What Are Céilí and Set Dancing?

 

Many people today have been introduced to Irish dance through stage productions such as Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. They are unaware that the demanding step dancing performance they are seeing is only one form of Irish dance.  Irish dance is not carried by the single thread of its solo performance form. It is a rich tapestry of interwoven solo and social dance forms: the solo step dances and set step dances, the céilí dances that directly reflect several of the forms and movements of the step dances, the set dances that also reflect many of these same movements but retain different aspects from those emphasized in Céilí dances, and even the waltzes and other couples dances which are danced by the Irish in forms that reflect the cultural dance heritage.  Following are the social forms if Irish dancing.


CÉILÍ DANCING

Céilí dances represent an informal tradition of dance that is common to much of humanity since prehistory. These are the dances the country folk danced in their kitchens or at the crossroads. Many are structured as, round dances, line or column dances, contra dances and square dances. The Normans have been credited with introducing the round dance into Ireland around the 12th century. The Rince Fada (long dance) is actually a family of dances. And set dances (see below) have been danced for at least 200 years.

The Gaelic Revival in Ireland in the late 19th century effectively destroyed the practice of dancing these dances, at least in their original form, because they were considered "foreign" or because they did not project a proper Irish image. When the Gaelic League decided to resurrect them in the 1920's, they had generally been lost. However, there were a few that survived from County Kerry and South Armagh, including several 4, 8, 12, and 16-hand reels, 4-hand jigs, Rince Fada, Rince Mór, Walls of Limerick, Sweets of May and High Caul Cap. Later, some new ones were written and added to them including Siege of Ennis, Bridge of Athlone, and Haste to the Wedding.

In addition, the Gaelic League changed the nature of the dances so as to project a more proper image and, hence, the tradition of using strictly regulated footwork (7's & 3's, promenade step, jig step), posture (arms straight at the sides) and dress was born. Prior to these proscriptions, they were danced in a very individual style with little attention being paid to form. On seeing these re-formulated dances, the country folk didn’t even recognize them! Nonetheless, they have become the new "traditional" Irish folk dances and thirty of them were last published in 1969 by the Irish Dancing Commission in the booklet Ár Rinncide Fóirne (Our National Dances). 

WALTZS AND COUPLE DANCES

Very little has been written on the subject of the Irish origins or adaptation of Waltzes and other couple dances. Well-loved dances like the "Stack of Barley", the "Gay Gordons" (also a traditional Scottish dance), "Shoe the Donkey", the "Schottische", the "Barn Dance", and "Peeler and the Goat" are a regular part of the program at many céilíthe, as are the waltzes which are interspersed with the céilí or set dances. In the early part of the 20th century, the Gaelic League rejected these dances for inclusion in Ar Rinncide Fiorne either because they were not considered "authentically Irish" or because they did not project the proper Irish image.

While the waltz, like the quadrille, may not have originated in Ireland itself, the Irish adapted the dance form to suit their own style, leading to lovely dances like the "Pride of Erin", "St. Bernard’s Waltz", "Valeeta Waltz" and "St. Margaret's Waltz".

SET DANCING

The Irish set dances (as distinguished from the set step dances) are the evolutionary descendants of the quadrilles danced at the French court in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and other related dances from Scotland, and elsewhere. These dances were brought to Ireland and taught by the early dancing masters who adapted them to Irish traditional music and modified and elaborated them to show off their dancing prowess. In time, various regions of the country retained and danced the local "set" at crossroads or in someone’s home even after the Gaelic League banned them in the early 20th century because they were of foreign origin.

Most sets are done by 4 couples in a square  and a few are done by 2 couples.  Sets dances are derived from French quadrilles which came to Ireland by way of England and Scotland.  The Irish put them to their own music and gave them their own special flavor.  Set dancing is likely the precursor to American square dancing.

While the Céilí dances have a nearly universal uniformity around the country, the set dances vary widely from place to place. Set dancing survived best in those parts of the country (west Clare, Cork and Kerry) that held most strongly to their traditions. Although the céilí dances were held by some to be more Irish, the only dances that could be found in the west and southwest were the sets.

Each set may consist of 3-9 individual figures and each may be done to a different type of music (jigs, reels, hornpipes, slides, polkas, flings).  With each type of music the dancers use different footwork, so there is much to learn and remember.  However, set dancing tends to be more rewarding when it's done well.  Sets are also the more popular type of Irish social dancing both in Ireland and here in the States.  One difference from Céilí dances is that partners normally dance in waltz hold rather than hand-to-hand.  This may have been part of the reason for their popularity over Céilí dances, as well as for the disapproval of the local priest.  

There are many sets , about 150 or more have been published, and there may be local variations of particular ones. New ones are being added all the time.  However, in most areas you can get by just fine by learning 8-10 of the most common ones.  

The Comhaltas Ceoltórí Éireann and the Gaelic Athletic Association began to sponsor competitions in the 1950's and 1960's and the 1980's and 1990's have seen a world-wide revival of the popularity of set dancing. Today, over 150 different sets gathered from all parts of Ireland have been published. Only a few of these have been danced continuously since their inception, including the Caledonian, Connemara, Cashel (Castle), Clare Lancers, and Sliabh Luachra sets.

The following links contain additional information about Irish dancing:

The History of Irish Dance
"Origins, Music, Costumes, and Characteristics of Irish Dance."
Joe O'Hara's Set Dance Web Site
Bill Lynch's Set Dance Web Site
A Brief Overview of Irish dance