The John Gasson Jig Competition is a cornerstone of the festival. Internationally renowned, fiercely competitive and a must see during the week. We caught up with Tracey Rose to find out more about the history of the event and what we can expect this year.

What is the John Gasson Jig Competition?

The John Gasson Jig Competition is 3 hours of sharing the best of Morris Jig dancing with the world (we stream it all over the world and we know it is watched as far away as Australia, USA and Japan). The Competition is for solo or double Morris Jig Dancing.

When /why did it start?

This competition was started in memory of John Gasson, who was tragically killed on his way to Sidmouth Festival in 1987 aged 29. John was a fine jig dancer. Whether dancing or playing, his personal standards were high, and raising the general standard of display dancing was something very dear to him. When we started the competition, the aim was to raise the standard of jig dancing as not many people were doing jigs. The first competition was in 1988. The Seven Champions and Mr Jorrocks (John was a member of both teams) held a ceilidh to raise the money for the Solo trophy that was presented each year. Over the years we have added to the silverware. The first competition had 26 entries and there were a variety of jigs, some very good and others who entered to honour John’s memory.  The winner of the first competition was Andrew Jones with Tim Bull playing; they were both members of Mr Jorrocks. They won again in 1991.

This will be the 36th John Gasson Jig Competition (we had to cancel the 2021 competition due to lack of entries due to impact of Covid). When we started the competition I had no idea it would run for so long and for the standard to be so good. The standard has gone up year on year and I love watching entrants improve and then win.

We started the doubles category in 2001 when people were saying they wanted to enter the competition but were too nervous to do it by themselves as they were used to dancing as a team.

We were in danger of losing the older, experienced, but still very good, dancers so we decided to start the Over 40 section.  I then discovered that most of the dancers we were hoping to attract were actually over 50! All the dancers enter the main competition and they can enter this section if they are eligible. The musician does not have to be over 40.

We introduced the Audience Appeal prize to get dancers to engage with the audience. For a few years we had the Innovation Prize but this wasn’t very popular so we stopped.

We have 4 judges – 2 x technical, 1 x music, 1 x performance.  They mark out of 10 for their particular area. I ask lots of people who they think should be a judge; they need to be respected by the Morris and have a lot of experience in the area they are judging. They also judge Audience Appeal – 10 marks each for this.  One judge from the previous year judges again to ensure continuity. We ask the winners of the Solo and Double Jigs to start the competition to remind the audience and the judges of the standard of the previous year. This also ensures that the winners keep their standard of dancing up for at least a year; hopefully it would be many years.

What makes a successful jig?

  • Doing a jig that one’s body is capable of doing should be any dancer’s starting point. Don’t try and do a jig that you are not fit enough to do.
  • Try and make the jig interesting so that it appeals to the audience. 
  • Take on board the judges’ comments.  Many of the winners have entered a few times and eventually have won when they have made changes following the judges’ comments.
  • Make sure your kit fits and your shirt doesn’t become untucked if it starts tucked in.
  • Make sure you have a good musician.  Music carries 10 marks. Make sure the music fits the jig. Think about where the musician stands – the judges do not want their view blocked by the musician.
  • Interaction between the dancers in the double jigs makes a difference.
  • Engage with the audience – it might just be a smile but it is important.
  • Have fun, enjoy the Jig, it makes a difference if it looks like the dancers are enjoying dancing for the audience.

Are there any rules

Yes. Number 7 might seem like a strange rule but we had to put it in when people were having additional team members helping with the Jig!

1. The competition is for English jig dancing and is not open to step dancing or Irish jig dancing.           

2.Members of teams booked at the festival may enter.

3. Dancers must be accompanied by live music.

4. Entrants will be judged according to the following criteria:

  • Dance technique                   
  • Performance                          
  • Music
  • Artistic appreciation

5. The judges’ decision is final.

6. The winners of the John Gasson Memorial Trophy and the Doubles Trophy may not enter the competition in the winning category the following year but arerequired to start that Competition with the winning jig of the previous year. You are expected to keep your dancing to that winning standard.

7. The Solo Jig Competition is for a maximum of two people per jig including musician. The Double Jig Competition is for a maximum of two dancers and one musician per jig. No more than 2 (solo jig) or 3 (double jig) people may be on the stage for the competition. You cannot have an additional speaker, sign holder or any other additional person in any way, in any part of the performance

Any interesting jig facts?

Running the Jig Competition in the pandemic was very hard and I never want to do it like that again. Originally we thought we would not be able to run it live but then Will Rose managed to get hold of some high end broadcasting software which meant we could live stream. It was a steep learning curve for Will to learn the software in two days. The competitors were all over the world.  Mission control was our house where we had a green screen set up in the living room with Will Rose (technical support) and Chris Rose (presenting). In the kitchen we had the screens with the competitors being cued in by a guy who had never seen the Jig Competition but knew how to do what was needed. I was in charge of the judging spreadsheet which the judges were filling in from all parts of England. We were stressed about the broadband capacity in our house and we had practiced the week before at the same time to see if there was sufficient broadband available. We asked all competitors to send in videos so we had a back up if the link to the live competition did not work. Only one contestant was unable to dance live. Crispin Youngberg and Corey Walters won the solo and they were in the USA. They were unable to come to start the next competition but Crispin Youngberg is entering this year and will be in Sidmouth.

The first time that The Nutting Girl (which used to be John’s favourite jig) was danced in the competition (by Rob Pearce, a member of Mr Jorrocks) the lights in the Council Chamber dipped momentarily as though John was telling us he was watching.

The youngest winner was Hattie Vaile with John Bacon playing when she was 14 years old. The oldest winner was Simon Pipe with Mark Rogers playing when he was 50. Simon has won the solo competition 5 times – the first time in 1995 and most recently in 2012. In 2019 he won the doubles competition with his daughter Molly Pipe with Mark Rogers playing. They are members of the Outside Capering Crew.

There have been a number of jig teams that have started because of the Jig Competition.

Although this is a competition all the competitors are very supportive to each other, there is a very special atmosphere in the “green room” where people are waiting to go on.

Traditionally the Solo Jig cup is filled up with something “interesting” by the previous winner.  The strangest thing was trifle, usually it is an alcoholic drink!

I thought about what has been my favourite jig but there were too many that should get that accolade so gave up. There have been over 500 jigs performed since 1988.  

John Gasson’s Mum (Brenda) and sister (Jane) judged the John’s Mum prize that we awarded that year – the prize was a pork pie and jar of English mustard as this was something John regularly ate at Sidmouth. Unfortunately, it was won by a vegetarian so they took it to the pub and shared it with their mates!

Chris Rose (who normally MCs) entered as a musician for Peter Celi Stamp (a Seven Champion) when we were short of entries after the pandemic; it makes me chuckle when I think of this as Chris doesn’t sing or play an instrument – he recited a version of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Boots and Peter won Best New Entrant and they were second in the doubles.

Where would we find you during Sidmouth Folk Festival?

During the first weekend you will find me trying to make sure that the Jig Competition is under control and everything is in place for an amazing show. We go from the competition down to the Anchor to watch Hammersmith and Great Western’s dance off where we all talk about the competition!

After the weekend you will find me in the Blackmore Garden or up at the Bulverton. 

What makes Sidmouth so special?

Sidmouth is a very special place for me even though my first festival was spent visiting Chris in hospital every day after his bad motorbike accident within 24 hours of us arriving in Sidmouth.  I have been coming to the festival since 1980 and have not missed a festival since then. I love meeting up with people, watching good dancing, having been part of the Seven Champions for over forty years performance is very important to me and it is important that a good show is being put on. I enjoy seeing new acts/bands that I haven’t seen; there is such a variety of music and dance.

Any top tips for those new to Sidmouth? 

Come to the John Gasson Jig Competition – you will be amazed at the variety of jigs being performed, all to a good standard.  See as much as you can, sleep the week after – you don’t want to miss out.  Try new things – just have a go.  Go to workshops, concerts and ceilidhs. Watch the Morris dancing. When you need time out, have a cream tea and join the debate on whether it is jam or cream first! Make sure you visit Taste at least once for ice cream. 

The 36th John Gasson Jig Competition will take place from 3pm on Sunday 4th August in Blackmore Gardens Marquee. Get there early if you want a good spot as this event is always hugely popular!