Folkdancers' Own

Le Grande Bal de L’Europe

Some impressions from a personal experience in 2023

In August 2023, Alec and I finally made the postponed-due-to-COVID 2020 trip to Scotland. We took the opportunity to preface the trip with a week in France and attended Le Grand Bal – the essential Balfolk dance festival. I knew many people who had been over the years, and who all raved about it.

Held on a rural property in central France, Le Grand Bal is not easily accessible by public transport. We flew into Lyon, hired a car and based ourselves in the nearby town of Moulins, Allier. We were not kitted out for camping on site, but I was told upwards of
6,000 people camp over the 14 days of the festival.

I really enjoyed attending Le Grand Bal. I had no specific expectations and was just open to getting an initial feel of the event and enjoying the first week of my holiday. Firstly let me share a little about the infrastructure … the atmosphere was really welcoming and friendly. People were courteous and tolerant of first-timers. It was evidently a well-oiled machine. The cost was very reasonable – E21 per day plus around E25 per day for food, drinks and snacks. I think camping was included. The food on site was healthy, nutritious and plentiful. It was not glamping….facilities were rudimentary but adequate and you could charge your phone. It was not smoke-free but well positioned ‘butt-bowls’ managed the fire risk. It was not internet friendly – there was no free WIFI or EFTPOS facilities – all transactions were in cash exchanged for meal and drink tickets at the gate, but this system worked well. It was not in English – all workshops and communications were delivered in French. It was not near any shops although a market-type caravan positioned in the field used for car parking offered some basic provisions and assorted snacks.

Now for the dancing – this was fantastic. All day and most of the night you could dance. The 6 large dance marquees were dancer-friendly with sprung wooden floors, a stage for the musicians at one end, sound technicians at the other, and spaces for bags etc in
a secure place. The dance marquees could get crowded for the afternoon and evening Bals. There were 2-hour workshops in a variety of dance styles from all the regions of France and a smattering of ‘international’ dance workshops – in our week, this included Catalonian, Israeli, English Regency, Quebecois and Renaissance dance. There was fabulous live music everywhere, and I particularly enjoyed the workshops where we were dancing to voice only. In the workshops there was attention to local style and regional differences, the music was regional, as were the tutors. Interestingly there was little attention paid to traditional dress, with only one costumed event (an English Regency Ball), with ‘summer festival fashion’ being the style de rigueur.

I have never seen such passion and joy for folk dance. Dancers looked like they had found their bliss and embraced the music and movement. The dance floor was for dancing – not sitting, chatting, or watching. All of which you could do from outside the marquees as they were open sided. When you stepped up onto the dance floor, you were signalling, “I’m ready to dance’ and it would only be a few seconds before you were invited to dance by another enthusiast. The majority of dances were partner dances but there were no expectations as to how you paired up…long, short, male, female, old, young – it was all about the dance. On one occasion I noticed a blindfolded man standing in the middle of the dance floor, one hand held high indicating he needed a partner, quickly achieved.

It certainly helped to attend the workshops, as later on there was always a Bal where you could enjoy your new dance skills amongst crowds of up to 500 in a single marquee. For novice Balfolk dancers, there were daily beginner workshops, which covered the ten or so common dances that were danced at every Bal. These included Mazurka, Waltz, Schottische, Bourrée, Ronde en Châine, Ronde en Couple, La Chappelloise, Cercle Circassien, Gavotte D’Aven, An Dro and Hanter Dro. I knew most of these dances, however dancing a Cercle Circassien in a marquee of 400 – 500 hot sweaty people is not the same thing as dancing in the same sized hall with 50 others as in NZ. Not one circle of dancers, not two circles, but 4 sometimes 5 or 6 circles – the challenge was remembering to stay in your own lane.

By Day 9 there were increasing numbers of bodies sleeping on the grass near the dance marquees, however the dance floor seemed just as crowded as when we arrived! The organisation encourages attendance for the full 14 days; however, there seemed to be a never-ending wave of new Balfolk enthusiasts each day. While our spirit was willing, jet lag and the all day physical exercise meant we never quite made it to 3am, but we had an amazing time. If you get the chance, put Le Grand Bal on your European holiday itinerary. I strongly recommend not turning up the day after you arrive from Aotearoa, give yourself time to get over jet lag and build up some stamina for those late night/early mornings dance experiences. Better still, plan a complete Balfolk vacation, as the plethora of flyers for upcoming Balfolk events across Europe were enticing. I took a lot of videos and not so many photos, some of which I have attached to this article. However, there is a lot of information on line, including video clips from each year’s Grand Bal. Check out the website

Fiona Murdoch

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