Reviews of folk dance festivals in the UK, 2016. (page to be reordered sometime!)
As a topic for discussion, the cost per enjoyable dance is calculated to range from 30p to nearly £10.
This page gives some general reviews of folk dance festivals in the UK. Anecdotes of a more personal nature are also available within my folkdance diary for 2016. Highlights are here.
All the material should be read as one - for example the general comments given below for Towersey should be read alongside the anecdotes within my folk diary - these give some of what were to me notable events, but they are not general points of observation on how the festival was run or how successful it was from a wider perspective.
The table below gives my own brief opinions of each of the major folk dance festivals in the UK. Few other festivals offer any significant element of participatory folk dance. Opinions as to whether any festival is worth attending are based on my perception - as a folk dancer based in Sidmouth. Often travel can be a determing factor. It may become more important in the future if travel becomes progressively more expensive and/or tedious.
Festivals covered in far more detail below are Eastbourne, Lichfield, Chippenham, Sidmouth and Towersey. The venues for IVFDF change each year. Therefore the only comments are with in my dance diary for February. Also see STS letters for 2015 and earlier (add links).
The cost per dance (second column in the table below) is the estimated total cost per actual dance (each lasting maybe 2 to 10 minutes with walkthroughs) and may be compared with a total cost of between 30p and £1 per dance at local clubs. There is some discussion of this in my 'dance diary' for 2016, for example on 8 December an excellent evening at Willand with a selection of superbly enjoyable partners cost a total of £3 (entrance) and £7 (petrol) and for 20 dances - all called by Simon Mapelsden and with very little time spent 'hanging about'. It was one dance after another. As such, it was an evening to rival that at any festival. And there was food! Thus the cost per dance was 50p.
At the other end of the scale, Eastbourne Folk Dance Festival costs me around £130 (3 nights in a hotel), £75 (car running costs for around 400 miles total), £95 (venue fees and incidental expenses) = £300. If the true economic costs of running a car are factored in (to account for depreciation etc) then another £100 might be added giving a total of £400 for a short weekend that comprises maybe 50 enjoyable dances (and quite a few less enjoyable) - equivalent to £6 or £8 per dance. These costs are estimates and are of course specific to an individual case. They are much influenced by both travel and accommodation costs. I have estimated Lichfield as the same cost/dance as Eastbourne despite that the overall costs are lower because of camping in the school grounds as opposed to a hotel. However, the dancing is (overall) maybe less enjoyable than at Eastbourne.
These figures are of course only estimates to suggest a possible methodology - yet already there are interesting questions as to why some good dancers avoid local clubs (despite a low cost/dance) and yet attend distant festivals where the cost/dance is vastly greater. The answer lies (in part) in the abysmal standard of many local dance clubs as opposed to the high standard experienced at sadly too few UK festivals.
If total time is included - for example attending Eastbourne costs me 12 hours of travel time in addition to time spent dancing - a further analysis can be undertaken of the total time invested per unit of enjoyable dance time. If (say) I calculated there were 10 hours of truly enjoyable dances at Eastbourne over the weekend (and maybe 5 or 6 hours where I could take it or leave it) then the total time allocated to the weekend (calculated as waking hours) would be around 40 - and for 10 hours of enjoyable dance. The equivalent calculation for the dance event at Willand (cited above) can be calculated as 2.5 hours of dance for a total investment of time of 4.5 hours (1.5 hours travel + 2.5 hours dance + 0.5 hours for the meal).
I discuss elsewhere that some dancers spend £1000 on Sidmouth FolkWeek and may do fewer than 100 dances in the week - giving a cost per dance of £10. But they do get to experience the unique Sidmouth atmosphere (and sometimes sunshine too). Eastbourne and Lichfield offer little or nothing in the way of 'extra attractions'.
One further factor is worth mentioning - these festivals are overwhelmingly 'white-English' or 'white-European', and as such are unrepresentative of the present mix of UK population. It is one of many examples of the continuing segregation of UK society into ghettos and despite all the political rhetoric about integration. As the ex Town Clerk of Sidmouth Town Council said to me nearly 20 years ago when we discussing why people with so much money came to live in sleepy Devon resort towns such as Sidmouth and Budlieigh Salterton - they are still England as it used to be.
Less good points
|Eastbourne||£6||Well organised, some good dances halls. Good canteen. Good range of bands and competent dance callers. OK for partners but only if enough of my favourites attend.||Judgemental and intolerant committee, no proper campsite, a very short weekend and 180 miles each way. Many people as couples. Sometimes lack of partners. Dance workshops often suitable only for experts.||Marginal|
|Lichfield||£6||Well organised. Good canteen. Emphasis on good quality 'correct' dance including historical dance.||Tedious with many older dancers as couples. Often lack of partners. A very short weekend and 180 miles each way. Mediocre campsite. Some mediocre venues.||No?|
|Chippenham||£2||Excellent throughout (except the weather sometimes). Splendid campsite. Long weekend. Only 90 miles each away. Compact and pedestrian friendly town centre.||Venues can be too crowded, too popular. Needs bigger venues. Evening ceilidhs used to be superb but recently the music has become far too loud and the bands 'rock-ceilidh'.||Yes|
|Sidmouth||50p||Social dance has once again become superb, especially in the last couple
of years. A highlight of the folk dance and song world. A full week festival. Inexpensive
- if you live in Sidmouth.
Many campsite options.
|Standard of ceilidh dances can be poor. Some music far too loud. Cost of travel and accommodation can be high (unless you live locally). A long way from most towns and cities of the UK.||Yes|
|Broadstairs||High||Some good venues these days (apparently). Otherwise unknown.||Very long distance. Otherwise unknown.||Unknown|
|Towersey||£2 ?||Enjoyable campsite, partners and atmosphere. Uniquely enjoyable in its own way (and can be uniquely flirtateous). Some excellent basic instruction from some of the dance teachers.||Completely spolied by dance music that is stupidly loud. Also the ceilidh dances are becoming simpler by the year as it is 'dumbed down'.160 miles each way. Being turned into a mini-Glastonbury?||Yes (but!)|
|Whitby||High||Some good dances and dancers - so I have been told on many occasions. Dance venues now better for social dance (all in ballroom since 2015?)||Hilly, windy, venues far apart, some music 'stupidly loud', so I have been
Only worthwhile for me as part of a long trip to travel in and around Yorkshire for a few weeks.
|Bromyard||High||Campsite was enjoyable in 2008!||Poor quality dances. Long distance. Unlikely to attend again||No|
|Shrewsbury||Poor value?||On one large site (similar to Towersey since 2015). Otherwise unknown.||Dance music apparently far too loud. Reports of poor quality dancing with many inexpert dancers. Long distance. Some reports of organiser 'bossiness' and bias.||No|
Why even calculate the cost?
It is simply so enjoyable!
|Usually very well organised. Usually enjoyable. Very enjoyable at Exeter
and Coventry in recent years.
Lots of fun young (and not so young) partners, most of whom are very capable dancers. Bands and workshops usually excellent too. A unique event in the UK.
|Different and often unknown locations each year. Many locations are far
distant (Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Cambridge!)
Held at end of February - therefore travel can be a problem. Much to my regret I didn't get to Cambridge in 2017.
|Yes - travel and distance permitting.|
This was quite enjoyable despite a continuing frosty atmosphere from one or two 'malcontent attendees' - this dates from many years ago. In all it has become a worthwhile event for serious dancers but it does lack any 'festival' atmosphere being centred only within school buildings. It is also more than 180 miles away.
There are many comments within my 'dance diary' that relate to people. There are few comments here because there is little to say about the infrastructure - it works, it's adequate and it can't be much altered! The festival benefitted hugely from when Ray Goodswen took it over, and it has grown steadily over the last few years.
A notable 'negative' is the willingness of the present organisers to accept at face value malicious allegations about dance 'behaviour' and dance 'style' without any documented or substantiated evidence. Of course dance styles vary! (as they always have done). Indeed Graham Knight even once asked one of my partners at Eastbourne if she had any problem with the number of dances I had with her! He must have been gravely disappointed when she told him there was no issue. Here we have one of several examples of the organisers 'looking for trouble'.
Indeed, for years the whole atmosphere at Eastbourne has been one of 'looking for trouble' whereas (as can be seen from my dance diary entries) quite the reverse seems to apply. Not only are my regular 'known' partners always happy to dance with enthusiasm I get asked for more dances by other women at this festival than at maybe any other, bar Sidmouth. Where are the witness statements? What opportunities for discussion with purported complainants have ever been afforded? The organisers seem too cowardly to discuss face to face any purported lack of respect shown to other dancers. I could add a few examples of women who are a pain to dance with because they are so incompetent. But it's not a hanging offence to be a little different!
I have not had the slightest complaint from any woman at Eastbourne in the last few years - indeed quite the opposite. In one year I was unable to dance properly owing to a badly sprained arm - details are in STS letters so will be addressed there (add links). More recently at Eastbourne there has been a 'vendetta' atmosphere maybe organised by a few attendees (for example!) and this continues, seemingly enthusiastically endorsed by the present management - Maureen Knight et al. It seems based on nothing more than wishing to get rid of me by whatever means possible and has its origins in dislike of some published views (add links to STS).
Maureen and her 'team' may run the festival - that is their choice of how to spend their time. They may put in a lot of hours and feel the festival is 'theirs' but it does not give them the right to act outside of 'natural justice' - one of the building blocks of English Law. If they do, the law and the courts can be asked to step in. They are also in effect demeaning women by their behaviour - discussion here! Some initial 'legal' points are here.
For Sidmouth, my summary and analysis are within the long established Sidmouth section of this website, here and here as well as in my folkdiary for late July and early August 2016.
TOWERSEY - 2015 (for 2016 please see lower down the page)
In 2015 I wrote an article for Set and Turn Single magazine and centred upon my experiences at Towersey. It was not published owing to space constraints - and maybe because I only sent it in some months after the event. In any case, I often sent the editor far more material than he could use.....Now that the magazine has become an 'on-line' resource it is more appropriate I publish the article here and maybe link to it via STS.
This is an event by event summary (of those ceilidhs and dances I attended) followed by observations about lax site security, poor site design (having terrorism in mind) and other 'structural' issues. Some of the observations are anecdotes from the many people I spoke to about how the festival has changed in recent years - and not for the better. There are additional comments of a more personal nature in my dance diary.
Arriving at Towersey and campsite pitches.
Arriving at Towersey is always an interesting experience. In 2016, the site layout had been changed significantly so there was interest in obtaining premium camping spaces, especially if you had a large caravan. Unlike at Chippenham there are no 'reserved' marked out pitches, just a free-for-all within designated areas. One woman who had recently returned from a festival in Holland told me that Towersey was put to shame by the organisation often seen in mainland Europe.
But Towersey seemed to work, except maybe if you had a large caravan and arrived late - then you had to tour the site to find (if you were lucky) a space large enough. In mainland Europe, spaces are marked out and pre-allocated, suggesting a greater degree of organisation even than at Chippenham.
The queuing system for getting onto the Towersey (Thame) campsite was first come, first served. Some people arrived at 5 AM in order to be first in the queue! They had a seven hour wait on the queuing field before being allowed on to pitch at 12 noon. The Towersey system of allowing people to arrive as soon as they wished would only work at a site that had a very large off-road area for storing vehicles. Only one chemical WC was provided on the queuing field - which led to queues.
I arrived at 10:30 after a four hour 160 mile drive. The first disappointment was that the red Routemaster bus service would not be operating owing (apparently) to disappointing finances in 2015. The service had proven very popular when the festival was in Towersey village but with the new site being nearer to a main shopping centre there was probably less use of the bus. It was however included as an attraction at the fringe festival on the Sunday - held at the original village site.
No events were laid on for the Thursday evening - so I walked into Thame and to my spiritual home (Waitrose) for a free newspaper, free coffee and free internet access.
The Towersey programme rarely produces conflicts in what I wish to attend because there is usually only one dance event at a time. However on the Friday there was a choice of Kate Rusby in concert or an eagerly awaited ceilidh with the re-formed Bismarcks band. Other than that it was the dance venue or nothing!
The first event on Friday it was a workshop with Madeleine Smith. As usual this was a very good introduction to basic ceilidh dance. I gave Madeleine some small assistance in demonstrations of swinging, etc. The afternoon ceilidh with Gordon Potts calling was very loud indeed - this did not augur well for the rest of the festival.
The subsequent workshop in Euro dance with a young woman, Ella Sprung produced some poor instruction and again this did not augur well. The usual teacher, Kerry Fletcher, was apparently unable to attend Towersey this year. The ceilidh at 7 PM with the Bismarcks was very good with the distinctive music from this trio bringing back a few memories from my early dancing days. But again it was too loud. Dancers surely don't want bands of this calibre to be just bearable (because they are so loud) - they want the music to augment the dances, not dominate them.
On the Friday evening there was a superb late event with the Anglo French band Topette. This attracted many accomplished dancers and I was fortunate enough to obtain some memorable partners. The music was also excellent. The band are relative newcomers to the scene, their performance being aided by their own sound engineer Joe Garcia (from Joe's Garage in Bristol) taking control of the sound desk. And what a difference that made! The music was a little loud but not at all painful yet you could hear every instrument clearly.
I'm giving memorable details of my various partners in my folkdiary. Thank you - all of you!
In the morning of the Saturday there was some instruction in Swedish dance again with Ella Sprung. Once again it was poor. The dance was the relatively informal Slangpolska but taught in a manner more suited to 5-year-olds. Unfortunately, this was to be a theme in Ella's subsequent workshops.
The Cajun dance workshop again featured what I considered poor instruction and it was really only for experienced dancers. Far too much was assumed for newcomers to cope with. This mirrored some experience in 2015 also.
The subsequent event with Hannah Bright calling was billed as an Evolution Ceilidh - the idea being that the band got bigger during the event. This seemed to be a pointless idea. In fact all that happened was that the band not only got bigger but far louder. Again the sound level was verging on the absurd.
The disappointing standard of the day was continued with the evening ceilidh featuring the Cock and Bull band with caller Cate Haynes.
On Sunday I avoided the Appalachian dance workshop because I knew I would not have the slightest chance of being able to do it - having seen the expertise of Tap and Sync dancers.
My first Sunday event was therefore with Madeleine Smith - and again with me helping her with demonstrations. The sound was good with only Molly Konisberg? providing the music. She told me that the sound engineer must have some proficiency because he made her sound like a violin which is what she wanted - I had been berating the high sound levels of previous events.
The afternoon ceilidh was with Lasair and Barry Goodman calling. I have recorded in my notes as good calling but with a rubbish band and far too loud. One of the dances was a favourite, the flirtation reel. It had been demonstrated in the beginners contra workshop. Whereas Madeleine's version had been enjoyable the same dance was ruined in the ceilidh by appallingly loud music.
The contra dance in the late afternoon with the English Contra Dance Band was an excellent event although even here the music was rather too loud.
The event was not up to Sidmouth standards but got fairly close, the deficiency being perhaps the standard of the dancers themselves, and of course the sound engineer.
The evening ceilidh with Tickled Pink was predictably stupidly loud and despite using earplugs I felt that I had been assaulted by the level of sound. Other people subsequently told me of similar feelings. The band had their own sound engineer in charge - he seemed to be the sort of person you see driving around in a beat up old car with 500 watt speakers blasting music to all surrounding streets. Comments in STS (add link) have said much the same about some ceilidh bands, especially Tickled Pink.
It is really is about time that Towersey as a festival got a grip on their sound engineers. The Tickled Pink ceilidh also featured duplicated dances from previous events - this showed a lack of (or zero) co-ordination between callers. For example we had the willow tree yet again. It is a nice dance if done to suitable music.
A novel but to my mind rather ridiculous interlude was that the floor was cleared for a young lad to propose to his simpering girlfriend. It was not much of a proposal though, he didn't even go down onto his knees and he didn't actually ask her to marry him. After saying how lovely he had thought she was ever since their first meeting (at Towersey six years ago), he just pulled a ring out from his back pocket and gave it to the poor girl. My own thoughts were that if they aspired to be responsible parents they should have more consideration for their young child (which they brought with them). She (?) was being subjected to the absurd level of sound in this venue. My partner at the time told me not to be so unromantic. I told her I was merely being logical.
It was during this ceilidh (which somehow I endured to the end) that I formed the view that Towersey festival needs to have two separate dance venues for the evenings, one for the large number of young people who seem to be content to thrash around with exceedingly loud music (and doing only childishly simple dances) and another venue for any serious dancers that the festival can still attract. It did seem that the number of good dancers was already much diminished from past years. Many regular partners and people that I hoped would be there from 2014/5 were nowhere to be seen.
On Monday I was joined by one of my regular dance partners from the Midlands who had never been to a Towersey festival before. I did warn her that Monday was not the best day and also that she should bring some earplugs. The first workshop on clog dance with Madeleine Smith was as usual very proficient but neither my partner nor I managed really to get all the steps correct. In my case it was a matter that I was already punch drunk and tired with being assaulted by sound. In my partners case it was her very first introduction to clog dance. Madeleine produced another well structured workshop with attention to details and patient delivery that suited newcomers. A equally patient musician provided the music - usually to Madeleine's exacting requirements.
The next event was a French dance workshop, once again with Ella Sprung. This time she was teaching the French Mazurka. It is a dance I know well and sometimes teach. My partner for the day had never done French dance before but is an accomplished and sometimes critical dancer as well as a caller. There were also some experienced French dancers in the audience.
I discussed with one or two of them that I had never before attended such a ridiculous exhibition of inadequate dance teaching. Ella had hardly been talking for more than five minutes when we began looking at each other, rolling our eyes, and thinking "what is this silly girl going to say next?"
The first half of the session was given over to an explanation of A and B dancers - instead of male and female. The French Mazurka can be difficult to learn because of the steps, lifts and turns in both directions. It took me weeks if not months of sporadic practice. It is best taught to beginners if they are allowed to master either the man or woman part, at least to start with. Ella's method might have been more suited to a German (in line) mazurka or to people used to following dance instruction. Some people in the marquee had never danced before. They were shuffling around with no idea of what the actual dance was supposed to be like. My partner (a highly experienced dancer) couldn't believe she was seeing such a poor display of teaching.
At half time an experienced ceilidh and French dancer came over to me, rolled her eyes in the direction of Ella Sprung and by way of comment said "blah blah blah". I couldn't agree more. One woman had asked me if the method of instruction was more suitable for five year olds. I said it was perhaps a sex lesson for three-year-olds in that we were not allowed to talk about men and women but only peoples relationships and feelings of being held in certain positions.
As an example of the trivial content, Ella had us listen to some music which although well played was not the easiest of tunes for a beginner to follow. She then asked members of the audience what did the music do for you, how do you feel listening to the music what message or feelings did it give you etc etc This produced a predictably inane and meaningless selection of replies. Ella's response was (again predictably) always "oh that is interesting, does anyone else have a comment?" It was like daytime sofa TV, a painful discussion with no meaningful content.
Towards the end of the session somebody asked "do you think you could possibly just go through the simple dance so we could see what it looks like?"
"What a good idea!" said Ella, despite that she had spent an hour or more talking about A moves, B moves, feelings, etc with most people having learnt nothing. "Can we have a small group in the centre of the floor to show the simple dance?" Everyone moved to the centre.
Ella's partner (again an experienced dancer in his own right) even demonstrated the mazurka steps without lifting his feet from the ground! "What's he supposed to be doing?" asked an exasperated women standing nearby.
When the two of them showed the whole dance as a couple Ella (helpfully) took the man's part without saying she was going to do so, thus no doubt confusing some people even more.
Therefore no one really had any idea of what the dance looked or felt like - if you were dancing the traditional way of a man and a woman (how unusual for a couple dance!!) It was clear that people had no real idea which were the steps and which beats were the lifts. I said to several people I could teach that dance less than 15 minutes - and indeed I sometimes do. My partner for the day learnt nothing from Ella Sprung's 'teaching' but following my instructions she managed a quite passable mazurka after a few minutes of 1:1 teaching.
More comments in my folkdiary.
The next event was billed as a Scottish ceilidh with a young band Heron Valley. It was simply silly with the music far too loud, the dances more suited to children than to adults and with one dance, a version of the Dashing White Sergeant, being repeated twice within the same event. This was a new low in dance programming, even for Towersey festival. The caller just assumed we all knew a pas-de-bas step in Scottish dance - people had to teach or copy each other!
The dance as called included a double pa-de-bas and my two partners in the dance decided that in the second one we would do a reel instead, to relieve the tedium. It was a shallow and unsatisfactory event and not only because of the ridiculously loud music. Most of the dances were childishly simple or just plain silly.
The Family Ceilidh with the Towzer! band (mainly youngsters being watched by proud parents) gave a welcome relief from the offensive sound levels of most previous events. It was enjoyable mainly for that. One or two tiny dancers (maybe 5 years old) did very well under guidance. We avoided the roller disco in the late afternoon but attended the first half of the final ceilidh with Whapweasel. Predictably, the sound level was absurdly high - once again the festival sound engineer was in charge.
I only attended Towersey in 2016 because I didn't get myself organised in time to try Whitby - a 400 mile drive - despite the offer of a bed for the night mid-way in either direction. What would I miss about Towersey in 2017? Probably only one or two quality events (such as Topette in 2016), helping Madeleine Smith with her beginners lessons (something I particularly enjoy) and chatting to a few people on the campsite.
But is it worth driving 320 miles and paying £140 to the festival and maybe £50 in fuel just to attend a couple of events on what might be a rain soaked and cold camping site and with the prospect of most if not all ceilidhs being delivered at an ear-splitting volume? One acquaintance told me he felt as if he had been assaulted, such was the volume. Both he and his wife suffered the Whapweasel ceilidh with tissue paper stuffed in their ears. A few regular ceilidh dancers used high quality 'musicians' earplugs - but there were few accomplished ceilidh dancers there compared to a few years ago.
Unfortunately neither ear plugs nor tissue paper do much to diminish the low frequency assault upon one's head. One woman told me that a concert was so loud that the walls of the portable toilets 50 or 100 metres away were vibrating or 'shaking about' as she put it. I felt terrible for a week after the festival - (see my dance-diary for some amusing anecdotes). Ear plugs can be most effective in blocking very high frequencies - those that most readily cause hearing damage, but it is the low frequencies that seem to reverberate inside one's head, earplugs or no earplugs.
A local dance band leader told me in 2016 that at a previous Towersey she and her fellow band members thought the Bellowhead concert "sounded better a field away" - rather than anywhere near the venue.
I'll look into claiming a refund from my credit card company as the event was not 'fit for purpose' for a serious dancer, or maybe a small claims in the civil courts? I have six years in which to do that. It is also useful to compare the value offered by Sidmouth FolkWeek (if you happen to live in Sidmouth) to the far higher 'cost per unit dance' offered by Towersey. I'll do that sometime.
Towersey could probably attract many good dancers if they provided a competent sound engineer and told him (or her) to keep it down to a sane level. Unfortunately, with Simon Care of Tickled Pink in charge of the venue and (so I was told by senior stewards) neither Steve Heap nor Joe Heap being much interested in whether serious dancers attended or not (so long as the venues were packed with youngsters prepared to pay), no improvements seem likely to occur. It is a sad fate for what used to be a notable ceilidh festival, but maybe just a part of overall 'dumbing down' as loud 'rock' music takes over from what I would call folk dance music.
Another problem is that (so I have been told) some musicians who paid for stalls in the market-place venue (see section below) will not be returning in future years, They apparently found that there were few serious 'folkies' present who were interested in what they had for sale. One aspect of the 2016 layout was similar to the old 'Arena' venue of the Sidmouth festival (pre 2004) - there was an entrance fee just to get into the market place - or as some commentators put it - you were charged to go into a shop. This created some adverse comment in Sidmouth.
Site design and layout and the risk from terrorism.
link for radio 4 programme "You and yours" broadcast on 30 August 2016 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07q2d61
pdf of site layout from their website Towersey Map 2016 pdf file.
LICHFIELD - 2016
add material -
CHIPPENHAM - 2016
add material - re-order page once complete.
sidmouth folk festival section
folk dance clubs - my experiences
a folk dancer's diary - my 2016.