I’m writing this on the train home from Towersey Festival to which I had been invited by my friends Nat and Sophie to help out with some swing teaching and performing for the Shooting Roots line-up. Towersey was my introduction to folk festivals, and it felt like a gateway to a fascinating world of music and dancing to discover. Nat and I were there to teach a 1 hour Lindy hop class and to do some dancing with a band in the evening (see the gig notes below for info).

Towersey felt quite unlike any festival I’d been to before, and I think the main difference is the way in which people are engaged with the music and dance that is being performed. The crowds are attentive; they really listened in our lesson; they were really paying attention in the band performances. People are having a great time but there is none of the rowdiness, (except for being kept awake by a choir singing in four part harmony at 1am in the campsite). I love the way people carry around instruments, and there is space for people to jam. There was also the largest selection of real ales I’ve seen at any festival. And what’s more people walk around with their own tankards, which as far as I’m concerned is the best way yet to reducing festival waste.

Dipping my toes into this world, I realise how ignorant I am of the huge range of folk dance traditions that exist out there. Fortunately, my knowledge of lindy hop turned out to be a valuable stock in trade, which opened up fascinating exchanges of dance skills.

Immediately a woman jumped up from the seats and asked if we were attempting the French Mazurka

By way of example, we were dancing along to the Maniere de Bohémiens (SoundCloud | Facebook), doing a bit of Balboa and fast Lindy. Then the band switched to a waltz. Usually I am stuck when it comes to 3-4. But this time Nat and had a go at some hopping waltz footwork that I had spotted someone doing in the south of France last week. Immediately a woman jumped up from the seats and asked

‘are you attempting the French Mazurka?’

It seemed likely, and so she offered to teach us some steps in return for some Charleston steps. She went on to explain how the Mazurka is danced differently in various parts of France, reminding me of the town-to-town variations in the Big Apple dance in the USA.

Much later, a dozen or so people broke into a spontaneous Charleston stroll on the dance floor, unprompted by us, but using the steps we’d taught earlier. Someone then explained to us how the footwork is identical to a traditional folk dance called the lemon tree. I come home from Towersey excited by the rich variety of traditional dances that exist, and the possibility of trading swing dancing as a way to discover them.

Music highlights
Kizzy Crawford (SoundCloud)
La Maniere des Bohemiens (SoundCloud | Facebook)
Rob Heron and the Teapad Orchestra (SoundCloud|Facebook)
Teaching notes
1 hour lindy hop taster lesson
Teachers: Oliver Broadbent and Nat Prosser
Circa 120 people
Ten minute warm-up.
20 minute charleston stroll
Lindy hop demo.
30 minute partner dancing based on side-by-side ‘step step-triple-step step step-triple-step’ rhythm

Warm-up: From Russia with Love; If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake

Charleston stroll: Scatting at the cotton club; In a Jam; Sugar Foot Stomp
Lindy hop demo: Communications
8-count lesson: On the Sunny Side of the Street (Goodman); My Baby Just Cares for Me; Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Ory); Joshua Fit the Battle of Jerricho (Ory).

The most attentive crowd I’ve ever had the privilege of teaching. They really listened carefully to what we were explaining and were really interested in the details.

We had a huge crowd, helped by the fact it was raining and we were teaching in a sheltered area. Teaching so many people crowded into a small space was a challenge. I’m used to teaching people arranged in a circle. Here we had three tightly packed lines and do it was difficult for everyone to see our feet.

The venue had no sound system. Luckily we had our portable speaker. It got us through but it was barely loud enough. Sometimes the noise of the triple stepping was so loud the music got drowned out. At one point we ran out of power altogether and had to rely ok clapping and mouth trumpet to get us through.

We chose the eight-count lesson content because it had worked so we well at the Scolt Head last week. With a simple rhythm, couples can develop a sense of leading and following, and really travel around the space. With hindsight, having so many people in the room meant it was harder for people to feel that movement. Next time in similar circumstances we might try the six-count lesson with a tuck turn and chancing places that Nat and Fran taught at Port Eliot.

That said we got great complements about the class, and the ending using the Johnny’s Drop was a real high. And shortly before midnight we found a group of a dozen or so people doing the Charleston stroll on the main dance floor – so we must have had some impact!

Performance notes
Part of our job at the festival was to get some dancing going at the Americana dance. The band was Rob Heron and the Teapad Orchestra. The crowd didn’t need any help getting started. But after the third song, the singer said we’re going to slow down the tempo (it was mighty fast) for this pair of dancers, pointing at us. The 250-strong crowd parted to make a huge jam circle. The tempo was perfect for long and low lindy turns, back charleston variations and lots of messing around with jazz steps. That was probably the biggest jam circle I’ve ever danced in – a real thrill!