The Joy of Sets (an article by Bill Lynch of SetDancing News)
Traditional Irish dancing is well known around the world thanks to the success of Riverdance and other shows featuring amazing displays of solo step dancing. Mastering this type of dancing requires high levels of skill and fitness and many dedicated hours of practice. The best step dancers started learning as children, though many adults have taken it up in recent years. Their goal is to be judged the top dancer at a feis or competition and to perform on stage.Quite different from step dancing is set dancing, which is the type of traditional social dancing done strictly for pleasure in rural communities in Ireland for a couple hundred years or more. ‘Sets’ came from quadrilles, the eighteenth and nineteenth century court dances of France which spread across Europe. Irish peasants learned the quadrilles from British landlords and soldiers and took them home to their cottages where they became the uniquely Irish sets when traditional music and steps were applied to them.
Four couples arrange themselves in a square to dance—the term ‘set’ refers both to the eight people in formation and to the dance itself. When the music begins they dance a variety of intricate moves and steps. One set can last from ten minutes to half an hour. The dancing is divided into separate sections called figures—when a figure is finished the music stops and the dancers remain in place waiting for it to resume. A set usually has from three to six figures, each one different but always danced in the same sequence. After the last figure the dancers thank one another and leave the floor.
Traditionally the sets weren’t formally taught—children were brought to the floor at house dances by their parents or siblings and learned by repetition. Usually people knew and danced only one set, which might be different from what their neighbours danced just a few miles away. There was no need for a caller as the set was always the same and everyone knew it.
Some of the colourful set dancing terminology for the moves—round the house (dance around the set), face the hob (line up facing the front), dance at home (dance in your own position)—reflects their origin in farmhouses. Other common moves are the wheelbarrow (three facing one), little or big Christmas (four or eight spin together like a top) and ladies chain (ladies go around the opposite gent and back).
The figures of sets can be danced to several different types of music—reels, jigs, polkas, hornpipes, slides, even waltzes—and there are usually different steps for each. Reels are popular with dancers in County Clare, where experienced dancers do the sets with elaborate battering steps, beating out a rhythm on the floor with their feet as complicated as anything a drummer would do with his sticks. Down south in Cork, Kerry and surrounding counties they like all types of music in their sets, but lively polkas are most common. In other parts of Ireland the sets combine several different types of music.
While experienced dancers have the skill to perform amazing steps, dancers of all abilities can enjoy dancing sets together. The most basic step, the ‘threes’, is enough to get through most sets, and with practice dancers can add endless variety. There are up steps, down steps, side steps, doubles, trebles, sevens, swings, gallops, shuffles, kicks and many others, sometimes with separate variations for each type of music. Generally steps are danced in small movements close to the floor, often in a kind of gliding motion without even lifting the feet. This is why most set dancers prefer shoes with leather soles—it’s harder to glide along the floor in rubber soles.
Sets enjoyed a long popularity in the countryside where they were danced at house parties, weddings, patterns or stations (when Mass was celebrated at home), wakes and outdoors at crossroads and on platforms. House dances became restricted after 1935 when a law was passed to regulate them and collect tax on admissions. The dancing moved into dance halls, but by the sixties and seventies modern music and dancing had replaced sets nearly everywhere.
Set dancing is very much alive and well today and is the most popular form of traditional dancing in Ireland, all thanks to a successful revival over the past twenty years. Connie Ryan, a Tipperary man working in Dublin, dedicated himself to teaching sets and almost single-handedly brought them back to life across Ireland and even introduced them to America. Connie died at the age of 57 in 1997 but many of today’s set dancing teachers began their dancing with him so his influence is still strong. The Willie Clancy Summer School for traditional music held every July in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, also played an important part in the revival and is by far the most popular event of the set dancing calendar.
Teachers have collected and taught sets from all over the country so that now dancers generally know about a dozen of the most popular ones. The top favourites are the Clare Plain Set, the Clare Lancers, Corofin Plain Set, the Caledonian Set, the Connemara Set and the Cashel Set. All but the last two are from County Clare, which is perceived as the home of set dancing, though it is strong in most areas. Teacher Pat Murphy, another Tipperary man now living in Westport, Co Mayo, has collected over 120 sets and his two books are the standard reference guides on the subject—Toss the Feathers and The Flowing Tide are published by Mercier Press.
Today in Ireland there’s more set dancing than ever. Weekly classes take place in every county usually from September to June. In some towns and villages you’ll have a big choice—there are more than a dozen in Dublin and even in Ennis, Co Clare, there are four every week. Most classes cater for beginners and welcome visitors.
Ceilis, or more properly céilithe, are live music dances taking place in ballrooms, halls and pubs everywhere in Ireland. On any given Friday, Saturday and Sunday there will be a choice of ceilis across the country. Admission is about €8 for three or four hours of dancing, including a tea break with sandwiches and cake. They usually run from 10pm to 1.30am on Friday and Saturday and from 3 to 6pm on Sunday afternoon. Some places are lucky enough to have mid-week ceilis taking place every week—look out for them in Kilfenora, Waterford, Ballyvourney and Killarney. Most set dancing is run by local clubs on a non-profit basis.
Often there are bigger events taking place over a full weekend from Friday to Sunday. These will have three or more ceilis, plus workshops taught by well known teachers for experienced dancers wishing to learn more sets and footwork. Some weekends are small and local, while others attract hundreds of dancers from across Ireland and abroad.
The best events of the year are the summer schools where there’s a full week of dancing. Classes are held for three hours every morning and ceilis for four hours every night. Some of the summer schools even hold afternoon classes or ceilis. The biggest and best summer school is the Willie Clancy in the first week of July. Following it is the South Sligo Summer School in Tubbercurry, and following that in turn is the Joe Mooney Summer School in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim. Some exceptionally keen and hardy dancers attend two or three of these summer schools in a row.
One of the delights of set dancing is the fabulous music played by ceili bands. Some of the bands are famous for winning competitions, such as the Kilfenora and Tulla ceili bands, though most of them wouldn’t be widely known outside of set dancing. The most popular ones are the Abbey, Glenside, Emerald, Matt Cunningham, Johnny Reidy and Davey ceili bands. Be assured that no matter where you go dancing in Ireland and which band is playing, the music is outstanding.
Set dancing has spread around the world, and you can attend classes, ceilis and workshops in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, USA, Canada, Australia and Japan. Wherever you are, the big challenge is knowing when and where to go. For the past eight years, Set Dancing News, a magazine and web site devoted to the subject, has helped inform set dancers of events everywhere they’re known to take place. Hundreds of classes, ceilis and workshops are listed, so there’s a good chance of finding something at home or convenient to your travels. Every event listed in it is open to all and you’re sure to get a good welcome.
Why not experience the joy of set dancing for yourself? Start off with a local class and in a few weeks you’ll have a good grasp of the basics. You don’t need to come with a partner—if you’re on your own you’ll find someone or the teacher will match you up. Support and attend your local ceilis and your confidence will improve with every set you dance. If there’s no class nearby, there are summer schools suitable for beginners at the Augusta Irish Week in Elkins, West Virginia, at the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, New York, and at the Irish Fest Summer School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Beginners are also welcome at the Willie Clancy Summer School in County Clare.
Someday you might even find yourself at a ceili in Ireland! If so, don’t be afraid to get up and enjoy yourself. Certain sets are easier than others—don’t miss the Connemara and Caledonian sets. If you have a partner, find a place for yourselves in a set when the dance is announced. Try to stand in the ‘side’ position with the band to your left or right, not in the ‘top’ position where the band is in front or behind—tops dance before sides so you can watch what they do before it’s your turn. Ask the other dancers for help and they’ll get you through it. If there’s an easy dance you’d like to do, such as the Siege of Ennis or a waltz, ask the band to play it and they’ll generally oblige.
If you’re on your own there are several ways you can find a partner. The traditional method is to ask someone before joining a set. Gents will usually ask ladies, but everyone’s equal these days and I encourage ladies to ask gents. Be polite, friendly and chatty. When a conversation is interrupted by the announcement of the next set, that’s the perfect opportunity to engage a partner. If the person you’ve asked is already booked for that set, ask them to dance the following one and then try to find someone else. If you’re still without a partner, join a set on your own, raise your hand and the band or MC will ask someone to come to you—dancing can’t begin until all the sets are full. If you’d like some help, find out who’s in charge and ask them to find you a suitable partner.
There’s another type of Irish social dancing called ceili dancing with an entirely different repertoire of dances and steps. Some of them, such as the High-Cauled Cap, are danced in the same square formation; others like the Walls of Limerick and Haymakers Jig are danced in lines. While ceili dancing is common in America, Northern Ireland and Britain, it is unusual in southern Ireland, though you will sometimes find the dances mixed in with sets at some ceilis.
From my eleven years of set dancing experience, I’d have to say that it’s the most pleasurable activity I’ve ever engaged in. The inspirational music, the energetic moves and most of all the generous and friendly people make it something unique and special. You don’t have to be young, talented and athletic. Experts, beginners, children and seniors can all dance together in the same set and get the same amount of fun from it. A good night’s dancing can give you a high that lasts for days. You won’t have experienced joy like this since your childhood. Try it—you’ll like it!