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Chippenham Folk Festival

Chippenham Festival is a wonderful four day Folk Festival at the end of May (Memorial Day Weekend) that takes over a whole town in the South of England (near Bath).  The town is wonderfully compact, walkable, and the Festival is teeming with people and events.  I can’t begin to tell you everything that happens over a typical festival weekend but I will try by focusing first on America’s obsession: Contras.

Several years ago Lisa Greenleaf, Nightingale, and a bunch of Americans dancers came to Chippenham.  They made a tremendous impact on British dancers.  British dancers have always danced Contras but it is not a separate dance form to them.  In any given evening they dance Contras mixed in with other dances -- Squares, English Country dances, Running sets.  They hardly ever devote a whole evening to Contras only.  The visit by Lisa Greenleaf & Nightingale, and the constant flow of dancers “across the pond” (in both directions) has changed all that.  British dancers are suddenly very interested in Contras.

The same summer that Lisa & Nightingale came to Chippenham, George Marshall & Wild Asparagus came to the weeklong dance Festival at Sidmouth.  By the end of that double infusion of Americans and American Bands & Callers, British dancers were suddenly giving eye contact and twirling at the end of ladies chains and rights & lefts through.  They are not at the mad stage we Americans have reached (constant twirls & eye contact with a vengeance) but they have discovered the joy of American Contras and they are ripe & ready to embrace Contras.

This past Chippenham (May 2000) there were Contra sessions every day and Contra dances every evening, but that is only a small part -- a very small part -- of what Chippenham has to offer.  Before Noon on the first Saturday of the Festival, you can choose any one of 25 workshops.  Another thirty two workshops were available between noon and five p.m.  What kind of workshops?  Circus skills, Junior Macramé, Concertina, Border Morris, Song Shop, Fiddle Workshops, Contra Dances “Off the Net,” Irish Music, Riverside Ceilidh, Story Telling, ECD, Rapper, Squares, Playford, Irish Sets, Clogging.  I can’t possibly list all the workshops, but clearly there is something for everyone -- and I haven’t even mentioned the pub sessions for musicians and the Concerts in the Arena.

Chippenham is non-stop dancing for dance enthusiasts.  At every hour of the day there is a dance somewhere, the level of dancing is high, the callers are among the best in England, and the bands are from England, the Continent and sometimes even from the U.S.A.  No dance Camp in America can match the variety of dance forms offered at Chippenham.  The whole operation dwarfs almost any weekend in America.  The Chippenham Festival takes over the whole town of Chippenham.

I could go on and on about Chippenham.  Clearly a great deal is there to do.  You can spectate, you can dance, you can learn to play an instrument at a very beginning level, you can join a musician’s jam.  You can watch Morris Dancers all weekend; you can shop for instruments and clothing; you can swim in the pool (there is even a dance in the pool: an Aqualidh); you can dance until past midnight.

Chippenham is a wonderful introduction into “all things British” on the dance scene.  Ceilidhs are a British dance form simply not available in America.  Ceilidhs are simple Contras (and Squares) done to Rock-like dance bands.  The beat is insistent and the dancers are far younger than any dance crowd you will find at an America Contra dance.  There are a huge number of teenagers and young children.  The dancing is vigorous -- lots of hop steps and “rants” -- and the music is loud, raucous.  You will get a work out and a half at any Ceilidh -- and there is a late-night Ceilidh every night of Chippenham.

The whole of Chippenham is unlike anything you will experience in America.  There is tremendous variety, there is a great deal on offer, and what is most wonderful of all is that all this takes place in a small town that seems to have been taken over completely by people who are dancers, musicians, callers, singers and story tellers.  It almost seems as if no one who is there is not part of the “Folk Scene.”  It is a mini-Woodstock, but a Woodstock devoted to our obsessions.

Copyright © 2001   Henry Morgenstein

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