My prime interest is folk song and early influences were through Burl Ives - Children's Favourites, Skiffle music - Lonnie Donegan & the Vipers, Ballad & Blues (in 1958) - Ewan MacColl's London Folk Club and the Herga Folk Club in 1963.
In 1964, Herga put on its first Ceilidh with The Rakes and these were held every 3-4 months for Herga Club members and their friends. Ceilidhs in those days were organised mainly for folk song club attendees. In 1966, the original organisers of Herga gave it up (they had run it for 3 years and thought that was long enough). I took it over and ran it for the next 28 years. Through Herga, the first Friday of the month Ceilidhs were instigated at the Whittington Hotel in Pinner. Once again, these were arranged mainly for the benefit of our folk club members and friends. At that time, the Ceilidh was the vehicle for informal folk dancing i.e everyone had a go!
I moved to Haddenham in December 1971 and in 1972 I had the opportunity to visit Haddenham Village Hall the Hall was the same size as it is now but the surrounding buildings were nothing like as smart but my initial reaction, on seeing the Hall, was “What a perfect place for a monthly Ceilidh”. The Ceilidhs commenced on the first Saturday of the month in December 1972 and these ran concurrently with the Herga Ceilidhs at the Whittington in Pinner on the first Friday of the month. Quite often the same bands were booked for both occasions.
Living in Haddenham, having two small children and running a weekly club in Harrow, after a couple of years I passed the Herga Ceilidhs over to Dave Puplet who then ran them for another 2 or 3 years. With changes in management ideas at the Whittington, the Ceilidhs then ceased. Haddenham went from strength to strength, was the only Ceilidh at the time and on various occasions we had well over 300 people crammed into the Village Hall current attendances are between 120-150.
When I started Haddenham Ceilidhs both Hugh Rippon and I agreed that these should be run for the general public not folk dancers. At this time there was no such thing as Ceilidh dancers! It was a missionary statement to say Barn dancing, Ceilidh dancing, call it what you will, it is a great social occasion, it's friendly, you don't need partners, you have a good time dancing, you listen to good music, watch quality ritual dance displays and when the concerts were held in Haddenham, you also had the opportunity to listen to top quality performers'. It was really a crusade to encourage non folk people to take advantage of folk music in its many forms. A Ceilidh in the early days was never ‘just dancing', it took on board the Celtic aspects Ceilidh. It was never just dancing and this differentiated it from a folk dance.
With this background information, I think I can now comment on your points for why Haddenham Ceilidhs has fascinated you, these being:-
1. A large number of the audience are at the best mediocre dancers we never set out to be a dance club or a Ceilidh club! It is for anyone and/or everyone.
2. A lot of them have remained at that level for a long time again with the background I've given there is no reason why the dancers who come on a regular basis should necessarily improve if they enjoy what they are doing the way they do it.
3. A lot of them are never seen elsewhere correct. Haddenham Ceilidhs is the social experience - not just another English Ceilidh.
4. Price and head counts prices are what the general public will pay for quality entertainment. So often folk music under sells itself. For an evening out with nearly 4 hours of entertainment I think £8 is more than a reasonable admission charge. I go to rugby once a fortnight admission charge is £18. I go to Stratford and the Barbican Theatre and rarely do I pay less than £25. £8 therefore is more than reasonable for first class entertainment. Why do folk most events under sell themselves? Also, I produce 8,000-10,000 leaflets, send them out to over 1,000 addresses on a database, push them through tourist information centres, local shops, libraries etc and this probably is the reason why my head counts are reasonable I would still like to see more!
5. They have the same (very good) caller most times. Hugh Rippon is not a very good caller. In my opinion, he is the best caller in the country. His programme will change in an evening depending on the quality of the dancers present i.e if there is a big influx of non-dancers, the programme will change to simple dances where as if the majority of the audience are good dancers, he will vary accordingly.
6. They don't always have top bands Top name bands are not always the best bands. The bands I choose are those that are easy to dance to and from a personal point of view I tend to avoid bands playing for themselves rather than the dancers. High Rippon and I liaise on this quite a lot.
7. They retain multiple spots this is so important if you are trying to influence people that folk activities are entertaining. As a country, England run downs its own traditions and doesn't give them enough space I try and do my little bit at Haddenham!
8. As EC venues go, it's a very rural location I would rather put on an evening at Haddenham where parking is plentiful rather than Cecil Sharp House which is a nightmare!
Personally, I find your definition of English Ceilidhs slightly worrying i.e the same regular dancers at certain number of venues. This sounds too much like the folk dance clubs of the 50s and 60s, which are now dying out. The reason they are dying out is that they concentrated on their own members, did very little to encourage new members to join in as such and became too involved in their own dance techniques. I went to one event at Cecil Sharp House, got up to dance, they announced the dance and off we went I hadn't the foggiest what I was doing, no instruction, no explanations I just wondered if English Ceilidhs are moving in the same way. If everyone knows what they are doing, is it easy for new comers? If not, those Ceilidhs may well self destruct. If English Ceilidhs retain the same members, their venues will gradually empty. If the general public are encouraged, there's a lot of them to fill many more halls around the country.
I have the same problem with the National Folk Music Festival I love the Festival, I love organising it but all the participants are getting older and I personally find it difficult to see how to encourage new younger members. That's my next task.