Reviews of folk dance festivals in the UK, 2016. (this page should be published in its final form sometime in 2017)

Press freedom.  Guardian editorial, London, England. 15 August 2016

Journalists do not deserve protection because they constitute a privileged group; they need it because they can show the world as it really is..... There is a reason why people so often want to shut them up. Halting print runs, closing down websites, silencing radio stations.... are all ways of concealing misdeeds, preventing scrutiny or simply blocking alternative viewpoints. But such actions also serve to remind us all why press freedom matters.

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.

Festivals covered are Lichfield, Chippenham, Sidmouth and Towersey.

All of this 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.


SIDMOUTH 2016

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.

Summary of dance events at Towersey festival 2015, as submitted to STS.

Towersey festival in 2015 provided the full range of workshops - and dance teachers. These seem to fall broadly into two groups. Some wish primarily to show how good they are. They nip smartly through a range of moves whilst beginners look on admiringly. Then the experts and devotees launch into a session of advanced dance leaving newcomers gasping.

The salsa workshop led by Hannah Moore fell into this category, made worse by the fact that the ensuing dance music was from a 20 piece band and so loud that not even earplugs made it bearable. Hannah reminded me of Anne Leach at Eastbourne many years ago - small, blonde, competent and most suited to teaching experts a few extra tricks.

The other annoying thing about Hannah Moore was her use of phrases straight out of the Kerry Fletcher Handbook of Hyperbole - "you are amazing dancers" (not true), "you're all fantastic" (ditto), "Aren't we having a wonderful time?" (in the wind and rain). Hannah added yet another: "cool" as a description of dancers as opposed to the weather. It is all so shallow once you've heard it half a dozen times - and such a contrast to the professionalism of Tom Hinds at Sidmouth.

At the other end of the scale, Madeleine Smith provided competent and well delivered workshops on basic English country dancing and also on clog dancing - something I had never tried before and I even got to the stage of doing a few steps correctly. The music for the clog workshop was all you needed - just a single musician on a recorder. You don't need a 20 piece band and a range of large amplifiers, you just need a good teacher.

Kerry Fletcher taught a large range of European dances (thankfully I could teach some of them myself so I didn't need to concentrate too hard). She packed a lot into the time available but she has yet to teach me the polska. Hannah Moore was kind enough to spend a minute trying but I'm afraid it was a wasted effort - I've only ever done polska well once in my life (at Towersey) and with a woman I just seemed to gel with on a temporary basis. I can still remember the elation as we got it right.

The award for best workshop goes to Gog Magog Molly whose unassuming instructors (many of them mathematicians from Cambridge) led us through a complete GMM dance to the stage where most of us not only got it but felt we wanted more. A local dancing partner was so enthused she wanted to start a molly club! This was dance instruction as it should be - clear, measured, competent and with help always on hand from experts assigned to look after every set. We ended up doing the complete dance and feeling we had really achieved something. In fact the dance wasn't difficult - just rather unusual. I can still remember some of it!

The prize for the most inane use of a superb (albeit steeply sloping) dance floor in what used to be called the ceilidh tent was a session of roller skating to disco music. It was just what serious dancers needed. Music so loud as to be silly and a few children and their parents gliding uncertainly around the floor avoiding the damp patch (from a leak in the roof). A steward caught my grimace as I left

"Put it on your feedback form, we couldn't quite believe it either".

Steve Heap brought in a couple of first aiders in full fluorescent regalia - "Just in case we need them".

As one dancer (and callers wife) said to me - it was a complete waste of a dance session. Instead of Madeleine Smith having to pack up and leave she could have continued for a further hour with clog dance and to an attentive and appreciative audience. Or aspiring ceilidh dancers could be retaught swinging and ladies chains (etc) for an hour. Or we could have had another Molly session.

The official photos from Towersey (in 2015, now no longer available online?) tell you all you need to know about their perceived priorities. There are a few scattered photos of dance, few or none of the serious dance workshops and quite a few of the roller-skating. I discussed with several people the demise of stewarding and site security at Towersey over recent years. This seems to have coincided with Joe Heap having taken over much of the responsibility from Steve Heap.

Also with Simon Care from Tickled Pink in charge of the ceilidhs, I guess we'll all either have to buy a higher grade of earplug or suffer (but not in silence). I'm still quite annoyed. Maybe next year I'll try Whitby - I'm told the fish and chips are quite good, but it's a long way from Sidmouth. And I'm told the music is far too loud. Even Sarah Bazeley of the Dartmoor Pixies said to me she thought their ceilidh at Towersey had been too loud - and it certainly was.

One lady (obviously a devotee of the Pixies) said to me that the whole event was had been spoiled by being far too loud. She was quite cross. In contrast Jam and Crumpet were superb - but some of the same musicians in Steamchicken were loud. So don't tell me it's not possible just to turn it down!

Is there some immutable law that states that evening dances have to be so loud that people wear earplugs as a matter of routine? Are they now a must-have fashion accessory?

Workshops could logically be scored on these factors.

Quality of tuition - so people actually retain something instead of just having a happy or silly time for an hour or so.

Music - if it was what was necessary then it scores 100%. If it was vastly too loud, probably quite expensive and didn't contribute to the teaching at all, it scores 0%.

The floor. The surface in the ceilidh tent was superb (100%) except that the slope was far too steep (so it scores 70% overall) The floor Madeleine Smith had to contend with in a smaller venue was very poor.

On this basis, the Gog Magog Molly workshop scored an overall 90%.

A similar scoring system could be used for ceilidhs. Maybe it is time festivals spent less money on the plethora of banners, fancy signs, marketing and overly loud and maybe expensive bands and a little more on decent floors and tuition. We need serious dancers to be put in charge!

(End of article submitted to STS in 2015.)


TOWERSEY 2016: a review of dance events.

Brief summary!  Towersey has always been an enjoyable and in some respects a uniquely enjoyable dance festival, albeit with some element of 'thrash-around' late night dance mainly for younger and/or inebriated people. Some of the dance teaching over the last ten years has been very good indeed. Late night events were easily avoided - but they were loud enough that you could listen to them 200 metres away in your caravan or tent. I attended a few during my first years at Towersey (maybe 2007 to 2009). Some details of an early event are given here and here (add pdf links,        add emails sent to Sue W c. 2010)

Sound levels in daytime and early evening ceilidhs increased over the years and became almost unbearable around 2010/2011. Steve Heap then imposed a limit on these excesses, much to the relief of many dancers. A sensible sound engineer was employed and the festivals in 2012 and 2013 (check dates) and to some extent that in 2014 also had reduced sound levels. In 2015 things got markedly worse (see 2015 summary above) and in 2016 the sound levels were absurd - so loud that I felt ill after a few hours exposure (and despite wearing earplugs). It took me days to recover. Other dancers told me they had felt 'assaulted' by the sound levels.

The craze to use louder and louder music at Towersey seems centred on Simon Care - a member of the band Tickled Pink and now the venue organiser for the Festival Dance House (previously known as the ceilidh tent). His personal views are "if you don't like it loud then stay away" - he told me as much in an email several years ago.

Given that Towersey in 2016 was in all a painful experience (despite a number of superb dance partners, quite a few hugs and one or two enjoyable dance sessions) I doubt if I shall choose to suffer it again while music for dance is played at such absurdly high volume. Towersey offers much as a 'family' campsite but I go only for the ceilidhs and dances. My ticket and fuel costs total around 200 - and for that I could almost buy a Sidmouth FolkWeek season ticket and have some superb dancing every day for a week. For example see here and here. (Travel costs me nothing - I live in Sidmouth!).

Maybe in 2017 I should attend if I can borrow an integrating and peak sound level (dB) meter to record what dancers and stewards are exposed to - the stewards being in a place of work and subject to H&S legislation? During one ceilidh the 'official' sound level meter was peaking at over 90dB but during the louder Tickled Pink ceilidh it mysteriously was not on view. (The decibel measure of sound dB is a log scale which means that 85 is far louder than 80, although the numbers are similar. Sustained exposure of 90 to 95 dB may result in hearing loss, and it is possible such levels are attained in ceilidhs near the speakers. A loud rock concert is betweeen 110 and 115 dB - and in industry hearing protection would be advised if not mandatory. At 91dB the permitted exposure time before hearing damage may occur is a few hours - or a few ceilidhs.)

In 2016 people were also leaving the concert venues at Towersey because they said the music was too loud - but as several people said to me - if Joe Heap can fill the venues easily with people who either suffer or don't care, and if the loud music attracts crowds of youngsters, why should he bother about a few serious dancers? Towersey in 2016 was notable for the absence of many previously regular 'good' ceilidh dancers - so maybe they too have voted with their feet.

Amongst the possible improvements to Towersey would be having a second similarly sized dance marquee to cater for what might be the majority of dancers including those interested in doing slightly more challenging dances than those offered in 2016. Indeed in the past, the late night loud thrash-about dance events were held in a separate venue - then called the Festival Dance House whilst ceilidhs (and including some more challenging dances) were held in the Ceilidh Tent (but this is now called the FDH!)

A more complete event by event summary for 2016 will be published later.


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