Article published in Set & Turn
Single magazine, (issue 68, March 2011) and concerning the decline of folk dancing clubs
in the UK, dancing at Sidmouth FolkWeek, opportunities for a revival and use of the
Coincidentally, the Spring 2011 issue of
EDS (the glossy magazine of EFDSS) contained an article by Madeleine Smith also centred in
part on the need for more teaching of folk dance. Details are given below.
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ongoing discussion of folk dancing in the UK - and what might be done to help reverse the
decline. A few of the many letters in issue 67 are reproduced here.
(no longer relevant : STS as a printed
magazine was discontinued as of June 2016.)
Stephen Wozniak challenges
us to be internet aware!
Article published in Issue
68 of S&TS, March 2011.
66 Sibby offers some interesting ideas about how (and whether) folk dance clubs in the UK
could be revived. Key questions are how to attract and keep new members. I can offer some
data and conclusions about the use of the internet.
I have been dancing for only a few years but now regularly attend several festivals
(Chippenham, Eastbourne, Sidmouth, Towersey and others). When in Devon, I am lucky to have
local groups nearby who do Irish Set, English Folk, English Ceilidh, French and Breton -
all of which I support. I do a small amount of calling and teaching. However, a wide
choice of clubs and several local websites does not prove that all is well with folk
dancing either locally or in the UK - far from it.
I use the internet extensively. As a scientist, I am perhaps more than usually interested
in how it works and what data can be extracted. Sibby suggests that every local club
should have a website. Despite the fact that I run the website of Gittisham Dance Club in
Devon, maintain an extensive archive on the Sidmouth Festival and provide publicity for
many one-off' local dances, I would argue that the internet is the least
useful of all resources, at least for local events. The opposite conclusion may be true
for large festivals and national youngster-dominated events such as IVFDF.
Because for years I have run a campaigning website (www.SeeRed.co.uk) I
utilise programs that tell me which of my 500 webpages are most read, when and (sometimes)
by whom. It is perhaps not well known that every time you access a webpage you leave
traces on web server logs and on any linked statistics programs. I could elaborate on IP
numbers (and IP masking), RIPE, APNIC, LACNIC and other databases, seo, DNS numbers and
the like (please dont - Ed) but of more relevance are my conclusions.
Somewhat coloured then by my experience of Sidmouth and its festival, what are the
problems of folk dancing? Most callers and attendees are either old or (as Sibby mentions)
part of the fossil record. Clubs sometimes use cassette tapes and poor quality amplifiers
that are hardly the stuff of the iPod age. So neither the incumbents nor the
infrastructure may appeal to youngsters - even if some of the dancing could.
Many universities have folk dance clubs and the best of these dancers are superb -
witness any IVFDF, if you can keep up with them. Some will become the social dancers of
the future. But look around any folk dance hall and (exceptions aside) you will find a
large number of over 50s, maybe a few students and few (if any) people in their
20s, 30s or 40s. Although a proper survey could establish this in some
detail, I would suggest that many or most social dancers may have taken up the hobby in
middle age. If even a fraction of the dancers who were expert in their university days
continued folk dancing then one might expect to see more people in all age groups.
Here is a rough calculation! There are about 2 million UK students at UK
universities. The 2009 IVFDF in Exeter attracted about 1000 student folk dance and ceilidh
experts from across the UK spread across (say) 4 years of university life, or some 250 per
year intake. If these are only half the total of keen and competent youngsters, that is
240,000/ 2,000 or one competent youngster for each 120km2 - an area of land 11km by 11km.
Even if you multiply by 5 (effectively including 20 years worth of students) they are
still pretty thin on the ground. Of course there is the substantial concentrating effect
of the large cities and there are surely many more young folk dancers than manage to trek
to IVFDF each year. Dividing 2 million by 1,000 yields a reliable figure: 1 in 2,000 UK
students as keen folk dancers attending IVFDF.
The decline of social dancing at Sidmouth FolkWeek (and its rise at Broadstairs) has led
me to wonder are there sufficient competent social dancers to go round? How many
are there per square kilometre in both cities and the countryside and what steps could be
taken to increase their numbers? As travel costs increase, the density of dancers becomes
more relevant - in rural areas it is already normal to travel 30 or 40 miles to a dance
(fuel costs = £10) and with admission at £4. What if fuel costs doubled?
The Southam Gathering (Id never heard of it until I read STS!) is limited to 200.
Sidmouth attracts maybe 150 nowadays compared with perhaps 800 pre-2005. So in all, maybe
there are 2,000 competent dancers who regularly attend one or more UK festivals you
do tend to see all the familiar faces at every festival and the total may be much lower.
Yet the vast majority of folk dancers attend only their own local clubs of about
200 dancers I know by sight around Devon, maybe 3 buy a season ticket to Sidmouth
FolkWeek. Even if the grand total is 20,000 it is still only 1 out of every 3,300 of the
population. If you take local Sidmouth area attendees as representative (3 attending out
of 200) the grand total (based on 2,000 attending festivals) becomes 133,000 which seems
far too large. This suggests that Sidmouth may have a particular problem of local dancers
not attending their local festival.
In the STS listings of all folk dance clubs holding regular meetings, there are around 600
entries. If each club has 30 active members (a guess), the total for the UK is 18,000
dancers, so 20,000 seems a reasonable round figure.
We can try another calculation: the whole of Devon has an area of 6700 km2, a population
of 1.1 million and I would guess around 500 regular social dancers: about 1 in 2000 of the
population and (averaged over cities and countryside) a dancer for each 13.4 km2. I am
here just encouraging people to think in numerical terms - Im not claiming any of my
figures are highly accurate! But already we can see why small local rural dance clubs
struggle: there are just not enough dancers within travelling distance. In STS 67 (Jan
2011) Bob Brand suggests that people may need to make 'longer journeys for a richer dance
experience'. But we already travel 30 or 40 miles!
Accurate data can be obtained from Exeter University where there is a thriving folk music
and folk dance club and some excellent dancers. The university has 12,000
undergraduates and more than 20 students go to IVFDF here the ratio is quite
encouraging - better than 1 in 600. Exeter
also has a folk music element with 10 band members. The average turnout for a society
dancing session is about 30, with 20 of those being students.
Yet taking the figures for the UK as a whole we need to ask - is it this bad in mainland
Europe where every village and town has its dance troupes and where so many youngsters (5
to 35!) seem to be expert dancers?
I suspect the UK has several linked problems: folk dance as a part of national culture is
largely confined to Morris and is the butt of easy ridicule. The English are highly
self-conscious and unlike in much of mainland Europe, they have little firm sense of local
or even national identity. In Brittany (for example) or in most of Eastern Europe, there
are strong village and regional traditions and these include dance, from an early age and
often in public. Where in the UK can children learn folk dancing in a social context with
their parents? Certainly not in the streets and not at a typical ceilidh where the music
is so loud as to constitute a risk to future hearing. I have known many people leave
festival ceilidhs because of the absurd sound level.
It will be a
long process to get folk dancing more into the mainstream - you cant just impose a
tradition! So the solution may need to include coupling folk dance to activities that have
far wider contemporary mass appeal - keeping fit and internet dating would be
possibilities. That wasnt a joke - Ive analysed a few dating websites: you may
have more chance of finding a partner at a large dance than you have by trawling through
hundreds of stereotypical adverts for several years. Speed-dating for the 18-30 set is
popular in the big cities and unknown elsewhere, simply because target population density
is too low. Yet there are millions of variously sad and lonely younger people in the UK -
attracting even a tiny fraction of these to dance could transform the scene as well as
helping to keep the population fit.
Gittisham (In Devon - Ed!) Folk Dance Club is probably an unusual example of what can be
achieved. It is only a few years old but members come from 30 or more miles away.
Excellent local bands queue up to play and the atmosphere is a world away from that found
in many other folk dance clubs - which are run much as they were in the 1960s - and
by the same people! Gittisham does have an attractive website (you would say that - Ed)
including an up to date list of dance dates. But the website has been and continues to be
an almost complete irrelevance to the clubs success. It has made running the club
more efficient (people can check on-line if events have been cancelled owing to snow), it
has enabled hundreds of publicity cards bearing club details to be handed out at other
local dances and ceilidhs and it is linked from our regional folk event listing site -
www.devonfolk.co.uk. Yet none of this has had any significant impact - and I can prove it!
Type folk dance steps into Google and my website is usually in the first few
entries out of 30,000. Ask Google for 'Gittisham dance' and up pops the relevant page. Ask
for 'folk dance in Devon' and there you are! Achieving
a 'first page rank' on Google is crucial for website exposure. It can help to
be part of a large site - tiny sites may be ignored by search engines such
what information can be winkled out from site log files? I will not elaborate on HOW it is
done (for this we are grateful - Ed). Hundreds of people access the SeeRed folk dance
steps page each month (www.seered.co.uk/folkdance.htm). So there is some considerable
interest but from whom I know not, maybe existing dancers?
some time the page was all-in-one and exceedingly long. I split it into two, and this
afforded an opportunity to see how many visitors made it to page 2. Very few of them! Some
entered the site at page 2 but very few indeed read all of page 1 and entered page 2 from
there. Either the page(s) are not of interest once found, or people give up before
reaching the end, maybe returning another day. All I can say is that maybe hundreds of
people do seek basic information about folk dancing. And in case you are wondering, the
number of people who searched for each keyword or phrase on my website is logged daily and
recorded for all time! (Wonderful news! - Ed)
Knowing the number of hits on a first page Google rank webpage allows some
estimation of the total number of people searching for that topic. For folk dance steps it
is thousands in a week but when you strip out the 90% of people who stay on a page for
less than 10 seconds (typical as an internet concentration span) the number intent on
sustained study is pitifully low. Whatever initiatives are developed to improve the image
and appeal of folk dancing, using the internet seems likely to be the least productive.
Commercial websites aim for at least 100,000 hits per month. Many achieve far more. In
contrast, my Gittisham webpage has only 10 to 30 hits per month - half occurring before
dances with members checking who is playing or the state of the snow. The response to
doling out hundreds of publicity cards at other dances is almost zero. Out of maybe 100
people who have ever danced at Gittisham I am aware of one couple who came (whilst on
holiday) having found us via the website. As a marketing tool it is useless, in large part
maybe because the only age group at all interested do not use the internet as their prime
source of whats on. They talk to real people instead, friends,
relations, neighbours. This is how word seems to spread in middle age, even in the
internet age. It may even be true for IVFDF where one comment in the minutes of the 2009
meeting was 'IVFDF website very little response'.
Local bands too (and even some callers) now have their own websites, yet again the vast
bulk of bookings are via personal contacts, personal recommendations and personal
knowledge. Good quality youtube videos and sound clips may hold peoples attention
once they are devotees but first you need to entice them to folkdance!
Regional volunteer-run websites such as devonfolk are a useful resource for existing
dancers and other folkies who want to check whats on. Often in the last
few years, I have created specific publicity webpages for charity ceilidhs or barn dances.
One example is www.seered.co.uk/broadclyst.htm. I had it put on devonfolk with a link to
my venue photo and maps. I couldnt have been made easier for people to find out
about the event and how to get there. Yet after many weeks and hundreds of leaflets being
handed out at other dances and our local Exeter ceilidh, the number of hits on
the broadclyst webpage was about three. It didnt help that the devonfolk website
failed during a crucial week but the experience was typical nevertheless. And on the night
who turned up? One person as a result of all the publicity and almost no-one from the
local village despite posters in shops, etc. Small clubs should think three times before
spending funds on creating and running their own website and especially if it is a small
stand-alone effort that may never even make it onto Google.
All of this suggests that folk dancing is substantially a closed world with an ageing
population. So how to attract newcomers? I have already mentioned linking with other
organizations and facilitating children coming with their parents. Folk dancing should be
made to be such fun, with so much flirting and panache that bystanders might feel a little
moved to try it. At the Sidmouth festival (as was, pre-2005) the dance music spilled out
onto the streets and people watched the sheer fun (and obvious expertise) being displayed
in large marquees. Thats why I started.
I have been involved in several small local charities where the knee-jerk reaction of some
people is we must have a website. But will anyone ever read or act upon it
except the small number of people who were involved in its creation? Only if it is part of
a high-media-profile cause or maybe as an adjunct to much additional and more
traditional publicity. Simply having an internet presence emphatically does not guarantee
success. Once attention has been gained (by other means) a website can offer back-up and
further information, but it remains optional.
Internet publicity for ceilidhs and dances is a particularly blunt instrument. As a
recruiting tool it seems almost useless. These conclusions are not from just one of two
isolated events - they are what I have carefully observed many times and over several
In order to attract anyone to a dance hall the approach needs to be far more personal.
Maybe free taster sessions, maybe free or subsidized teaching, maybe allied to local (or
national) internet dating clubs. But to retain anyone even half young, the music and
calling must be either very good (or better) and the ambiance must be fun as opposed to
dowdy one regimented dance after another, extended breaks for the over 70s to
get their breath back and a quiet hushed chat over tea.
Look up 'East London Dance' on Google - lessons in folk dancing with Kerry Fletcher. These
are likely to be booked out, as was her recent Eurobash event in Kent. There is no lack of
interest in dance, especially if it is subsidised! Is it just local club folk dance that
is in the doldrums, and maybe just the rural clubs?
personal touch is what perhaps sets Gittisham Folk Dance Club apart: the sheer
joie-de-vivre of two or three of the key organizers and participants. Take the key people
away and it might flop, as indeed might many large folk festivals. Our success owes almost
nothing to all my internet publicity! The
same conclusion may apply in respect of the thriving folk dance club at Exeter University:
year upon year several people (not students) act as mentors.
the internet might be more use if an attempt were to be made to attract specifically
people from dating websites who were already attuned to using the internet for hours at a
there is a problem of psychology: people who are happy enough to chat on-line
for hours at a time to complete strangers, to exchange photos and discuss details of their
lives might be reticent to go to a dance alone. How many times have you seen newcomers
huddled together in a group? It can take some effort even to prise one of them out of
their comfort zone and onto the dance floor. So it may be better somehow to attract small
groups: bring three friends and get your tickets half price? Yet some dance clubs for
beginners are oversubscribed - salsa for example. Yet salsa is far more difficult to
learn! Maybe the people who sign up are already dancers? Maybe the principal problem with
folk dancing is simply one of image, and unfortunately it is not an image that would be
dispelled by visiting most local clubs.
timid newcomers is essential and club expert dancers can play a vital role in
making newcomers feel at home and showing them exactly how things are done. At too many
dances and festivals experts dance only or primarily with their own partners or groups,
leaving casual attendees watching from the sidelines with a mixture of awe and loneliness.
Newcomers cannot learn with each other: a pool of expert dancers is needed.
There is surely FAR TOO LITTLE proper structured teaching of folk dance. I have seen many
people try it once, decide its all too complicated and depart in embarrassment and
despond. TEACHING, even if boring and maybe tedious for a while is in my view the best way
to instil confidence. I wish someone had taught me, instead of leaving me largely to pick
up the pieces after every failed dance. I nearly gave up many times.
Some dance teachers try to make every lesson fun, fun, fun - fine in a shallow way but you
dont learn very much. Often at ceilidhs I take people aside and tell them exactly
how to do a move they were having trouble with - most often they are very grateful. People
(especially children) WANT to learn, they dont enjoy feeling inadequate, they are
not averse to being TAUGHT but where are the opportunities? I remember particularly a
comment from Colin Hume at Chippenham Festival some years ago - he was stressing the
importance of dancing BETTER. His point was that you really only start to enjoy dancing
when you can do it so well that you can forget worrying about the next move, and he was
encouraging everyone to strive constantly to improve. There is little lasting satisfaction
in just thrashing about at a ceilidh, annoying the good dancers and never improving, yet
this is all that some festivals offer - apart from music that is far too loud!
I have touched here on just one or two aspects of the problem of folk dance clubs dying
out . I have perhaps a little more knowledge than some club organizers of how useful
(or not) the internet can be. Sibby touches on many other points. I guess my plea is for
discussions to be based around data.
Index page for STS articles and letters.
Top of folk clubs page - folk dance clubs in Devon
Gittisham Folk Dance club - the original website
Sidmouth Folk Festival - the history since
How to run a folk dance club - experiences over 15 years
(most pages not yet completed)
Folk Dance Diary 2016 - highlights of a year of folk