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Rhia Daveport of Boss Morris dancing the John Gasson Jig Competition in 2022

Customs Uncovered: The John Gasson Jig Competition

The annual jig competition, honouring the memory of the late John Gasson, takes place in August. We take a look at its quirks, its rules and its history.

At the heart of Sidmouth Folk Festival, a vibrant celebration of dance and music, one event stands out as a shining tribute to a beloved individual and an emblem of tradition and friendship. The John Gasson Jig Competition, now in its thirty-plus year, continues to captivate audiences and participants alike, upholding the memory of John Gasson, a fine jig dancer and passionate advocate for raising the standard of jig dancing.

John Gasson’s life was tragically cut short in 1987 when he was just 29 years old, en route to the Devonshire festival. However, his love for dance and commitment to excellence left an indelible mark on the community. A member of the Seven Champions and Mr Jorrocks dance teams, John was an exceptional jig dancer, renowned for his prowess in the Cotswold morris style. The John Gasson Jig Competition was born out of a desire to honor his legacy and to raise the bar for jig dancing across the country.

Part of the competition’s format remains true to John’s spirit, featuring a single dancer paired with a maximum of one musician. This rule is a nod to John’s affiliation with the Seven Champions, where the tradition of having only one musician was observed. The majority of jigs in the competition are Cotswold, encompassing both of John’s dancing passions and providing a fitting tribute to his memory.

When BBC Radio came calling, the winning horse was unable to come to the phone; the journalists had to settle for interviewing the legs instead.

Some believe that John’s spirit watches over the competition itself. At the inaugural event, held in the aftermath of John’s passing, a dancer named Rob Pearson stepped up to perform Gasson’s favourite jig, ‘The Nutting Girl’. He got four steps into the performance when the lights went out. They came straight back on again and the dance continued, but all involved swore that they had not been anywhere near the dimmer switches. As the organiser, Tracey Rose, explained: “I felt that it was John telling me he was there watching us and he approved of it.”

Over the years, the John Gasson Jig Competition has become a highlight of the Sidmouth Folk Festival, drawing enthusiastic audiences eager to witness enchanting and spirited performances. The competition has witnessed an expansion beyond Cotswold jigs, occasionally incorporating Molly dancing, North West morris, sailor’s hornpipe, and even broom dances. Surprisingly, the competition rules do not explicitly mention “morris” in the context of jigs, allowing for a creative and diverse range of entries.

Beyond the spirited dancing, a lighthearted sense of humor pervades the competition, making it all the more delightful. An unforgettable moment occurred when the Audience Appeal Prize was awarded to a horse named Horse, accompanied by two members of the Bristol Morris Men. The humorous story of the “horse wins dance prize” quickly became a local media sensation and exemplified the joy and inclusivity of the event. When BBC Radio came calling, Horse was unable to come to the phone; the journalists had to settle for interviewing the legs instead.

The Solo Jig Trophy, a cherished symbol of victory, adds an extra layer of jubilation for the winners. By tradition, the previous year’s champions fill the trophy with a drink, transforming the triumph into an intoxicating celebration. From champagne to gin and tonic to a concoction fittingly named “morris ale,” the Solo Jig Trophy serves as a vessel of camaraderie and revelry.

Throughout the years, the John Gasson Jig Competition has not only enriched the festival but also had a profound impact on the wider Morris dance community. The elevated standards set by the competition have inspired dance teams across the country to incorporate jigs more regularly into their performances, introducing this captivating art form to new audiences.

The enduring success of the John Gasson Jig Competition is a testament to the power of preserving traditions and celebrating the memory of those who left an indelible mark on our lives. John’s mother, Brenda Gasson, beautifully encapsulated the essence of the event, saying, “Morris Dancing is all about friendship, and that friendship is made, not only in this country, but all over the world.”

As the festival-goers eagerly anticipate the upcoming August 6th event, the legacy of John Gasson continues to live on through the enchanting art of jig dancing. From its humble beginnings in the Council Chamber at Sidmouth to the grand stage it commands today, the competition stands as a symbol of passion, friendship, and the enduring spirit of folk traditions. Whether you’re an enthusiastic participant or a delighted spectator, the John Gasson Jig Competition promises to be an extraordinary occasion, a joyous celebration of dance and camaraderie, and a fitting tribute to a remarkable individual whose love for jig dancing inspired a community.

Like all cherished folk traditions, a mystical formula governs the calculation of future jig competition dates. These lively events consistently unfold on the afternoon of the last Sunday just before the first Monday in August. For more information, head to johngassonjig.org.uk.