. Rule no. 1 for a caller - prepare your dances. If Jeremy's had all worked first time through the evening would have been more enjoyable despite being to recorded music and in a small and not ideal hall. But it was OK for me because two favourite partners were there - I see them all too rarely - so I danced with them in turn. Without these women (thank you P and thank you J) it could have been a grim evening - dominated (so it might have seemed) by dances that often didn't work, few partners and toothache. In fact the sets went wrong so many times in these 'unusual' contra dances that the evening turned into almost a fit of giggles.

I did remind people that they only needed to get three things right to do even Jeremy's dances - be in the right place at the right time and facing in the correct direction. Discipline on the floor - being in the right place even - was almost non-existent in some dances, and such a contrast to Irish Set where everyone always tries to get every move right. This really needs to be tightened up. Several people discussed the forthcoming Sidmouth Festival - and if any future event could compete with Tom Hinds at Sidmouth in 2015.

Saturday presented a difficult decision - a dance party at nearby Clyst St Mary or a Saturday dance at Willand with veteran caller Ted Morse. Most Gittisham dancers were away at a 'club weekend' at Paignton. They didn't know it at the time they booked the venue but it coincided with the first Torbay Air Show - an event that seemed all together too large for a small already crowded seaside town to accommodate. The events, and their predecessors at Perranporth are detailed starting here. In the end the dance party won out - primarily because friends from Contra the previous evening were going to be there and also a woman with whom I had been trying to dance for a long time. So (unusually) Willand wasn't the venue of choice.

The dance party provided a stark contrast both to the previous Thursday with Gill Spence at Willand and with Jeremy in Exeter. Indeed if you took the best bits from each event and improved upon them - you'd have quite a good festival! The Irish Set was competently called and well danced, the ceilidh dances were far too simple, including strip the willow in a square to a 32 bar tune thus missing out the circle left and right and the balance and swing. Strange dance... The salsa instructor was competent but I just didn't get most of it - it is good sometimes to be taken so far outside of a comfort zone. I was so busy doing all the dances I forgot there were nibbles available - by the time I remembered most had been eaten.

Mid June saw the Lichfield festival and a very wet drive for close to 200 miles - and the antibiotics didn't seem to be reducing the pain from my dental abscess. Maybe contra dance would do the trick? The main attraction was Seth Tepfer from the USA - a contra dance caller I had first met at Chippenham a few years ago - in the Neeld hall he was simply brilliant. I can still remember what one favourite dance partner said to me after I had thrashed her around a square set right at the top of the hall - why can't all dances be like that?

This year, an occasional dance partner sent me an encouraging email - I just thought I'd mention it by way of a riposte to the malcontents who run Bridport Ceilidhs and Eastbourne Folk Dance Festival!

"I will look forward to swinging with you, so many men do not swing well, the support you give your lady is really good and I always find it easy to stay light on my feet with you....see you at the weekend"

I first went to Lichfield quite some years ago (2009?) - and vowed never to go again. I found it dull, old, lifeless and staid - quite a recommendation. But after a few years and chatting to people who were going I tried it again in 2015. It was OK - no more than that. I think my change of heart resulted from a decreasing interest in 'thrash about simple ceilidh dances' and an increasing interest in more complex sequences. And Lichfield (so I faintly remembered from my first visit) can offer plenty of those......The name Hilary Herbert floats into my consciousness view as I dictate this......

In 2016, with promises of dances from a few favourite partners from around the country I tried it yet again. I left myself six hours to drive the 185 miles - which was just as well because traffic density on the motorways allied to roadworks meant it took me almost that long. The opening dance with Mark Elvins and 3D was a good mixture, the music was a little too 'jazzy' for my taste - but most people though it was fine.

Saturday morning saw the first workshop with Seth Tepfer. As I dictate this early in July I can hardly remember anything about the festival but my notes for this session say 'excellent' - so it must have been! This was followed by a workshop again in Bader Hall with Mark Elvins and the ECDB - no need to comment on the music because it is always good. This included a dance I first did at Halsway Manor with Rhodri Davies - it included a sequence written by one of his daughters, in a longways contra set there is a ladies chain up and down the room, a symmetrical do-si-do, a double figure of eight and then a dolphin reel with the first couple (man in the lead) passing down through the second couple - or something like that. It worked splendidly - as it did at Halsway once I had figured out what with hindsight is patently obvious - that the man initially leads the dolphin reel.

I tried a dance workshop with Trevor Monson and Meg 'n' mor playing. It was so tedious I left after 2 dances - some people seemed to like it. A similar dance workshop in the afternoon was 'poor' according to a dance partner who tried it - we have similar tastes. Indeed, several people wandered into Lichfield town centre on Saturday afternoon, so unappealing were the dance sessions on offer.

I tried the tea dance with Mark Elvins again but left after a few dances - my notes say "nice band, dreary people, few if any partners". Other people later confirmed my view of the event. An early evening dance with Frances Richardson calling was a little better - 'not too bad' I wrote at the time. Unusually I spent all evening at Roy Garrington's dance with music by Meg 'n' mor - instead of at the contra dance with Seth Tepfer. Why? Maybe I was just too tired (or fed up) for an evening of thrashing around at yet more contra dances, many of them endlessly repeated. We did a Colin Hume square which worked very well (I vaguely remember Colin doing it at Eastbourne many years ago in Langley Hall, it seemed complicated then!) also Shropshire Lass (?) modified as a triple progression and many other interesting dances. The floor in this room is appalling - it's so noisy but the sound damping material helps a bit. It is however very far from what was claimed in the programme - "the school gym is acoustically dampened to remove echoes". For 'remove' - read 'reduce'. It's the resonance time that need to be reduced in these 'awkward' halls and Lichfield make a good attempt at what will always be a difficult job.

Sunday began with  Zesty Playford workshop with Mark Elvins and Jovial crew - a good combination and with Mark reminding us that we needed to put some fun and flirting into the dances. This was not difficult with two of my partners - it was the first and only dance with each of them I had managed all weekend: they describe themselves as 'Playford Girls'. An overlapping session with Seth Tepfer was billed as pushing the boundaries of dance - it achieved its aim but at the expense of becoming just a little too silly. We had 'chaos' dances in which people choose randomly (or sometimes when they are told) to swap roles (man/woman) so men swinging men, men's chains, etc become mixed in with short interludes when people were dancing normally. I found it rather silly but it certainly took most people out of their comfort zones - especially men who are less used to role play.

I watched a little of Andrew Shaw taking a roomful of attentive dancers through their paces - it was House Full and said everything about Lichfield Festival. Maybe in 20 years' time I might enjoy it more.... instead I tried Roy Garrington again doing some of Charles Bolton's dances. Tedious, interesting but not for me. One woman came up to me "your face says it all - was it really that bad for you?" There was no need to answer.

The highlight of the day was probably Colin Hume (again in the school gym) with squares and contras to make you think - and they did. It was house full and very good indeed. A late lunch consisted of roast lamb and including a hot dessert all for 4. I think it should have been 5 but I didn't argue. The school canteen catering at Lichfield is very good - almost on a par with that at Eastbourne.

I only attended about half of the final session - highlights were a superb Regency dance called by Ellis Rogers (not a caller I had met before). I made a note that if all Regency dances are that stimulating I must try some more. Colin Hume called a complicated (rather involved) square apparently without notes and it all worked amazingly well in my set. It reminded me of another dance - and of a running set 'progressive' move picking up more people as you go around the set, but the exact details escape me now. A letter in STS from Ellis Rogers on another topic is here - it shows the dedication of these established callers.

En-route home I called in at an Irish Set dance for the evening. There were fewer than 20 people and far too many men - so I had to sit out some dances. We did what was a new set to me - the Limerick Orange and Green. The others sets were 'old favourites' but none the less enjoyable for that. I finally drove home the next morning.

Lichfield had once again been 'OK' but I did wonder if it was really worth the 5 or 6 hour drive each way for such a short weekend - some evenings at nearby Willand are almost as enjoyable as the best of the Lichfield sessions, and far more enjoyable than some of them.

The day after I eventually got home from Lichfield I decided rather on impulse to go to an Irish Set end of term party - a big mistake because I got snared in Glastonbury traffic. After waiting in a queue on the A37 that went nowhere for 20 minutes (and with radio reports of gridlock for the next 5 or 10 miles) I turned around and went home. So that was 45 miles each way for nothing.

Next day was very hot too. I didn't feel like bothering with Gittisham and apparently I didn't miss much - it was poorly attended and simple dances to suit some newcomers, or so I was told.

The following day Brexit caused the pound to plunge against the dollar. This could impact on the rest of my life - or at least on my much diminished chances of travelling the world aided by a decent exchange rate. Years ago the pound () traded at $2.40. Now it is nudging $1.20. But as Gill Spence reminded me some days later - I was living in England, I was still able to express my views freely and I hadn't been born to become a troublesome university professor in Syria, tortured and eventually killed for my opinions. And - for the moment - dancing and even a little flirting is still permitted under English Law. (repeat links to Syria as above)

Friday saw a subdued Exeter Folk Dance Club event - end of season with Jigs for Gigs. I experimented travelling on a bus into Exeter - one of my car tyres having become suspect. Fortunately I was able to get a lift back home. There were only 16 or 18 people there and with Jeremy Child doing his best to liven things up. The club needs all the luck it can get - and some new members who can dance with enthusiasm. Saturday was a local classic car show and Sunday was to be a local afternoon ceilidh but it somehow just didn't appeal. It was just as well I didn't go there was apparently hardly anyone there to dance with! Occasional Sunday afternoon events do not seem to be popular - people just have so much else to do, especially in summertime.

The end of June saw a remarkably enjoyable evening at Gittisham. The band was Jigs for Gigs and the caller Jane Thomas - recently returned from a trip to Europe and with her usual selection of almost bawdy holiday anecdotes, including a man running down the hillside in pouring rain stark naked. He was with a woman but (unfortunately for the men present) she had some clothes on. There were about 38 people in the hall, almost too many, and with a number of collisions and near misses. My lift for the evening was with a local man who related a tale of how his daughter had nearly died recently in hospital from a gangrenous intestine - there but for fortune, so dance while you still can.

I could have gone to a dance some distance away the next evening but decided I had more to do at home. Gardening is becoming such a tedious pastime - especially now that Japanese Knotweed is becoming all to common along the Sid Valley and every new shoot in the hedgerows has to viewed with suspicion.


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