When Ken McFarland offered to bring Wild Asparagus to the Sidmouth International Folk Festival in England the organizers asked, "Who's Wild Asparagus"? When Ken McFarland sought to bring Americans to the Sidmouth Festival, Americans asked "What's Sidmouth?"
Sidmouth is one of the most famous, week-long folk festivals in England. Since we Americans know next to nothing about Sidmouth, it is worth describing Sidmouth.
Sidmouth is a beautiful seacoast town and it hosts a week-long Festival of dance and music the first week of August. It is absolutely impossible to list all the events that take place: the Festival is huge, takes over the whole town. In fact, its very size is a slight drawback: punters ("customers") must walk long distances between events, and the town is quite hilly.
The cost of a ticket that allows you entrance to all events is under 100 pounds ($160) if you buy it months in advance. If you wait until the last minute, the cost is 120 pounds ($190). As the British say, it is good value for money. This ticket allows you entrance to the Arena where concerts go on day & night, and the performers are world renowned and local. In 1998 you could watch the Black Umfolosi from Zimbabwe, "Dance Company Yatran from the Ukraine, Areyto Ballet Folklorico from Puerto Rico, Ira Bernstein from the U.S., Folklor Kurumu from Istanbul, Kakatsitsi Master Drummers from Ghana, Stroud Morris & Hammersmith Morris from England -- and many, many more.
During the week you can take classes from almost any of the performers and they also have sessions where you can meet and chat with the performers. But for me, and for many of you reading this, it is the dance opportunities that we come there for -- and there are countless opportunities to dance. I attended Tango classes, Swedish & Danish couples dance classes, English Country Dances, Playford Balls, Irish Set dances, Running set dances, and of course, Contras with Wild Asparagus. On some days I danced twice to Wild Asparagus: a daytime workshop and an evening dance.
Every evening, for those who did not have enough dancing during the day, they have an LNE, or Late Night Extra. It is hard to describe the Late Night Extra, but it is huge fun and the energy is tremendous. Basically it is simple -- very simple -- Contra dances done to rock-like bands. The beat is loud, insistent, and the crowd is young and curvaceous and at times, almost out of control. LNEs are not for the faint of heart. It is almost always packed and the dancing is vigorous. A great many of the dances contain step hops, or rants: the dances are meant to wear you out. What is amazing is how few collisions there are. Though these people are not accomplished dancers, they do manage to learn the simple steps and they do manage to hurtle around without colliding.
One dance I remember vividly contained a down the hall and back and what was astonishing was how straight every line was, how evenly spaced they were. It was like military columns marching past me, but military columns of seething, writhing, humanity. These people were enjoying themselves in what we would say was a distinctly un-British way. Swings were cheek to cheek, breast to breast. Hops were wild, exuberant, almost out of control. If you can imagine the wildest Contra you have ever been to you can begin to imagine the Late Night Extra. One hour at an LNE will make you rethink everything you thought was true about the English and the way they dance. The generic name for this kind of dancing is Ceilidhs, and Ceilidhs occur in many British towns, but none are as vigorous as the ones that occur at festivals -- Sidmouth, Chippenham, for instance.
There are some drawbacks to Sidmouth: the dance floors are uneven, the distance between events is great, and the weather, especially if you are camping, can be horrific. A great many of the dance floors are horribly uneven -- dancers slide toward the bands or away from the bands. There simply aren't enough dance floors for the multiple events so a great many of the large dance floors are stitched together boards placed under marquees (The British word for large tents). There are only fifteen minutes between events and some of the events are so far away, and uphill, that you are exhausted before you begin to dance. The LNE, for instance, is way up the hill -- a full mile out of town. One can stay at a Bed & Breakfast, but you have to book way in advance. Many people choose to camp, and the camp grounds are huge, but when the rain falls, muddy.
I cannot recommend Sidmouth highly enough. Thousands of people are there -- thousands and thousands. And everybody is having fun. The town itself is beautiful -- with a long boardwalk on which there are continuous teams of Morris dancers. The food is terrific, varied. On the last day of the Festival there is a dance in a stream and another dance on the lawn of a hotel and a several hour long torch-light procession where all the performing groups file by and perform.
I have never danced so much, gotten so tired, as I did at Sidmouth. Sidmouth is most definitely "good value for money." Go there. You'll love it. You'll make friends and you will vow you will return. You should. There is nothing like it in the States, perhaps nothing like it in the world.
Copyright © 2001 Henry Morgenstein