Irish Set Dancing – history and present
This is a separate area of Irish dancing culture which, contrary to step dancing as we know it from various dance shows, has a significantly social character. Set dancing is hardly ever presented on stages but it is in integral part of life in Irish pubs and a significant phenomenon of Irish social life. There are no generational limits, therefore one can find almost all mobile age groups among the dancers. It is not necessary to be young, talented or to have some special physical dispositions in order to practise set dancing. Experts, beginners, children and adults can meet in one set and all enjoy the dancing and the music.
We are aware of the fact that atmosphere is an important element, together with basic knowledge of the main dance movements and figures, and possibly a live band. This cannot be simulated otherwise. That is why is has been a long-time struggle in our efforts to introduce set dancing in the repertoire of local dance groups and thus extend it among more interested dancers. However, who once experienced a live dance event in an authentic Irish environment received a huge impulse, inspiration and unrepeatable experience. And therefore I recommend that when in Ireland, try to purposely look for such occasions. You will become really rich – obviously not in the material sense.
Sets originated from the so-called quadrilles, court dances frequently used especially at the French court in the 18th and 19th century. Large movement of people during the Napoleonic wars then provided space for their „export“ throughout Europe. And thus the quadrille way of dancing comes not only to Bohemia (Czech Beseda dance collection) but through England also to Ireland. Here, together with its unique musical culture, an original Irish traditional dance movement comes into being.
The basic set dancing formation is a square which has its sides formed by 4 mixed couples which dance together.
The basic set dancing formation is a square, formed of 4 mixed couples who dance together. One set dance can take from ten to thirty minutes. It is divided into several separate parts called figures. Set dances usually have between 3 and 9 figures. They are varied, have various rhythms, length and execution. They have one thing in common however – they are danced as long as the music is playing. When a figure is over, the couples remain in place and wait for the next figure to begin. At the end of the last figure couples thank each other and part.
Originally, people only knew one set which could have differed a little from the one danced at the neighbours’ or in the vicinity. Therefore no one needed a caller – a person who prompts the figures. The number of dances grew in time and today there are around one hundred dances documented. Some are danced maybe just in one village, some are included at every ceilí. There are around twenty of those and it is quite a stretch for the dancers’ memory. The most popular set dances include Clare Plain Set, The Clare Lancers, Corofin Plain Set, The Caledonian Set, The Connemara Set, The Cashel Set and others.
We can encounter set dances especially at parties, weddings, funerals, in public spaces and at various other social occasions including church events. Set dances experienced significant development in Ireland in the 1960’s and they have been gaining unusual popularity during the last twenty years. A large portion was due to the activity of Connie Ryan from Tipperary who was devoted to teaching and spreading set dances throughout Ireland and the United States. Connie died in 1997 at the age of 57 but many current set dancing teachers have started with him and are strongly influenced by his efforts. Another important force behind set dancing popularity is The Willie Clancy Summer School which takes place every year in July in Miltown Malbay in county Clare. The most significant and best teachers from all of Ireland pass on their dancing abilities here. The students on the other hand often include dancers from America or even Japan. This event also includes lessons of music instruments and thus when the workshops are over there is an interesting confluence of traditional Irish music and dancing in the local pubs and halls.
Books are especially important sources of information extending our knowledge of set dances. Pat Murphy, also a native from Tipperary, collected more than 120 sets and his books – Toss the Feathers a The Flowing Tide – are a standard guide through this area of dancing. We have been receiving knowledge from another important person, Joe O’Hara from England who has been leading set dancing workshops here in Prague together with his wife Janet and has also taught at our summer schools. His website (included in our links) contains the descriptions of around 90 set dances with numerous methodical comments and thus is a valuable source of material and inspiration.
Video or DVD recordings are also becoming more and more important as they include individual dances performed. One of the recordings published on VHS is a series called Come to dance and contains ca. 30 set dances. Currently another DVD series called Irish Set Dancing Made Easy by Ainm Music Ltd. is appearing (the first 3 DVDs have been published so far). The same publisher also produced CDs with music suitable for this type of dancing and is mostly connected with accordionist Matt Cunningham and some of his family members. About 16 such CDs have been published so far.
Popularisation of set dances on a global level is also the merit of Bill Lynch from Kilfenora who has been publishing a paper and internet magazine called Set Dancing News where he informs about all important set dancing events around the world. He points out novelties in music and other areas, serves as a contact point, connects enthusiasts from various parts of the world.. We are in contact with him as well and his pages already presented information about our events several times with necessary connections.
We recommend not avoiding the possibility to experience set dancing personally. Especially if you can do so directly in Ireland. If someone asks you to dance, inform them about the level of your knowledge and ask the other dancers in the set for assistance. It is nothing degrading and your co-dancers will be happy to help. It is then better to dance in the “side” position (the “tops” are facing the band and with their back to it while the remaining two couples are “sides”). Also do not be too picky in selecting your dance partners: the best dancers can sometimes be those who you would not even guess to be so.