Folk Dance Diary - September 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.

September: the start of the autumn season.

I was going to go to an evening ceilidh that was rumoured to be splendid and with 60 to 80 people, but it was more than 80 miles away and I had a busy weekend ahead - so I missed it. Nevertheless, there was an early start to September with an occasional Irish away-day. This was well worth attending despite only with 16 people - just enough for 2 sets. And what a relief to dance to music that was just loud enough to enjoy instead of the 'assault by decibels' at Towersey. Some old favourite dances (and some favourite partners) and home cooked food - all with a complete absence of form-filling, rules, regulations and bossy-boots people on committees - the way folk clubs should be run! At lunch, one woman passed a salad bowl and managed to tip a full beaker of water all over my trousers. I did have some spare ones in the car but by end of lunch the originals were dry enough to dance in. Months ago she was very nervous of me - now she asks me for dances.

The following week saw the first Sidford dance - the caller Aileen Wills and I discussed that the club needed a rocket put under it, and maybe 20 new people if it was to survive. Like the recently closed Totnes and Lucky Seven clubs further west in Devon, Sidford has a long history: it dates back over 50 years. A pity if it doesn't survive. One dancer suggested amalgamating Gittisham and Sidford clubs and centring them on Sidford. The hall is much larger (Gittisham gets very cramped and has a mediocre floor) but many people just like Gittisham hall and live near Honiton, and the two clubs are quite different. So that will not happen. One problem with undisciplined dancers is that with only 12 to 16 dancing in a hall that could easily accommodate 60 to 70, there is so much space that sets tend to spread out too far, and then some moves get even more difficult for the slower dancers. Luckily I had a couple of favourite dance partners to keep me company, even if one did desert me at half time.

Wednesday saw an occasional evening at Combe Raleigh Hall, being used as a replacement for the usual Mackarness venue and with two club callers. It was such a pleasant evening that a walk along the beach almost proved too tempting - one of the last days of summer? Two club callers provided a selection of dances, all of which I found rather too simple but people enjoyed them as a start to the dancing season. Combe Raleigh is a lovely little hall but with difficult parking.

On Thursday I tried an American Square event in the afternoon - a new venture by two Gittisham dancers. It was 'OK' I met a few people I already knew and was sufficiently interested I might go again. American Square is organised very sensibly - you can't go to 'Mainstream' or 'Plus' events until you can do the moves, so you don't mess up the dances for those who are more competent. Gittisham could learn a thing or two, although it is far more difficult to learn 60 or more fast American Square moves 'on the hoof' than half a dozen folk dance ones.

Thursday evening was a most inconvenient clash of dates - the first regular Willand evening and a special evening at Gittisham with Ray Goodswen giving four club callers a few tips after listening to them call dances. It worked very well (add link to feedback email to Ray) but only 16 dancers turned up to support the event - a good job it was 16 and not 15! I lost the music in one dance but Ray pointed out a much better call at that point (combining my two calls into one). The other dance I called was one the club has done at least 3 times before but it caused far more trouble than previously, owing to some inexperienced dancers in one set. But as had happened on previous occasions after one of my 'interesting' dances several people asked me if we could do it again sometime. So many people are satisfied with being mediocre, they hold the others back.

I couldn't go to Willand of course on the same evening - so missed out on the opening night of bookings for the Woolacombe weekend - and so all the single rooms were taken. So if and when I book Woolacombe the unfortunate programming of the Gittisham event will cost me 30...

Friday was a crown preparation (I donated the old gold crown to charity, they couldn't refix it). A new crown will cost me more than going to Towersey. In the evening it was contra in Exeter with Jeremy Child. Only a few dancers turned up at the start, things looked grim. Then a few more came and later still a few youngsters from the university - good job they did too. Some dances were slow but the evening ended with a very fast square - Jeremy had us doing spin chain through moves in all manner of ways (men, women, a mixture). I wanted to do it all again. No-one else did - and it was already 10.25 PM.

The following evening was the first Willand Saturday dance but held at Kentisbeare owing to the Willand hall still being refurbished. Kentisbeare is a nice hall but it has appalling acoustics - a high and steeply pitched roof with hard surfaces. I have danced in similar buildings elsewhere and they too are very difficult to get a clear sound far from the speakers: column speakers are recommended. Attendance was OK, Kelly's Eye provided some interesting music and Ted Farmer launched us headlong into the season with some unusual dances. We had to pay attention. But with several prospective partners missing it was not as exciting as it might have been. The food was the usual high standard. September and early October are always a difficult time for attendance figures: so many people take advantage of cheaper holiday prices after the school term starts, and before holiday destinations become 'out of season'.

Monday saw a packed Sidford Hall - but not for folk dancing. 200 people turned up to attend a protest meeting about building a new 'retail park' and distribution centre on the outskirts of Sidford - in the AONB and on a flood plain. But big money always talks. It may well go the usual route of listening carefully to the objectors and then allowing much what the developers first proposed, but with any amendments that they managed to slip through in the interim. The landowner is Sir John Cave - lord of the manor - so that alone should be sufficient to ensure planning consent. One of my few memories of being on Sidmouth Town Council Planning Committee about 15 years ago was an application to remove hedgerows and ancient ponds 'as an aid to efficient use of land for farming'. It was nodded through of course.

Tuesday was Sidford with Simon Maplesden - recorded music but a good selection of simple dances and a far livelier and better attended evening than the previous week - so there is hope yet.

Wednesday saw the best Gittisham Folk Dance Club evening for a long time - Friendly Folk from Somerset provided the music and Jane Thomas provided a large number of interesting dances, some unusual and all called at breakneck speed - and with a selection of innuendoes thrown in. A kind club member provided surplus apples, pears and plums from his garden and there was some sort of joke about what small plums a man had. No joke about a woman having a lovely pear though - not that I heard anyway. It was an evening like in the old days - pre-committee, pre Monty Crook's formal rules of etiquette and with the most of the bossy committee members absent. About 28 people attended so we could have done with just a few more.

On Thursday afternoon (mid September) there was a well attended square dance teaching session with Jeremy Child - who kindly substituted for the usual callers at this new club. We did a whole series of the simpler moves endlessly repeated until we (almost) got them right. A few newcomers were more perplexed than I was - little consolation as I got a few moves wrong myself. Some dance teachers at Towersey festival could have learnt a lot from this excellent session.

Friday saw the first of Ted Farmer's club dances - and of course it clashed with the local French dance. If this could have been assured to be as good as the French dance at Towersey with Topette (and with some superb partners) I would have gone - but Aylesbeare is more of a 'known quantity'. It is usually adequately attended.

As at Gittisham earlier in the week there were suggestions I should attend ('be smuggled into') the forthcoming Bridport ceilidh in October because Monty Crook would be away (in Spain for two weeks and then up in Derbyshire for a folk event). Later rumours included that he had written out a formal 'No admittance' notice to be shown to attending Police - that seemed a bit far fetched even for Bridport ceilidhs! In any case the Police cannot intervene in civil disputes and my video evidence would have shown there was no 'breach of the peace'. The Police these days are more wary of acting 'ultra vires' - they know that video evidence can so easily result in them being sued and/or formal complaints to the IPCC being made against them. I have form in this regard. (add links)

Saturday was largely taken up with a classic car show in Sidmouth - an excellent day out and sunshine to draw the crowds. The old Bugatti was apparently worth 1 million and I had a detailed look over a VW LX1 - a diesel/electric hybrid with a carbon fibre body and weighing only as much as a first generation Mini. The owner also has a 1933 Aston Martin. He only bought the VW because he liked the shape - the promise of 300 mpg was a minor issue. He was one of only a few people to be able to buy one - VW built a few following a multi-billion Euro development project and picked a figure out of the air as a sale price. They could not possibly recoup the development costs. The contract was in Euros (E 110,000?) but at the time of payment this was worth only 80,000 - quite a bit less than when the contracts were signed. He tried and failed in asking VW to accept 'only' 80,000. Even at this price they had a long waiting list for any cancelled orders.

His attitude to life was 'I've got a bad back and bad wrists so I'm driving what I want while I still can'. He was rightly scathing about the Tesla and its huge mass of batteries - in terms of sustainability a tiny high efficiency liquid fuel engine mated to a small battery pack and an electric motor for town use (thus limiting in-town pollution) seems far more sensible. There was as usual the Nissan Leaf on show from the local Sidmouth dealership - a patently stupid all-electric design with a tiny range once you use the headlights and heater in winter.

One highlight of my day was helping to change a wheel on a locally owned Daimler Limousine, it was about 20 feet long (they used feet in those days) and weighed maybe 3 tons. Unfortunately Sidmouth's next classic show at this venue is not until 2018.

Sunday was Irish Set Dance - not as well attended as it could have been but some enjoyable dances including the Caragh Lake and the BVJ to finish the afternoon. Three hours here for 3 including tea and biscuits (+3 fuel) was far more enjoyable than an entire day at Towersey Festival with its stupidly loud music. Towersey cost me more than 50 per day - it offered no tea and biscuits but far more hugs.

Next week saw Sidford with Jeremy Child and a barely adequate 24 people in the large hall with Meter Rite playing. I think it was this evening when a couple of dancers from Lancashire came to visit, as a part of their holiday 'down south'. I apologised in advance - I told them they'd find Sidford very slow. After a few dances the man said that Sidford was not slow compared to (XX) in Lancs "You even do two dances in a row, most of our members couldn't do that!". This spoke volumes about the state of English Folk Dance clubs - if a tedious evening at Sidford could be described as lively, what are other clubs like? Totnes perhaps, before it closed down? (More discussion of Totnes at the top of this page)

Gittisham the following day was equally disappointing with again only 24 people. Fresh Aire provided live music and Graham Barratt called. There was far too much wasted time and too many slow dances. I made a note that Shadrack's Delight (a popular dance by Tony Parkes) was the only enjoyably fast dance of the whole evening. On the Thursday there was a small afternoon dance locally. I missed what was apparently a very spirited evening at Willand owing to time spent preparing for a weekend away.

The weekend was Irish Set Dance and immensely enjoyable - a hall packed with enthusiastic and for the most part extremely capable dancers. I had to miss a wedding celebration dance at Willand the same weekend. Memorable dances included the Paris Set with its unusual 'set L and set R' move (this is to corners). I danced with my corner woman rather enthusiastically (even by the standards of fast Irish set) and wondered if she minded, but ten minutes later she asked me for a couple of dances. In any case, at this weekend I didn't rate as a particularly fast dancer - many of the women, especially those from mainland Europe could easily have outpaced me, they were just so competent. We did the Rinkinstown Set to start the weekend - and I managed to get part of it wrong. It was an unusually complicated choice for an opening dance. Later dances included the interesting Carrowbeg, one figure of which I sometimes use in English dances - it is an unusual take on strip the willow in a square but with 7 arm turns.

Later in the weekend we did the West Kerry (one of my favourites because it is so fast). Fortunately I had asked a spirited dancer from Belgium for the next dance (not knowing what it was going to be) - so we really flew around together. She had danced the previous set with another woman from Belgium and it was a difficult choice which of them to ask - both danced with such racy enthusiasm. The West Kerry was the first dance of the weekend that made me feel like I needed a short rest. Later I even managed to get a small part of the BVJ wrong (and with a favourite partner). She'll probably remember. The BVJ is always good exercise - it is danced without a break between the figures. If only all festivals could be like this! The trip home was marred by a detour around an accident on the notorious A303 - pity the occupants of thousands of cars returning to London from the West Country. Traffic travelling west was mercifully light.

September ended on a less enthusiastic note - a very slow evening at Sidford with Eileen Nightingale calling (again only 20/24 people and sometimes only 12 dancing in a hall big enough for 70+). I described it as terminally dreary to one dance partner who didn't attend.

It was followed by Gittisham which had similarly low numbers - despite the attraction of an 'unknown' band (Pair of Shears) and Aileen Wills calling. There were many enjoyable dances however (and some enjoyable partners) and the low numbers meant we had room to dance. Thursday was a small local dance (again with reduced numbers) and this theme was continued at Aylesbeare on the Friday - only 20 or 22 in place of the usual 28 or 30. For some strange reason also I managed to get quite a few dances wrong. The music didn't seem to fit one of them and having written the dance down, I'll try calling a modified version (I've since completely changed it and extended it to 40 bars).

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