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 Internet.

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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Stephen Wozniak challenges us to be internet aware!

Article published in Issue 68 of S&TS, March 2011.

In STS 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 don’t - 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 50’s, maybe a few students and few (if any) people in their 20’s, 30’s or 40’s. 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 (I’d 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 - I’m 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 can’t 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 wasn’t a joke - I’ve 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 1960’s - 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 club’s 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 as Google.

So 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?

For 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 ‘what’s 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 ‘what’s 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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. That’s 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 years.


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?

The 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.

However, 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 time.

But 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.

Retaining 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 it’s 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 don’t 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 don’t 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.

next page (Excerpts from article in EDS, Spring 2011, by Madeleine Smith)

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