Jackie Butler learns about the dancing of Sidmouth FolkWeek as it approaches 60.
It all began with some 100 people gathering for a “seaside holiday with dancing” in the pretty, walled Connaught Gardens on the seafront at Sidmouth. Sixty years on, the East Devon town’s FolkWeek is the best-loved and most significant knees-up on the folk calendar, as well as being one of the oldest folk festivals in Europe.
From August 1 to 8, this picturesque Regency coastal resort will once again be awash with thousands of folk lovers from around the globe, its streets resounding to the tip-tapping of dancing shoes, harmonious voices raised in unison and the soothing strum of guitars, all held together by a warm communal spirit.
It promises to be its customary colourful spectacle, but with some extra sparkle to mark its diamond anniversary in style, involving friends old and new. Music will echo from a myriad venues, from the 1,100-seater concert marquees hosting major headline acts like Cara Dillon, Oysterband and Steve Knightley to small pub session singalongs, and buskers on the pavements.
From the 100 who came 60 years ago, this year they’re expecting around 65,000 folk fans and casual observers to turn up over the week to enjoy family friendly music, dance, ceilidhs, storytelling, workshops and special children’s events.
It was Eileen Phelan of the English Folk Dance and Song Society – who died aged 90 just before last year’s festival – who suggested Sidmouth as a fine location for a West Country offshoot of their Stratford-upon-Avon Folk Festival.
Little did Eileen know as she negotiated the bureaucracy necessary to establish such an event to promote the tradition of folk dance, that she was creating an entity with such longevity and resilience.
For it hasn’t always been an easy ride for the festival. The first one ran from July 30 to August 6 1955, setting a precedent for the festival timing to always include the first Monday in August. It was a huge success and got under people’s skin immediately.
Les Barclay, a first festival “survivor” remembers his “legs aching with all the dancing” by the middle of the week. And, along with Pam Berry, who was an eight-year-old at the debut event, Les will be back for more in 2014 to lead an opening The Way We Were dance, as well as sharing his memories of the first festival in an interview with fellow veteran Eddie Upton.
Sidmouth quickly became a “must” in the folk dancers’ calendars. There was a brief sojourn to Exmouth in 1959 and 1960, but as Aileen Wills, one of the early EFDSS organisers, puts it, “the atmosphere was wrong and it soon returned to Sidmouth!” And there it has remained ever since, sometimes against the odds, waxing and waning with the tide and the climate, both meteorologically and metaphorically, facing major successes and severe challenges.
For its first 30 years the festival was organised by the EFDSS and in the 1960s, under the direction of Bill Rutter, the festival broadened its horizons from small-scale dance event into major international festival.
In 1963, the Rory O’Connor Irish Dancers were the first overseas dance group to appear, and from that point onwards an increasing focus on international dance, alongside British ritual dance groups, at twice-daily dance and music shows.
By the end of the decade audiences had blossomed so much that the displays had to move from the Connaught Gardens to the natural amphitheatre at The Knowle.
Performers from all five continents were watched by thousands of festival-goers, sitting on picnic rugs on the bank overlooking the stage.
Notable performances through three decades included the French stilt dancers Lous Las Aygues, the Apple Chill Appalachian Cloggers, the Sicilian jug-throwing Gruppo Folk Canterini della Riviera Jonica, the masked carnival dancers of Ponte Caffaro, Italy, the Sbandieratori dei Borgh e Sestieri Fiorentini flag throwers and the Hupsakee from Amsterdam.
This was all way before the world music explosion of the 1980s, confirming Sidmouth’s agenda as a trendsetter. Dance may have dominated in those early years, but in 1962, Bill Rutter began to introduce daily folk song sessions – there were only a handful of folk clubs in the UK then.
Article source: http://www.westerndailypress.co.uk/Diamonds-soles-shoes-Sidmouth/story-21964809-detail/story.html