Article in STS 74: (March 2012) Folk Dance Club Image and Finances and Sound levels at dances.

Folk dance at festivals might eventually cease to exist if local folk dance clubs closed. What are the key factors in forming and maintaining a successful club? Many clubs have an ageing membership. Some pundits predict that English Folk Dance will die within a decade. Yet a few new folk dance clubs are thriving. What is their secret?

Arguably, the most important contribution in the letters column of this issue was from Tony Weston. He addressed the 'bad image' of English Country dancing. Other (longer!) contributions in this issue were from me - and are also reproduced below. Tony Weston's letter is also cited here.

Tony Weston addresses the 'bad image' of English Country Dance

Dear Chris

I don't want to be thought of as a really miserable moaner, but I want to voice my entirely reasonable concerns- reflecting perhaps the concerns of a silent majority - about the presentation of English folk dance and particularly the very bad image of English Country dancing.

Walk into just about any folk dance club and you are at once presented with an aged audience often exhibiting signs of definite reluctance to dance, and more often than not remaining seated when the MC asks for sets to be formed.

When enough 'dancers' finally assemble, the dance performance varies from barely moving to brisk and elegant walking, without anybody actually dancing. Of course there are exceptions, and of course we all have a perfect right to attend a dance club without participating. But when the shufflers and sitters are in the overwhelming majority, do we present a reasonable advertisement for our shared passion?

The music - almost always recorded - is frequently poor, and sometimes impossible to dance to. The quality of the PA system is rarely as it should be either. The standard of teaching can reach very low levels, with irritable and rude callers imposing their poor preparation and inappropriate selection of material onto uncomplaining members. In many clubs the general ambience is shabby and unwelcoming, and few have any protocol or established system for welcoming new members. indeed, it seems that in very few clubs are new members actively recruited.

I've been dancing for over 50 years, and when I was younger the people dancing with me covered a whole age span from teenagers to great grand parents.

I want my love of dancing to be passed on to the next generations. I fear that the current process of presentation will seriously inhibit that. Are the readers of your magazine (our magazine?) planning to alleviate the problem?

Best wishes Tony Weston

In the case of Gittisham Folk Dance Club near Sidmouth the principal factor is probably the personalities of the key organisers. The club has also developed excellent relationships with many local bands - including some who often play at Sidmouth FolkWeek. So in a small village hall we have an excellent quality of live music most weeks and many if not most of our dancers are proficient enough to hold their own at either fast ceilidhs or social dances at folk festivals. So if we can do it - why can't others?

We recently revised our fee structure to address concerns raised by some of our bands: it is all explained in this article reproduced from the March 2012 issue of Set & Turn Single magazine. Future articles may expand on some of the other aspects of the club that (thus far) have made it so popular that high quality bands really do queue up to play for us! Also, there is interest in the wide range of fees paid to performers at festivals - the subject of a future article maybe!


In my role as treasurer of Gittisham Folk Dance Club in Devon I recently revised the expenses structure to give more weight to likely travel costs incurred by visiting bands and callers. No system is perfect, but I have been encouraged to present my ‘analysis’ as a basis for possible further discussion.

Prior to May 2011 we had the following simple structure: Band = 30, Separate caller = 20, Band with its own caller = 45 (in recognition of a likely element of car sharing), Caller with own music = 25.

People were generally happy with these arrangements, but bands with 3 or more members mentioned that they were being left with very little as a ‘per person’ reward for several hours work and often 7 to 8 in fuel costs. One of our favourite bands (that usually comprises 3 or 4 members) said that they would need to reconsider driving long distances if we could not pay more than 30. Of course, it is not only bands and callers who have to take into account increases in fuel duty – many dancers come from 20 or more miles away and spend maybe an average of 4 per person on transport.

Looking at our inherited structure (which was similar to that used by several local clubs), it occurred to me that when we had either a separate caller or a caller with music, these people might make a typical 'profit' after travelling expenses of 15 to 20 per person per night. In contrast, band members might make less than 5 each, again net of travel costs. Indeed, when we paid a band 30 for 4 members, and if one of them used his or her own car (maybe because of equipment transport) then a possible outcome would be a 'profit' of only 1 or 2.

It was the wish of the club committee that our admission charge of 2.50 would not be increased. To say that we are a committee is perhaps stretching a point - we call ourselves the polit-bureau because there are no minutes, no formal meetings and no arguments. And over matters of finance, what I say goes. (Sounds to me rather like how many successful folk festivals are run – as an autocracy! Ed)

In developing the new structure (which turned out to be very little changed from the old) I thought that the most equitable solution might be to reward each band member and caller with a ‘net profit’ of about 15 per evening. But we couldn't afford it at even 3 per dancer. This is because Gittisham club has a maximum capacity of about 45 (other local clubs can accommodate up to 75) and we have live music most weeks. Our hall costs are 22 per night and refreshments cost around 3 – so we need 10 dancers just to pay these overheads.

Callers would have revolted if I slashed their fees by 50% so in the new structure, a caller with their own music still gets 25. A band comprising 1 or 2 members now get 30, and a separate caller 20 (again, both are unchanged). However a band comprising 3 or more members now gets 40 (an increase of 10, which gives each member a maximum increase of 3.33 over what they got before), and a band with their own caller gets 50 (an increase of 5; this can be viewed as 20 for the caller and 30 for the band, even if the band has more than 3 members, as some car sharing is almost certain).

This proved to be the maximum amount of juggling possible within the constraints, although if starting with a blank sheet of paper and no innate expectations, callers would be paid less and bands more. Calling is hard work (I can testify) yet a good band can turn an average evening into a memorable one and both should ideally be rewarded with expenses that at least cover costs, and perhaps on a comparable per person basis.

Gittisham is a difficult balancing act because we need 80% of our capacity number of attendees just to break even when we have live music. Finances are kept in the black in part by occasional evenings where unpaid club callers hone their skills. In fact, these evenings are often quite memorable as well as turning in a profit of over 40. I did once threaten to lock the doors and not allow anyone home until they mastered a dance I was inflicting upon them. Seriously, many local folk dance clubs could do with a little more of a challenge!

To add a European perspective, a friend recently had two German visitors on a twinning weekend. We took them to a small local folk dance club and they later showed us how proficient they were at a wide range of dance – including boogie and disco-fox. I got my own back by casually teaching a French Mazurka.

In general however, it is not difficult to put the English to shame given our generally abysmal level of dance skills. Our German guests were also astounded that English folk dance bands would be prepared to play for such small amounts of money. In Germany it is apparently not unusual to have to pay 100 Euro per band member PER HOUR for weekend functions.

In preparing this article I suggested to a few local bands that they elect to play at club evenings in order to hone their skills and get better known for the more lucrative Saturday evening and wedding dances. I was fishing for ideas – but here are a couple of responses.

“When I've got 5 minutes, I'll work out and share with you how much I've personally spent on equipment, music, courses, petrol, uniform etc and not a Saturday night in sight. . .(not to mention all the money my parents spent on music lessons for me!)  It would be fun to bring this debate into a more public arena.  I think dancers might be shocked to find how much it costs most of us to play in bands so that other people can have live music to dance to. But I'm not complaining because I choose to play.”

“By the way, I remember Dave Brown saying that he was considering playing for jars of marmalade after these changed hands at a Halsway Manor auction for more than any of the bands or callers who offered their services in the same auction! Bands also need to pay insurance and PAT test as well as petrol to rehearse, replace equipment and buy new music- expenses aren't just fuel to gig and car wear and tear. However, it looks as if you're trying to be reasonable and help everyone.”

Members of another band were more analytical after I had explained why they had been paid only 30 one evening – because one of their number had not been able to play.

“Despite doing over 50 gigs a year, many of which are the weddings and parties that subsidise the Folk Dance Clubs, two of us shared a loss of 750 in 2009/10 and 60 in 2010/11. This is because we make sure the other member(s) are paid a decent rate. We also use our income to pay for pa equipment and instruments, insurance, PAT tests & advertising. So you can imagine it was disappointing when, without knowing the Gittisham pay structure, we were ‘reduced’ from 40 to 30 because one of the band members had been unable to show up.”

“However, we do it because we love to play for enthusiastic dancers, but dancers perhaps need to be more aware of the costs and effort involved in playing in a band. Often it can include checking and loading equipment from 6pm and not getting to bed until midnight.”

An example of the altruistic nature of some band members is that on one occasion they insisted on handing back 10 of the 40 offered, as dancer numbers were particularly low.

So, in summary, whilst many folk dance clubs might be unable to increase their admission fees very much without losing even more members (if only because folk dancers have become so used to getting something for almost nothing) it is clear that bands can be out of pocket overall on a year by year basis even taking into account (sometimes lucrative) weddings or Saturday evening dances.

Overall, the picture seems to be one of callers and especially band members working for a small fraction of the minimum wage and sometimes for pennies per hour. In contrast, dancers who live nearby get hours of entertainment for a few pounds and even those who travel 20 or more miles often spend in total less than 10 per person for an evening out.

With an average attendance of 30, an increase in entrance fee to 3 would provide an extra 15, enough to pay band members close to the ‘per person’ rate already received by callers. This may well be the next alteration to our financial structure. We could boost band remuneration markedly (increasing 30 to 45 and 40 to maybe 50) for an increase in gross entrance fee (including an assumed 4 in fuel costs) of less than 10%. I would be interested to learn if any other clubs have updated their fee structure.

Curiously, it is a wholly different story for Saturday dances and weddings. Bands charge typically 400 and callers can command 80 to 100 (I was even told of 300 for New Years Eve!). Here, the remuneration per person is much the same, and fuel costs become largely irrelevant. It seems to be only at local folk club evenings that bands are taken for granted.

There is a danger of course in making everything too commercial. It is important that dancers simply want to come to dance and bands want to come to play quite irrespective of the expenses paid. It is to be hoped that mid-week folk dance clubs do not seek to emulate some other forms of dance where evenings are usually run as a commercial enterprise. However, my defensive argument for Gittisham Folk Dance Club is that we are such competent dancers and such good fun to play for that bands and callers should pay to come, such is the entertainment value (and the tea and biscuits) that we provide. The proof is that (so far) bands continue to queue up to play for us!

Our ‘betwixt’ party night (held between Christmas and New Year) attracted a record 45 people and Stick the Fiddle played with Jane Thomas calling. People who are not so fortunate as to have so much talent living nearby can dance to this band at the 2012 Sidmouth FolkWeek – and in a large new dance hall adjacent to Waitrose. So you get food and wine just across the road, excellent music and a superb new dance floor – cheap at half the price! Sunshine and starlight may also be available.

Letter reproduced from Set & Turn Single magazine, issue 74, March 2012

Sound levels at ceilidhs

I was interested in the letter from Erica Hickson in STS 73 in which she complains about the level of amplification at some dances. This is not usually a problem at folk dances and especially not in village halls but has for some years been a major issue at folk festivals. It is here that some organisers and especially certain bands and their ‘sound crews’ seem to delight in attempting to inflict permanent hearing damage. With the price of high powered sound systems being nowadays quite modest, the problem has become widespread. Many regular ceilidh goers now use earplugs as a matter of course. The root of the problem is that, faced with sound systems of awesome power, many ‘sound crews’ seem to feel they are not doing a good job unless they utilise all the available power – much as tearaways in a fast car can conceive of no form of driving except ‘flat-out’. The mentality of these people (and their mental age) seems much the same.

For some years I have been conducting a mild internet-based ‘campaign’ against what I have termed the ‘morons’ who seem unable or unwilling to accept that most dancers go to ceilidhs to dance. They do not wish to be deafened. At some ceilidhs I resort to wearing earplugs (despite that they dull the senses and totally ruin the sound quality) and I simply avoid some bands completely. At a recent late night event at Sidmouth Folkweek the sound level was so high that I became disoriented – unable to explain a simple dance to some newcomers because I couldn’t tell right from left. Exposure to loud sound is of course a well known and effective interrogation technique!

The legal position is quite clear (yet inadequate). At work, one is entitled to protection from excessive noise under Health and Safety legislation but this does not apply at ceilidhs (except maybe to those who may be deemed to be ‘at work’ at such venues) and I would judge that close to the speakers the legally permissible sound levels are regularly exceeded. In some dances of course, even if you start well away from the speakers you may have no choice but to be close to them a short time later. Normal conversation within such venues is next to impossible.

Needless to say, I have suffered from being called quite a few things on internet ‘forums’ – those places where overgrown children babble to each other constantly whilst adding to their supposed 567 ‘friends’ on Facebook .
is they who say ‘get a life’ when I complain about being deafened! Readers who are not familiar with these things can try, search for ‘threads’ on Sidmouth Folkweek and you’ll find a rich assortment of diatribe and nastiness (and quite a few sensible comments from ‘Steve in Sidmouth’!)

Recently however, a few festival organisers seem to have taken a small amount of notice and I was heartened by a recent message on the Towersey website from no lesser a person than Steve Heap. Readers will know that Steve Heap and Mrs Casey’s Music ran Sidmouth International Festival until 2004. He is sometimes viewed as an irascible man (What, another one? Ed) but he has a history of ‘cutting edge’ involvement in folk music and including being a member of loud bands. All the more telling then that the situation has now got so out of hand at Towersey and elsewhere that he states “We will continue to upgrade venues and facilities whenever and wherever we can and try to curb the volume of some Ceilidh bands.” Unlike other festivals I may discuss in due course, Towersey is an event where both local village opinion and attendee feedback appear genuinely to be valued. Once I have some feedback from STS readers I may collate my various complaints over the years together with the vitriol I have received into a dedicated webpage. It is to be hoped that once there has been further publicity we can make some progress on lessening what has become a pervasive problem.

In the longer term, legislation may be the only effective answer. Recent research shows that thousands of the youngest rave and disco attendees are risking permanent hearing impairment (partial deafness, in other words). Should adults inflict such harm on impressionable youngsters and in the pursuit of profit? This is after all the same society where you can be prosecuted for mistreating a goldfish.

The defences employed by people who are willing supplicants to the prevalent nonsense fall into three categories: claims that attendees want the music that loud, claims that it’s not possible to turn down the overall volume without destroying the balance or ‘losing’ some of the instruments and claims that it is really not loud at all, being ‘approved’ by local council Environmental Health Officers who measure average sound levels well away from the speakers. Such measurements are of course largely irrelevant. I do of course look forward to further insightful contributions from various ‘sound engineers’.

I have spoken to probably a hundred people over the years about these issues, and from teenagers upwards. None have wanted the music so loud, many say ‘it’s just the way it is these days’. Some either leave venues or simply don’t go at all. In essence, it happens because seemingly disinterested and/or inadequate folk festival directors are unable or unwilling to exercise any proper control over what happens at their events. Maybe it is time for some concerted complaints both from local residents and festival attendees?

Stephen J Wozniak


Index page for STS articles and letters.

Top of folk clubs page - folk dance clubs in Devon (etc)

Gittisham Folk Dance club - the original website

Sidmouth Folk Festival - the history since August 2001

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 dancing.