The Sidmouth Folk Festival and Ukrainian dance and music

Morris dancing at sidmouth folk week. (Baile tradicional ingles). Picture: Blake Bennett

Morris dancing at sidmouth folk week. (Baile tradicional ingles). Picture: Blake Bennett - Credit: Blake Bennett

Derek Schofield, chairman of Sidmouth FolkWeek Ltd, writes for the Herald.

Derek Schofield, chairman of Sidmouth FolkWeek Ltd

Derek Schofield, chairman of Sidmouth FolkWeek Ltd - Credit: Derek Schofield

From the mid-1960s, The Sidmouth Folk Festival invited international dance groups, initially to perform in the Blackmore and Connaught Gardens, but then in the outdoor arena at The Knowle.

As I discovered when I was writing the history of the festival, The First Week in August, published for the fiftieth festival in 2004, some of the dancers were émigré groups from eastern Europe but settled in the UK. They were a timely reminder of the upheavals in Europe following the end of the war.

In 1969 and again in 1971, the Orlyk Ukrainian Folk Dance Ensemble, based in Manchester impressed the Sidmouth audiences with their bright, colourful costumes and exciting dances. Other UK-based Ukrainian dance groups, mainly spin-offs from Orlyk, came in 1974, 1981 (the Czuplak group from Nottingham) and 1986. In 1983, the Vesna group from Ukraine visited the festival (though at that time they were billed as being from the USSR).

When I was Arena Director for the festival in the 1990s, the Halychyna group from Lviv in Ukraine were guests in my first year in the role, 1992, and they returned for the fiftieth festival in 2004. In addition, the Yatran group from Kirovohrad came in 1998 – all testament to the popularity of Ukrainian music and dance at the festival.

The highlight of any performance, accompanied on accordions and string instruments called balalaikas, was the hopak dance, with the fast-turning movements of the women and the high-kicking, athleticism of the men.

In 1977, Ukrainians who had settled in Canada after the Second World War, the Cheremosh Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, were festival guests. Thirteen-year-old Naomi Martin, visiting family in Sidmouth, was “spellbound”. Naomi now says, “I fell in love with that music there and then and its power over me has never left me.”

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At 16, Naomi started to learn Russian, studying it at university and making three study visits to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. After living for a year in Poland, Naomi worked in cultural and educational exchanges between the UK and USSR and then between this country and the new independent countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

Naomi returned to the Sidmouth festival, working as a volunteer team guide and interpreter for dance groups from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Poland and elsewhere in the 1980s and 90s.

Now, looking back, she can still see in her mind’s eye the Cheremosh group, filling the stage at the Knowle. “Bold song, wild and exciting music, breath-taking agility and a musical tune that pretty much reduces me to tears every time I hear it,” Naomi said.

In a message to Cheremosh on social media, Naomi recently wrote, “Did you know what a profound effect those concerts would have on one small person with no family connections with Ukraine?”

The Sidmouth Folk Festival continues as England’s premier folk event, returning to full size this year with a massively varied programme of folk music, dance and song, with a full workshop programme, the children’s festival and the youth events - Shooting Roots.

Performers at the festival will come from all parts of this country, as well as Ireland, Canada and Australia. As former festival president, the late Rev. David Slater wrote, in treasuring the festival, “be proud of your own country, and be friends with the world.”

And, although there may not be any international dance groups this year, the town and East Devon have recently welcomed Ukrainians fleeing from the present conflict. Who knows what impact they might have on this country’s cultural life? With Naomi, we can hope for some wild and exciting music in the future.