last updated 9 December 2011
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Set Dancing News

Old news and reviews—Volume 67

Copyright © 2011 Bill Lynch
There's more to read in the collections of old news and reviews, volumes 11997-1998, 2, 31998-1999, 41999, 51999-2000, 6, 72000, 8, 9, 102001, 112001-2002, 12, 13, 14, 152002, 162002-2003, 17, 18, 192003, 202003-2004, 21, 22, 23, 24, 252004, 262004-2005, 27, 28, 29, 30, 312005, 322005-2006, 33, 34, 35, 36, 372006, 38, 392006-2007, 40, 41, 42, 432007, 442007-2008, 442007-2008, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 502008, 512008-2009, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 572009, 582009-2010, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 652010, 662010–2011, 67, 68, 69, 70, 712011, 722011–2012, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 782012, 792012-2013, 80, 81, 82, 832013, 842013-2014 (Index).

The benefits of dance

Dance is an ancient tradition which exists in almost all cultures. People danced for a good harvest, a victory in battle or as a religious ritual. The benefits of dance are as old as time. Dancing is a form of exercise which improves one’s strength, endurance and causes the brain to release hormones called endorphins. These bring about sensations of pleasure and well being as well as reduce sensitivity to pain. This is commonly referred to as a ‘runner’s high.’

French philosopher René Descartes developed a thesis of the ‘mind-body continuum’ which states that which affects the mind will affect the body and visa versa; there is an indisputable connection. This is evident in the case of a depressed person (mind) who experiences physical symptoms of pain (body) or an amputee who experiences phantom pain in the missing limb. To understand this concept of the mind-body continuum is to know psychologically, therapeutically and medically that the mind, body, emotions and spirit are all interrelated.

I am a recreational therapist working with the elderly population. Recreational therapy recognizes the therapeutic value of play. Without play, recreation or entertainment, an elderly person will fail to thrive resulting in diminished health. Taking all this into account, it is clear how dance is therapeutic.

Marian Chace worked in Washington DC in the 1940s with patients who had been given up on by traditional psychiatrists. She found the nonverbal group approach of dance and movement was effective for these patients. It met a need not addressed by ‘talk’ therapy. Today there is an array of expressive therapies including art, music and dance. The American Dance Therapy Association was founded in 1966. It offers a code of ethics, professional standards of practice, education and training.

Dance therapists help different types of populations including those with severe emotional disorders, eating disorders, chronic medical conditions, substance abusers, abused children and those who are elderly. Dance therapy is an evolving field to address disease prevention, health promotion and a treatment for those with chronic conditions.

Others are finding out what we set dancers already have known. Dance is therapeutic and good for one’s heath by having a positive impact on us physically, emotionally, cognitively and socially.

Linda Barnard, Simsbury, Connecticut

No better place

Set dancing often introduces us to places we’d probably never have visited otherwise, places for which we might even develop a fondness. In 2003 I went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to attend their Easter set dancing weekend, knowing nothing about the city or province, or even Canada, as it was my first time visiting that country. I liked the country, province, city, dancing, music and especially the people so much that I try to come back as often as I can. My visit from April 22 to 25 was my fifth.

I like to take a few extra days on these trips for some exploration, and on landing at the airport on Tuesday April 19th, my hostess Sue Hill whisked me off to Prince Edward Island. I’ve gotten used to departing an Irish spring and arriving in a Nova Scotia winter, but as we headed west, clouds vanished, leaving us under a clear blue sky and bright golden sun as we crossed the 13km bridge to the island from the mainland.

The next day under clouded skies our tour took us from the Gulf of St Lawrence coast to the harbour in Charlottetown. As I stood wondering why the atmosphere looked so hazy across the harbour, an answer came seconds later in the form of a sudden snow shower which lasted the rest of the day. This winter outburst didn’t stop us visiting shops, lunching in an Irish pub and dancing that night in Gary and Helen Conboy’s set dancing class. That night they taught a couple of sets, including a real beauty, the Valentia Right and Left. We were about a set and a half of dancers, so did the figures twice and changed partners to let everyone have a go.

The snowfall had ceased by the next morning but fallen snow turned the island’s red fields and hills white. We wandered over to the island’s second town, Summerhill, before heading back to the bridge and Halifax. While there was no set dancing on offer in the city on Thursday night, we managed to do the next best thing and attended the Scottish dancing class. Teacher Colleen Putt warmly welcomed us and instantly pulled me into a set as her partner to dance a strathspey. Scottish sets are usually danced in lines of couples rather than in circles and the patterns they follow are confounding to brains used to Irish sets, but I love the mental exercise as much as the physical. Strathspeys are rather like hornpipes danced in ultra slow motion, and I was severely challenged to keep time at this pace, but I had great satisfaction in getting through without any major embarrassments. We also walked through and danced a reel and another strathspey. Colleen is a bright and cheerful teacher who made the class lots of fun without letting us get away with sloppy or incorrect movements.

On Good Friday we took advantage of some good weather to visit the Annapolis Valley about ninety minutes northwest of Halifax. Spring had already emerged in the shelter of the valley, with trees wearing a dusting of colour from their new leaves—the closest I’ve ever come to seeing deciduous foliage in Canada! (Easter is not the most beautiful time to visit.) Sue took me to her lakeside summer cottage and persuaded me to go out in a canoe. I was certain it would end in a disaster but it turned out to be a pleasant and thankfully dry adventure.

My first few days of extracurricular activity were great, but I was now ready for some familiar pleasure. We arrived at 7.30pm for the first ceili of the weekend in our home away from home, Titanic House. The Halifax set dancers have the use of this elegant house, which has probably stood here for a hundred years, for as long as I’ve been coming and the comfort of spending four days here can’t be beat. The dance floor is smooth parquet and exactly big enough for the dancers in attendance—no more than four sets all weekend. A sun porch wraps around two sides of the floor and is well-provided with comfy chairs and sofas, a table of plentiful food and drink and even a little library of Set Dancing News back issues—browsed quite often, I was pleased to see!

I was so engrossed with greeting and chatting that when teacher and organiser Elizabeth MacDonald welcomed Pat Murphy and he announced the first set, I was caught in my street shoes and without a partner. I spotted a raised hand, gratefully stood in beside my new partner and had time to insert the feet into proper footwear. It’s nearly impossible for gents to get caught partnerless here, there are so many great lady dancers! Along the back wall sat a team of eight musicians led by Kevin Roach (fiddle) and Jane (box and bouzouki), and given a touch of class by the inclusion of a harp.

There was no mad rush to cram in as many sets as possible; the atmosphere was relaxed and the musicians got up and mingled with the rest of us after every couple of sets. Pat was back to teach workshops and MC the ceilis, as he had been for all of the fourteen previous weekends here. He took the time to explain and show movements as needed before each set or figure, and called while we were dancing. It wasn’t a workshop, but was a bit more than a ceili.

Visitors included couples from New Hampshire and from Belgium, some from Prince Edward Island and Toronto, and one happy dancer all the way from Italy. One special guest was a new resident of Halifax, Zeph Caissie, a Vancouver native who came here to set up an Irish dancing school after spending eight years touring with Riverdance. Sets were new to him, but he attempted several tonight and was well able to keep up; he also gave a short solo display of his step dancing prowess. In deference to the tenants residing upstairs in Titanic House, the ceili concluded by the civilised hour of 11pm—in Halifax it is possible to get a good night’s sleep during a dancing weekend!

The workshops at this weekend draw as many dancers as the ceilis, sometimes more, so eager is everyone to learn—and have a good time. Pat brought two new sets along on Saturday for their first airing in Canada, the Blacktown and the Port Fairy, and also did an old favourite, the Monaghan. The Back-to-Back Hornpipe filled a few spare minutes just before the lunch break. A lunch buffet was kindly included with the workshop so we didn’t have to venture outside at all, though plenty of people did go for a walk in the spring weather. Many of those staying in brought along instruments to play in a session. Elizabeth and members of her sean nós dancing class used the music to practice their steps. We resumed after lunch with the Port Fairy Set, the biggest challenge of the day, not only because of its complicated moves, but also because our floor was just a tad crowded for it—one set had rather intimate contact with a fireplace and piano! Nearly everyone danced it well and had fun to boot.

The evening break began at 4pm, and I spent a rather relaxed couple of hours in a downtown restaurant with Toronto friends before reconvening in the house at 7pm for the Saturday night ceili. Pat chose a selection of sets well matched to everyone’s high level of enthusiasm and interest and kept the reruns to a minimum! Between sets, Kevin and the other musicians would sometimes take a break, but they were just as likely to keep playing for their own pleasure. During one such break the harpist, Ellen Gibling, played a lovely solo that took everyone’s attention, subdued all conversation and at the end brought a great round of applause. So did a display of sean nós dancing by Elizabeth and her class. The 11pm curfew was still in effect but by then we’d had more than enough dancing to ensure a good night’s sleep.

A mild and sunny Easter Sunday was celebrated with what was called a Mimosa Ceili at 2pm. On arrival everyone was offered a Halifax-style mimosa, a festive drink of sparkling apple cider (produced by a local set dancer) mixed with orange juice. Little chocolate eggs had been hidden in every nook and cranny, though I doubt there were any remaining when the ceili finished. Even though it was the most relaxed ceili of all, we did some of the best sets, including the West Kerry, Labasheeda and Claddagh. We were sorry to see the harpist depart in the midst of the ceili, but gave our thanks for the lovely touch she added. For the Claddagh Set, Kevin was left fiddling on his own when Jane got up to dance. The music was still brilliant! A couple on their first visit here, Richard and Denise Devlin from New Hampshire, are recent converts to set dancing and enjoyed themselves so much that Richard made a heartfelt speech of thanks during the last set of the afternoon. “This is what set dancing is all about,” he said. There was complete agreement by all.

While that may have been the final ceili, the weekend still had more to come. People had dinner with their families on Easter night, and Sue was kind enough to include me in her gathering of family and friends. Then on Monday I wandered the streets and shops in downtown Halifax before returning for one last time to Titanic House for another workshop with Pat. He taught the Meelin Victoria Set, an enjoyable Cork jig set. There was high hilarity in one figure when two gents end up standing beside each other and Pat instructed them to hold hands for an advance and retire. Why is that so funny, when the two ladies mirroring the same movements don’t even generate a smile? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that two of us ran around with cameras taking photos of the gent couples! Set number two was the Kildownet Half-Set, one of those rare gems you’d love to do often enough so that it becomes second nature. And so the weekend concluded after that with thanks all around and special mention given to those of us travelling long distances to be there. We’d hate to miss it!

Then it was all hands on deck to clear Titanic House of every trace of our presence and restore the tables and chairs to their usual places in the middle of our dance floor! The next day there was time for shopping and lunch before I had to go to the airport. There I learned that my airline had decided to postpone my departure for two days, lucky me, and I so I had even more time to experience Nova Scotia hospitality. There’s no better place to be stranded—or to dance a few sets!

Bill Lynch

20 set dancing CDs by Matt Cunningham in 25 years

With the release this month of his two latest CDs, Matt Cunningham has brought the total number of volumes in his Dance Music of Ireland series to twenty. Matt has always responded to the needs of set dancers by supplying them with music for the latest sets and the new recordings, Volume 19 and Volume 20, include a host of them. Volume 19 contains music for the Boyne, Tory Island Lancers, Tyrawley, Birr, Newmarket Meserts and Cúchulainn sets, and on Volume 20 are the Lough Neagh, Blackthorn, Ath a’ Caoire, Dunmanway, Meelin Victoria and Port Fairy sets.

In total, Matt’s twenty CDs feature music for seventy sets, sixteen two-hand dances and twelve céilí dances, and he claims that over 1200 tunes have been played on them. Among the tunes on the new recordings are fifteen composed by Matt himself. Joining him in the band are his sons Joe (banjo) and Eric (flute and drums) and daughter Ita (fiddle and piano).

Matt describes his motivation for making the series of recordings as follows—

“I suppose subconsciously while putting together the tunes for these latest recordings it had dawned on me that in releasing these recordings I would reach a certain milestone. I never thought when I recorded music for the first set in 1987 that I would still be recording for these dances 25 years later and have twenty different CDs to show for it. So much has changed within the set and céilí dancing scene over the years but one thing remains constant and that is that my very reason for making the recordings is to help dancers learn these set and céilí dances all over the world, particularly in places where people don’t have the opportunity to dance in front of live bands or where ceilis are not commonplace. In years to come when I will no longer be performing it is heartening to know that the music contained in the recordings will live on and continue to help the development of Irish culture both at home and abroad.”

In addition to the Dance Music of Ireland series, Matt has also made five DVDs, five CDs of music and songs and two books of music notation, all available from Matt at his ceilis or from his record company Ainm Records (

A marriage made at the ceili

It began with the Cashel Set and ended with the Wedding March. When Pius Murray met Pirge Liddy at the ceili held at the Armada Hotel during the Willie Clancy Week in 2004, it was the beginning of a very special dancing partnership. Their return to the Armada in March this year was not for a ceili but to celebrate the occasion of their marriage. On this gloriously sunny day in the company of close family and good friends, the vows were made, the rings exchanged and the wedding cake savoured. The celebrations concluded with the happy couple dancing their favourite polkas well into the night. They are just back from a honeymoon cruise on the Mediterranean and are living in Corofin, Co Clare. Of course they will not break their now seven-year-old tradition of attending Willie Week and especially the Armada Set Dancing Week. They look forward to meeting all their friends for high jinks, lively doubles and mad swings!

Country music from Micheál Sexton and 4 sets from Pádraig and Róisín

A chip off the old block, Micheál Sexton is just as much of a master accordionist as his dad, Michael, who played for sets for decades in Clare and around Ireland until he passed away in 2003. Like his dad, Micheál has a first class reputation among set dancers, who seek him out at ceilis and competitions. His musical interests stretch beyond the traditional as Micheál is equally fond of country style music and is in great demand for social dancing. His new solo CD, Reel Country, clearly demonstrates his range of music, with a mixture of country songs and lively reels. Micheál’s singing voice makes a powerful impression in both the rousing quicksteps and gentler waltzes. The reels are as lively as ever, and include a selection for brush dancers and The Tamlin with orchestral-style backing.

Reel Country is available from Micheál at his ceilis, or contact him directly for a copy.

A new DVD of set dancing instruction is now available from Pádraig McEneany, The Full Set 2. Pádraig demonstrates four sets, the Tory Island, Boyne, Valentia Right and Left and Moycullen, one from each province of Ireland. For each figure, Pádraig describes and demonstrates the moves, then dances it to recordings by Matt Cunningham. A booklet included with the DVD provides notes for all the sets. Introductory footwork is also taught which beginners will find helpful. Pádraig and his wife Róisín start with basic steps, dancing each first facing the camera, and then turning around to make it easier to follow along with them. They add heels to the reel steps, one at a time, to build up the battering steps. To get your own copy of this DVD, or the first one in the series, get in touch with Pádraig.

Serenity in deepest Devon

Letters and emails

Hi Bill,

We spent a lovely afternoon in deepest Devon on Sunday 17 April in the company of set dancers gathered together in Colyton Town Hall to celebrate the birthday of Maggie Daniel.

Maggie teaches a class in Colyton in Devon, and Kevin was once an occasional visitor to classes in that part of the world when he worked in the west. Since moving back to the east, we have attended a few functions organised by the Devonians, most notably their lovely Christmas gatherings, which are usually followed by a carol service in the parish church. We missed last Christmas with them as the party was cancelled due to particularly heavy snowfall, so we have not been to the west for some time.

However, this spring has been one of balmy sunshine, little rain and kind breezes, so making a trip to the west was something to look forward to. Sunday’s party was well-attended and we all danced sets in a relaxed and leisurely atmosphere. The sets were clearly called by Maggie and her friend Mary Bingham and the music was provided by local band Mooncoin who usually play English tunes, but who were persuaded a few years ago to branch out to play Irish tunes as well.

A beautifully decorated cake was cut by Maggie, and there was a little unexpected interruption when the powerful Roman-candle-style firework atop the cake set off the sensitive smoke alarms in the hall! Most people evacuated to escape the din, taking cups of tea and sandwiches with them into the town square but calm was soon restored, the hall filled once again and more sets were danced, more tea drunk and more sandwiches eaten.

Paddy Hayden from Bristol provided some music on his accordion in the break, and there were waltzes danced by some. After the official party, Maggie’s father played his accordion, and again there were some waltzes danced, followed by a session in which French and English music and dancing took place.

The west of England is a beautiful part of the country and on this April afternoon the whole atmosphere was one of serenity and calm. The sunshine, warmth of welcome and the enjoyment of the dancing made for a lovely afternoon. Our drive home along meandering roads took us through some of the most verdant parts of England, and we arrived home feeling relaxed and pleased to have been dancing in such a wonderful part of the country with such welcoming friends.

Maggie had requested no gifts, but a collection was made with donations going to Oxfam.

Thank you, Maggie, for inviting us to share in your party, and we hope you have a lovely time on your ‘Grand Tour’ to Europe in the summer. Maggie and her husband Mike will be visiting set dance classes in Europe, so make them welcome when they come to visit. We’ll see them in Basingstoke in September!

All best wishes,

Carol Gannon and Kevin Monaghan, Hampshire

What would we do without it?

Dear Bill,

I have been meaning to write for some time, simply to pass on appreciation of all the hard work that you and your team put into the magazine which is the lifeblood of set dancers across the world.

As they say in the hallowed halls of marketing theory, if somebody does something bad to you or their product does not satisfy, on average you will tell at least seven other people, but if somebody does something good for or to you, you might tell two people; another example of life’s injustices. So in a small attempt to redress the imbalance, I am writing to tell you and your team of the value that this one reader gets from your magazine. Not only does Set Dancing News provide the essential communication to let us all know what is happening and where, but it delivers through your team of writers, photographers and correspondents a valuable insight to group and individual experiences and events.

Your writers (and editors) are to be congratulated on combining text and photos in such a way that not only is an experience conveyed but frequently the atmosphere as well. This is particularly impressive when individuals are writing in English and not their own language—often putting us claimed English speakers and writers to shame!

With many thanks to you all.

Best regards,

Ashley Ray, Downpatrick, Co Down

Lovely, sociable set dancers

Hello Bill,

Our Frankie Roddy Set Dancing Weekend, 18–20 March, is just over and we are tired but happy after a very successful time. Tim Joe and Anne O’Riordan played wonderful music on Friday and Saturday nights to big crowds. Is there a better husband and wife band in the country? On Saturday Pádraig and Róisín McEneany took the set dancing workshop. Among the dances they did was the Doire Colmcille Set composed by our late teacher Frankie Roddy. Kathleen and Michael McGlynn had their sean nós workshop in a smaller hall. One of those who attended was Jean Butler from Chicago—not from Riverdance. All the dancers thought both sets of teachers were excellent in teaching steps and explaining all the moves in the respective dances.

After the Saturday night dance, friends from Carlow organised a singing session (Derry is not the only place with good singers) and Pádraig and dancers from Glasgow and Newcastle did some lovely solo dancing. It was after 3am before we got to bed. On Sunday morning the teachers combined for a relaxing two-hour workshop. The Copperplate ended the fifth Frankie Roddy Weekend as only they can with fabulous music. A big crowd of lovely, sociable set dancers went home tired but happy!

See you soon.

Sean and Maura Herron, Derry

Unrivalled picturesque setting

Dear Bill,

On behalf of the Burrishoole GAA Club I wish to thank people who came from far and near, and especially those from London, Birmingham and Manchester, for making the recent workshop weekend in Mulranny, Co Mayo, 11–13 March, such a wonderful success.

The weekend got off to a very lively start with a session in the lounge of Mulranny Park Hotel, with music by the Burrishoole Bridge Band. This was followed by a ceili with Copperplate. On Saturday morning and afternoon we were tutored by Pat Murphy, and we went through sets such as the Shramore, Boyne, etc. On Saturday night we had a ceili with Matt Cunningham. The following day, on Sunday morning we had sean nós dancing with Brenda O’Callaghan, and again Pat Murphy tutored us through various sets. That afternoon we had a ceili with the Brian Ború Céilí Band. On Sunday night there was music again in the lounge with the Amethyst Trio.

Our compliments and thanks must go to the management and staff of the Mulranny Park Hotel who catered for us excellently over the weekend. Situated overlooking spectacular views of Clew Bay, the hotel boasts an unrivalled picturesque setting. I would also like to say a massive thanks to Mick Kelly who put a huge amount of effort into organising this event. Finally, thanks goes to Enjoy Travel for sponsoring the ticket for the continental trip in 2011. The money that was raised for this raffle went to the Red Cross.

I look forward to meeting you all again on the 9th–11th March 2012, in Mulranny,

Anne McManamon, Newport, Co Mayo

My grateful appreciation

Dear Bill,

May I through the medium of the Set Dancing News thank most sincerely all the readers who supported and travelled long distances to the launch of my debut solo album, Reel Country, in Ennis, Co Clare, April 28th. A huge thank-you to everyone who took the time to phone, text and email their best wishes to me, and my grateful appreciation to all the performers and helpers on the night.

May I also say a sincere thank-you to Martin Newton and the Durrow Set Dancing Club, Co Offaly, for having me play for their annual dinner ceili and social dancing event on April 10th in the Bloomfield House Hotel in Mullingar, Co Westmeath. Their hospitality was exceptional and greatly appreciated.

Micheál Sexton, Mullagh, Co Clare

Nice figures to lovely music

Dear Bill,

My husband Ian and I have just recovered from our wonderful Glasgow Set Dancing Weekend and had a thoroughly enjoyable weekend thanks to the organization of the Glasgow Set Dancers.

When we got home, we talked about how much we had enjoyed doing one of the dances we had learned and danced at the workshop and the céilithe, the Shannon Gaels Set. In our experience, most of the céilithe at the set dance weekends tend to cater for the most popular dances that the dancers who can do the battering steps enjoy.

However, people like us who go to classes to revise and learn new dances every week and enjoy doing the nice figures to lovely music, rarely get a chance to do the new dances to live bands with the atmosphere of the céilithe.

I have heard some people say at céilithe that it is because some of the dancers who do not go to classes would not enjoy the céilithe and would stop coming and supporting the weekends. We have found at Scottish ceilidh events that if you do not know the dance then you sit it out and join in the next one, after all, it may be only one or two dances per night. Or, you can jump into sides and explain your “noviceship”.

I do not know if other people feel this way but it might lead to some discussion and maybe the weekend tutors would be willing to call the new or more unusual sets more at the evening ceili events.

Audrey McLaren, Paisley, Scotland

Nineteen very happy years

Dear Bill,

I refer to the April–May 2011 issue of the Set Dancing News. I would like to thank Ann Curtin and the West Limerick Set Dancers for their very kind comments. However, I would like to clarify that while I announced that I would not be returning to West Limerick Club for future workshops, I do have other commitments and workshops around the country which I intend to continue.

I have spent nineteen very happy years at the West Limerick Club’s set dancing workshops and I wish them well for the future.

Kind regards,

Betty McCoy, Sandyford, Dublin

The great community behind us

Hi Bill,

Sean Nós ar an tSionann would like to say a huge thank-you to all their supporters from all over Ireland, but especially to our set dancing friends and the Set Dancing News. If it weren’t for all those fantastic supporters we would never have made it any further than the first of the live shows. But because of the great community behind us we made it all the way to the final and danced our socks off for them. They gave us a once in a lifetime opportunity that both we and our families will never forget.

I personally want to thank everyone for giving the eight children in Sean Nós ar an tSionann such a positive and enjoyable experience at such a young age and also helping us promote the sean nós dancing.

We’ve been blown away by all the cards, emails, texts and Facebook messages we’ve received as well as all the cheers and words of praise on the streets of our local towns. We were extremely happy with our performance in the final and even happier for Daniel Furlong, who was a truly deserving winner. We may not have brought home the All-Ireland title but we really hope we brought enjoyment and pride to the dancing community.

On Saturday 14th of May we had a big fundraising concert for Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin, Dublin, in the Royal Theatre, Castlebar, Co Mayo. Joining us on stage that night were the Dartry Ceili Band, Seamus Begley and Jim Murray, Politically Correct, Eleanor Shanley, Frankie Lane and Paul Kelly, Seamie O’Dowd and Aminah Hughes. They had everyone dancing in their seats and the night was a huge success. We are putting a few clips from it up on YouTube.

Thanks once again for the mighty support,

Edwina Guckian, Drumsna, Co Leitrim

Contributed to the cause

Hi Bill,

I would like to say a huge thank-you to everyone supporting the Guide Dog Ceili on the 6th of May in Clonmel, Co Tipperary. In particular, the ladies from the Clonmel Óg and Golf Ladies set dancing clubs respectively for doing all the donkey work, all the callers who helped with their particular styles to liven up the proceedings, Micheál Sexton for playing super music, and all the good folks who made up twenty sets, that, alas, didn’t quite fit the floor space. The massive crowd contributed to the cause and made it possible to raise €2,008.26!

Anne O’Connell from London sent a letter addressed to Mr Chris Eichbaum, c/o GAA Hall, Clonmel, Guide Dog Ceili! It was handed to me on the night by the caretaker and read—

Dear Chris, I have heard about the event you hold for the guide dogs. I too am blind but I still love traditional music and dance. My guide dog is black and named Nessie. Please accept the enclosed donation.

Yours, Anne O’Connell

How sweet is that?

Chris Eichbaum, Rathcormack, Co Waterford

Given me a hunger

Dear Bill,

I took up set dancing in April and while I was keen to learn I felt that I was holding the others back with my lack of skills. Even though the rest of the set encouraged me and helped me, I felt a bit of a plonker, and that I would never get the hang of it. I promised myself that I would stick at it for another three weeks and then decide if this was a route I wanted to continue to go down.

On the first weekend of May I had the opportunity to attend the Carnlough two-day workshop. Under the excellent instruction of Pat Murphy I managed to learn five dances, and even had the nerve to get up (without being dragged up) and dance one of them at the ceili on the Saturday night. The weekend has given me a hunger for set dancing and I now can’t wait to go to my local class. The people I met over the weekend were so friendly it was unreal. Not only was I made to feel welcome in Carnlough, but also within the set dancing fraternity. I never once felt hopeless over the weekend. I have no doubt that Pat Murphy spotted my inabilities from the start of the first workshop and subtly taught all the steps at my pace.

Thank you, set dancers, for a great weekend, and thank you, Pat—you will never understand fully what you have done for this convert.

Jim Mageean, Downpatrick, Co Down

Dancers deserve better

A chara,

At a number of set dancing venues why are the dancers subjected to the same old sets, such as the Connemara, West Kerry, Cashel, Clare Lancers, Plain, Corofin, Sliabh Luachra and Caledonian Set?

At the Castletown, Co Laois, May weekend these were the sets that were danced over the whole weekend, at five ceilis over and over. There were four or five different sets called and that was all. Considering there are more that one hundred different sets, surely a compromise could be reached. The dancers deserve better than that.

One has to go to the ICA Hall in Castletown with Maureen Culleton, Templemore, Co Tipperary, with Joan Pollard Carew, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, with Helen and Paddy Kealy, and last if not least, Thurles, Co Tipperary, with Michael ‘the king’ Loughnane to get a decent variety of sets.

In conclusion may I extend my sympathy to the family and friends of the late Paddy Hanlon of Newbridge, Co Kildare, who died recently. Little Paddy was well known and I considered him a friend.

Dermot Roche, Harperstown, Co Wexford

Making Ned Kelly proud

“Ah, rats! We’re in the land of sunshine and blue skies, and it would pick today to rain,” I thought one cloudy April Sunday morning as we got ready to head to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra to do our long-rehearsed program of sets.

The National Museum of Australia opened an exhibition, Irish in Australia: Not Just Ned, on St Patrick’s Day, and on Sunday 10 April, was planning to hold a festival day to bring the exhibits to life, including poetry readings, short lectures, a Danny Boy singing contest (!) and our set dancing performance. We were thrilled to be asked as we are usually competing with the wee girls and their jigs ’n’ wigs. This time, it was just us—mature, real dancers with craic! Once I realized that we had a beautiful outdoor setting on a large deck and lots of time, I set forth via email to elicit dancers from around Australia to help fill the stage. We ended up with four and a half sets, with about twenty dancers who travelled from Sydney and the Blue Mountains, and the rest were from Canberra.

We then had to agree what sets we would do and how, putting together a program of six sets over about two or three hours of dancing. We decided on the favourites of the Clare Plain, Ballyvourney Jig and Clare Lancers. In honour of Ned, we also practiced the Ballycommon Set from Tipperary (a great fast little number with short figures, terrific for performance and keeps the dancers awake as well), the South Galway (in case we had to do a half-set) and finally, the locally-produced Antrim Square Set with Des Jackson, the choreographer, in attendance and ready to call.

So, a soft day it was, and I was hoping beyond hope that it would clear and we would be able to dance on the beautifully restored deck outside the front entrance to the museum.

It was not to be—it rained and rained. However, museum visitors were not deterred and they kept arriving all morning, with long lines forming to see the exhibition proper. Finally, we gave up on the idea of the long program outside and devised a shorter, half-hour version of the Plain Set, the Ballyvourney Jig and a great rendition of the brush dance from three very talented Sydney dancers. We danced all these on a very hard, slippy marble floor in front of a huge and appreciative crowd. All the dancers were incredibly patient with the delays and uncertainty, and did a wonderful job. We had fantastic live music provided by mostly local musicians (one box player from Queensland) who play in the Clare style—soft, sweet and rhythmic.

The festival day was a great success by all accounts. They had 3,200 visitors to the exhibition that day, which is a museum record, and the organizers were delighted. My thanks to our Sydney organizers, Alarna Stephenson and Margaret Winnett, for their enthusiasm and cooperation in bringing all 36 dancers together, and to all the musicians, who worked equally hard. The Not Just Ned exhibition continues until 31 July.

Nora Stewart, Bywong, Australia

Edward “Ned” Kelly was an Irish-Australian bushranger born in 1855 of parents from Tipperary, considered by some merely a cold-blooded killer, while by others a folk hero and symbol of Irish-Australian resistance against oppression by the British ruling class for his defiance of the colonial authorities. Source: Wikipedia.

“This was out-stan-ding!”

I definitely needed a booster, a top-up, a tonic, a stimulant, whatever you’re calling it yourself, after weeks, no, months of introspection, slow and deliberate nature walks, a period of winter hibernation, as little contact as possible with human beings and their bickering. Short of taking another month’s supply of B vitamin complex, what can you do to return to membership in humankind and simply enjoy some music and easy company? You’re right, it’s a no-brainer. It’s the Step to the West weekend at the Falls Hotel, Ennistymon, Co Clare, 28–30 January.

The finest management by Sean Longe (Sean, want set dancing knighthood? It is hereby bestowed upon you. Feel the tip of the sword on both shoulders.) ensured top of the crop bands for all the ceilis. For once, an equal magnificence of each band stood as a solid wall; no musical endeavour was better than another—it was all good. Margaret Moynihan from Kerry used an adjective that underlined and emboldened it—“Outstanding,” pronounced she, “this was out-stan-ding!” The manner in which she emphasised each syllable in combination with her engraved, face-lifting grin was a giveaway in itself—it was outstanding music. She hit the spot and plenty dancers expressed what they felt about it in similar ways. And the homemade scones, butter melted, and fresh cream and jam on the side spoke volumes too. Here, in Ennistymon, the welcome and friendliness were successfully fused with top-notch professionalism.

And here’s what the recipe is:

Step to the West salad

Haute-danser cuisine served in big portions

Use ounces, grams or litres as required, not as specified. young,
5ozfresh ground nature trail, unspoilt, along a miniature alpine gorge
10ozhotel with helpful staff and good cooking skills, in picturesque location
2 litresof exceedingly good ceili bands including high-quality sound systems
1clever head on shoulder-bone
1mature and able-bodied MC cum teacher
1 ambitious organiser cum carpenter
500grof promotion
45grof organised Sessions
For the sauce:
25greach of zing, zest, hugs and smiles

Allow space for informal sessions alongside organised ones.

Put clever head on young organiser’s shoulders. Trust mature and able-bodied MC to do his job excellently. Spoil bands. Let people explore the surrounds, including turtle doves, donkeys, gorges and gorgeous outdoor jacuzzi. Supply water at all times. Cool crowds down with air conditioning. (They’ll appreciate it!) Serve with buttered scones with fresh cream and jam. Sprinkle with lots of friendliness!

Allow to bake for 2½ days on high.

The half-orderly queue that formed during the breaks for those scones and hot drinks served upstairs by reception tempted us to try and jump it. Running across the dance floor and out a side entrance, jogging up and around the hotel towards the front, skipping up the stairs and hurrying in through the main entrance to arrive, frontrunners for the tea! Thankfully, everybody zipped out of our way, knowing by our stony-faced determination that we weren’t taking any prisoners!

Rewind, rewind—this tape is running on double speed!

Friday night, it was curtains up for the first workshop, sean nós with teacher and MC Ger Butler and it became clear just how unfit I had become over the Christmas. Blast! Must, puff puff, dance more, pant pant, to reshape the former glory, gasp gasp! But a sean nós session is more draining than a set dance workshop, and going over the Cuchulainn Set, thank goodness, was a breeze. Merrily, cheerily, noiselessly whirring, spins the wheel while the feet are stirring—la la la! This set was composed by Michael and Kathleen McGlynn, Co Louth, and on one occasion the question was put to Michael about the step in the third figure. According to the notes in Pat Murphy’s book, you face your partner and show your steps. What are they? They are not specified in the book. Michael said that’s because they aren’t specified. You simply dance it out and apply whatever step you wish, fitting in with reels, that is. He said that you can just run on the spot if you like or show intricate steps, nothing is wrong.

Nice thing about Ger Butler is that, like Pat, as he was teaching said set, he’s not grown too big a head to ask for help if he gets stuck or to admit to mistakes. It brings an immediate sense of relaxation to muscles tensing up while under pressure to get it right. I am getting very bored with perfection—such a small box to have to squeeze into—and more tolerant of people who are not experienced dancers, and more compassionate with those feeling self-conscious and becoming anxious as a consequence.

Over breakfast, we talked to a couple from the north, who joined a big group that had come for a weekend away. The husband didn’t dance at all, but enjoyed watching and listening to the music. The wife was rather shy and said she hadn’t done that much dancing and was much too fearful to go out without people she knew well because she was afraid of being told off or shouted at. The sadness in her scared eyes was self-evident. We tried our best to convince her that only a very small number of people are unfriendly, bullying or rough, and shout and scream at others. In all my years of dancing, those people have always been a very small minority. I don’t think that rough manners are helpful in any learning environment, but this is only set dancing anyway! We are not here to win world championships, to compete for lots of money or engage in battles. A ceili is a place we go to have fun. Let’s keep it that way, let’s keep it tidy. And there is a distinct difference between respectfully helping out and pushing people around aggressively. I would love to see this being discussed and get feedback, particularly from people who had bad experiences.

This leads straight on to the friendliness of Ennistymon that I heard people talk about. I hope that lady picked up her courage and tried a set, because repeated feedback about Step to the West was how friendly it seemed, how easy to get into sets, how quickly to find a partner despite crowd numbers topping 600. A jumbo event like this does not come naturally with a dose of friendliness. It has to be worked at and maintained. It serves to keep the salad fresh and tasty.

A good, sensitive MC goes a long way to help, and Ger Butler can include, at times, sensitivity in his list of traits. As MC, he spoke about the untimely and unexpected death of Joe Mannix to the full hall without stifling the flow. How did he do that? He asked people to dance the first figure of the Ath a’ Caoire Set in honour of Joe. This was the only time anything was called, and it was spot on, since it’s a very easy figure that novices too can follow. The MC-suit fits him snugly, and he’s comfortable in it.

On the note of calling—this was the first occasion, in my experience, that the Moycullen was danced but not called. Hurray! It’s baptised now and can run around happily on all dance floors. If the folks in Clare know it now by heart, surely we can also make a stab at it everywhere else. So, we might now have moved on a little from all the ‘C’ sets that are commonly danced and truly welcomed a couple of newer sets into the set dancing memory bank—the Moycullen, and the same might be true for the Antrim Square. The Labasheeda and Claddagh also made welcome appearances, and the floor space glimpsed between dancers’ feet was as tiny as in any other set.

Of course, I had the good fortune to dance the Labasheeda with Claudio Zanini from Bologna, who claims no brains in his feet, but all his intelligence is firmly lodged in his skull-casing. Fifty sets, he said, he can pull out of the hat, no problem. He remembers all of them, all the details. But his feet, he said, are not going great. What on earth was he talking about? He was dancing just fine! Both of us went up and down in unison, dancing as one in terms of rhythmic waves, cresting and falling simultaneously. Claudio was first top gent and remembered the set to perfection, and his dancing wasn’t far behind, and at the same time he shouted instructions over the music to the second top couple (also Italians) in Italian. Multitasking Claudio, very impressed!

Sets might not be called here, but something else was called for. Nearing the end of a walk, when seeing a statue in honour of the Irish poet Brian Merriman, who was born here in 1747, I found it captivating. On his lap is a book; beside him, leaning against his knee, a violin. Brian Merriman came to notoriety through a satirical poem, The Midnight Court, written in Munster Irish, with translations later by Seamus Heaney and others, but I was told by a fellow stroller on Saturday morning (it was cold, clear, crispy—wunderbar!) that the satire was lost in the translations. Hey, I have learned something!

And that walk? A path flanks a swiftly running waterway, like a small gorge. Follow it and come to a sign which warns about the dangers of proceeding further. You run a risk of falling down the steep ravine into the gurgling, foaming forces below. Did we heed it? No way! For we were seeking adventure! And apart from some naughty tree branches that pulled my friend’s hair and tried to snatch my woolly hat, we didn’t twist any ankles or slip and muddy ourselves, which is remarkable, given my history of getting into embarrassing situations.

Meeting up with others, the gang of us, heading back through the village together, deeply ensconced in sharing our respective dance histories, came upon the grand entrance to the Falls Hotel, embracing and swallowing us. Back to noble splendour, the dancing womb, housed in an extraordinary building that combines other places’ lost stateliness including bold rich dragonhead wood carvings with a trendy outdoor jacuzzi, spacious and well-equipped rooms, and alert and, there it is again, friendly staff. It was fully booked way before the event, a surefire sign of it being hotly sought after as the location to stay. We know from Longford that you had better book a room from year to year, and now dancers were heard saying the same about Ennistymon. So book now, goes the advice! Because you can’t not go; too big a loss if you did.

I’m running the risk here of sounding like an advert, amn’t I?

Even when I left the Saturday night ceili early due to a body part furthest away from my brain signalling like mad that I had been silly-o to dance the whole time in new shoes, and retired to our room, I still couldn’t keep from dancing. Lying on the bed, the window open a slit, the Swallow’s flew up to me and—crikey!—made me joggle-jiggle whilst the duvet was thrown all over the place.

And there is more, because the unthinkable happened, the worst case scenario. And the best possible outcome. Step to the West is to blame, surely—always good to know who to put the blame on!

The camera broke. Too many manic shots, what else! A twitch of anxiety visited me when first the focus seemed reluctant. Battery, I thought, but charging it didn’t alleviate the problem. Neither did changing the battery. It got worse and worse. Nothing mended it. Eventually it just emitted sad grinding noises when trying to focus. I brought it up to my room, in the middle of the ceili, and laid it to rest on the duvet. I just sat there, staring at it with a mixture of feeling loss of loyalty and desperation. It is not supposed to do that. No way. So I rang Bill Lynch. Without delay he took action, arrived half an hour later, took the camera away (How dare he? But he must!) and handed me a little compact camera for the time being. Compact camera! Ha! My inner snob activated immediately as I turned the little critter back and front with distant sideway glances.

A well-known, well-respected dancer who has recently come to television acclaim prompted the chain of events, unbeknownst to herself, that brought forth the two major super good outcomes—

  1. Bill attended the Sunday ceili, with his camera (good for weightlifting, too) and all, and he loved Ennistymon. A first. (Privately, I think he just couldn’t stand the thought of getting less than normal quality pictures, so he appeared with the big gun!) [Actually, your editor was able to attend the Sunday ceili because, for the first time ever, he finished an issue of Set Dancing News one day in advance of the final deadline. No chance of that with this issue!]
  2. A new camera was acquired for me. But not the same model. Let’s say it feels like upgrading from a basic model to the one that provides remote central-locking, electric windows, self-parking, command interface and a built-in TomTom.

God only knows what great gifts might be bestowed on us during the 2012 Step to the West!

Turns out that not only is Step to the West medicine for soul, mind, heart and body (and delivers unexpected presents), it also acts as an impetus to propel you forward onto the next round of dancing. We were still fired up at the end of the Sunday ceili, and all of us chitted and chatted no end on the way home. The Great Dane was staying until Tuesday, and so hot was she from the all day, all (most) night party in Ennistymon that we headed to Mallow the next night for a bit of Johnny Reidy. And went crazy! And had the best of fun again!

Chris Eichbaum

Termonfeckin Weekend 2011

It’s hard to believe that another year has passed, Termonfeckin set dancing weekend is over, and we’ll have to wait another year for the next instalment. I’m not sure which is worse, the fact that we are all a year older or the fact that we have to wait, both are equally hard to accept!

For those of us who attend year in, year out, our calendar does not revolve around Christmas and New Year. Our year revolves around and leads up to that wonderful set dancing weekend in January.

For 48 hours or so, An Grianán, Termonfeckin, Co Louth, turns into an oasis of dance, music and pure pleasure. Hidden away in beautiful grounds, surrounded by trees and the fresh sea breezes, we are fed, entertained and given the real five-star treatment.

This year, on our arrival on Friday January 21st we were greeted warmly by committee members. High tea was served at half-five. Tables filled with home-baked breads and cakes awaited the hungry crowd. We exchanged hugs and stories with old friends and new until our chef d’equipe, John McEvoy, called us to order. We have become accustomed to John and his farming ways—his trips to the microphone usually mean that time has come to gather the flock together and move on.

For the official opening the beautiful Kellogg Hall saw the arrival of a troupe of local dancers. The young and very young entertained us with their intricate footwork. Even the loss of a dancing shoe didn’t distract one young man from his dancing.

Michael Tubridy, along with his wife Celine, has long shared a loyal friendship with the Termonfeckin weekend. During the opening he shared stories of how seeds were sown, how the weekend came into being. Then he officially opened the ninth Termonfeckin weekend.

Triskell Ceili Band played for the first ceili of the weekend. Deciding to save some energy for the rest of the weekend was not an option, as Triskell played such sweet music and a wonderful selection of tunes. The Skylark and The Trip to Birmingham meant that all aches were forgotten and we danced all night!

On Saturday morning we had the choice of three workshops. The hall filled up quickly for the set dancing workshop given by Pádraig McEneany and his wife Róisín. Some have noticed a decrease over the past few years in numbers attending workshops—not in Termonfeckin, however. Over fourteen sets filled the floor to learn the Valentia Right and Left, Slip and Slide Polka, Fermanagh Quadrilles and Clare Orange and Green.

Sean nós classes were given by Kathleen and Michael McGlynn. A large gathering of dancers battered rhythmically around the dance floor and it wasn’t long before the steps were mastered.

Old-style dancing was order of the day in the Front Room—what a beautiful floor and surroundings to dance in! Under the instruction of Michael Tubridy dances were revised. The Hornpipe, Priest and His Boots, Easy Jig, and Double Jig (or the ‘Not-So-Easy’ Jig) were all danced. The list of dances was endless, as too was the enthusiasm of his followers. Michael also taught the Hornpipe in the afternoon session. One remarkable thing about this form of dancing is the way in which the dance fits perfectly with the tune and the tune with the dance.

Saturday afternoon, after yet another meal, music and singing workshops were on offer. Niamh McEvoy took a tin whistle class where jigs and slides were taught. Her sister Mairéad took the flute class and reels and jigs were on the menu. “Here’s to you and our time together” were the lyrics to be heard as you passed the singing class held by Páid O’Hare. What appropriate words! Páid also taught the song, Colcannon. His students performed their songs later that night in the session in the Front Room. For those who wanted to take a complete break and enjoy the fresh sea air, Ann and Noel Devery organised a very enjoyable beach walk.

A sense of anticipation surrounded the arrival of Johnny Reidy. Dancers gathered early knowing that warm-up was essential to stick the pace. Johnny didn’t disappoint. A full hall enjoyed lively polkas and quick slides.

While Johnny was setting pulses racing in the hall, members of the McEvoy family along with tutors and local musicians set pulses racing in the Front Room. A large gathering enjoyed dances, tunes, songs, recitations and sets, I can’t recall how often the words “one last tune for the road” were to be heard. It was in the early hours of Sunday morning that our aching bodies met the bed.

On Sunday morning we were treated to a two-hand workshop with Kathleen and Michael McGlynn. Donegal man Connie McKelvey shared his expertise with us also. The lovely Waltz of the Bells, Polly Glide and other popular Donegal dances were taught.

A kind of slán abhaile session was held in the hall after two-hand workshops. This session is unique to this weekend. Fear an tí, John McEvoy introduced us to a local group of singers. Ballad singing has a long and strong tradition in this part of Co Louth. The Brannigan sisters and Paul Savage were no exception to this tradition—such sweet singing with beautiful harmonies. The River and Amazing Grace were just two of the many songs they sang. They were, as the song said, amazing!

Many dancers entertained us with talents other than dancing. Some sang, others recited. We had a Tullamore man lamenting the lack of a sausage in Termonfeckin, a Kilkenny man who talked of the hen heading for the “henopause!” A Labasheeda lady who played a lovely selection of reels on the button accordion. There was a sense of a magician’s hat about the whole proceedings—you didn’t know what was going to come next! We could have sat and listened for twice as long but dinner called. The session concluded with three figures of the Caledonian.

Swallow’s Tail were our last ceili band of the weekend. What music, what a fitting conclusion! With such a fantastic selection of tunes you couldn’t but dance. As the last figure was danced everyone was called to the floor. Sets with four, five, six couples danced the last figure of the Plain Set to finish.

Dancing weekends come and go but an equal to the Termonfeckin weekend is yet to be found. The organising committee have yet again looked after us all so well. We danced, ate, sang and laughed the weekend away. After packing the car, booking the room for next year, countdown now begins for the tenth anniversary of Termonfeckin set dancing weekend.

To John, Sheila, Jim and Margaret and all their helpers over the weekend, well done!

Mo cheol sibh uilig!

Mairéad Devane, Skerries, Co Dublin

Exciting Erlangen

Atmosphere is that magical, undefinable quality which occurs when there’s a big crowd in a hall, all of them having a fantastic time dancing together. Happy minds and active bodies seem to generate their own electricity, a buzz of excitement, which either causes or is caused by our set dancing pleasure. It’s a quality we’re always seeking, yet it’s elusive enough to be something of a rarity. Certain bands, venues and events are almost guaranteed to have great atmosphere—what’s much rarer is finding a workshop with that same electric buzz.

Workshops have become something of a minority interest at set dancing weekends—some have even dispensed with them entirely! For a taste of what they once were like, as crowded as ceilis and with a charged atmosphere of warmth, respect and delight, you’ll probably have to venture beyond Ireland’s shores. The difference was astoundingly clear during the weekend in Erlangen, Germany, February 11-13, which began on Friday with an early workshop at 6pm. My own head was already buzzing in anticipation when I arrived to find everyone else in the same heightened mood of excitement.

The Erlangen weekend is the brainchild of Andrea Forstner, who runs it with the help of her husband Christian and sons Michael and Thomas. She organised her first weekend in 2002 with workshops by Aidan Vaughan and ceilis by local musicians, and gradually upgraded it over the years by bringing over different teachers, moving to a new venue and importing great Irish bands, and it’s now as good as a weekend can get! Andrea welcomed everyone at the start of the workshop and then handed the microphone over to Pat Murphy.

The Tory Island Set was Pat’s choice for the first set, and it was the perfect way to ease my transition from bland normality into mad dancing! A simple lively polka set with a few unusual moves, the crowd of ten sets gave a full round of applause after the demonstration and each time we finished dancing, and always devoted full attention whether watching or dancing. Pat played recordings by the Abbey Ceili Band, which by coincidence was the very same band playing live for us at the forthcoming ceilis!

After the workshop there was a meal break, and those of us wishing to be fed had only to walk a few steps out of the hall and straight into the adjacent restaurant. The weekend is held in an establishment called the Unicum, which has a large, bright, stylish hall, a bar serving everything from green tea to margueritas, and the restaurant serving pizza and local specialities. I had smoked salmon and horseradish sauce served with potatoes formed into crispy DVD-sized disks (sans holes) and a tasty salad. The convenience of the venue meant that there was no reason to go anywhere else, except to our beds in establishments within easy walking distance, so we had plenty of time to relax in genuine conversation with our fellow dancers, rather than just a few words interrupted by the moves of a set. It was a truly international gathering, with travellers from England, Switzerland, Italy, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, in addition to the Irish and German regulars.

Fingers crossed, I was hoping and dreaming that two members of the Abbey Ceili Band would be missing for the Friday night ceili. They are, of course, four of the best musicians ever to play for set dancing, but last year Ger Murphy and Robert Foster (box and banjo) were only able to arrive on Saturday, leaving us with Andy O’Connell and John Coakley (fiddle and piano) at the Friday ceili. The two of them were simply stunning on their own. I hadn’t expected history to repeat itself, but Ger had a Friday gig in Ireland and Robert took a break, so my dreams really did come true! Andrea announced them as the “Ab” Ceili Band. I was in seventh heaven—or rather 77th heaven! The sheer bliss of Andy’s fiddle and my lovely partners made the dancing feel effortless, though I became totally drenched in perspiration in the process. Sleep was elusive that night after all the excitement—I should have just stayed on in the Unicum where a session kept going till the early hours of the morning.

Pat’s workshop on Saturday grew by another couple of sets, filling the floor. Andrea deliberately limits the number of participants to avoid overcrowding. We began with the Aran Set, an old favourite that’s impossible to dance too often, and then Pat gave me the present of two sets I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of dancing, the Port Fairy and Ath a’ Caoire. The Australian Port Fairy Set has an ingenious square that took every ounce of concentration my brains could muster, and there were plenty of other moves equally inventive. The Ath a’ Caoire Set from Cork was new yet comfortably familiar. It was popularised and danced in competition by the late Joe Mannix, who was remembered by Pat when he introduced it to us. Another dancer in everyone’s mind was Bernhard Horlacher, who passed away in December while dancing the Ballyvourney Jig, so he was in our thoughts each time we danced it at the ceilis.

The full day’s workshop was divided by most welcome morning and afternoon tea breaks, with baskets piled high with choccy bickies, and a lunch break when meals ordered an hour in advance were served efficiently, maximising the consumption time and getting us back dancing on schedule. After the workshop I went back to my room for a power nap and power wash, and then straight back to the restaurant for another go at those potato DVDs.

Now featuring 100% of their members, the Abbey Ceili Band played brilliantly for the Saturday night ceili, inducing ecstasy for me in both the West Kerry and South Galway sets. There may well have been ten sets danced in total, as many as fifteen on the floor. There were breaks for a demonstration of American clogging by Gertrud Uphoff, who wore jangling shoes and danced to music on her phone, and step dancing by Markéta Bernardova from Prague. Whenever there was an idle moment during the workshops and ceilis, Ernesto Zucco from Turin took up his box or bodhrán or bones to play for a few moments of bourrées or eight-step waltzes or other folk dances. The Abbey too took up instruments, not necessarily the ones they usually play, at any idle moment, and after the ceili they were in session in the restaurant. Some didn’t make it to their beds until 4am, though I was blissfully asleep at that hour.

A 10am start for the Sunday workshop was no deterrent for ten sets of people who came to learn the Blacktown Set, another first for me, and the Slip and Slide Polka with the same enthusiasm we had at the opening workshop on Friday. The workshops were nearly as large as the ceilis, and most of the absentees were visitors from Ireland and England; all the Europeans were keen to learn! They took notes, asked questions, practiced steps and gave themselves applause and cheers after dancing a figure.

The final ceili on Sunday afternoon featured more of that blazing Abbey music—it’s amazing I didn’t scorch the floor with all the doubling! There were plenty of goodbyes at the end, but most of them were deferred until the brewery session which officially ended the weekend. Andrea reserved the beer cellar at Erlangen’s Steinbach Brewery in the old centre of town for our exclusive use. A variety of beer was on offer, light and dark, clear and cloudy, together with traditional local dishes. The entertainment arose spontaneously with songs, sets and steps all night long. Musicians were plentiful, with members of the Abbey leading the way and encouraging all to play, even recent beginners. There always seems to be a buck set at the Erlangen weekend. The tallest “ladies” in wigs, dresses and lipstick were partnered up with the shortest gents for two figures of good natured fun. After spending more than six hours in the brewery, the goodbyes began to dominate and we all headed our separate ways back to the banal reality we came from.

Until next year, that is, when you can be sure of another weekend of ceilis with dazzling music and workshops which are just as exciting!

Bill Lynch

The Shindig at Tralee

My wife Audrey and I booked this January trip to The Shindig in June last year at which time all in the world was rosy. Then our airline got into slight difficulty in the autumn and there was a doubt about our flights. Then the terrible weather of December made us think that it could be snowed off.

Suddenly Friday January 21st was with us, the flight was on, the weather was brilliant and we were off.

From a Glasgow Airport bathed in sunshine to a similarly clad Shannon was a dream flight, even arriving early. Our hire car was picked up and then the woes began. Every slurry spreader, digger and horsebox in Munster was on the road to Tralee in front of us. The trip, which should have taken ninety minutes, took us 2½ hours including a diversion around Limerick after an industrial explosion.

Finding our digs, we got settled in and went for something to eat before heading out to the Ballyroe Heights Hotel. Our delays had caused us to miss the battering class from Ger Butler but we were in plenty of time for the first ceili with Johnny Reidy. The ballroom was a great size with two floors and well supplied with seats and water stations.

We used to dread dancing to Johnny Reidy, but, either he has slowed down (not likely) or we are improving as dancers.

Starting with a Plain Set, we carried on with a Sliabh Luachra, Corofin Plain and Connemara before a wee break to catch our breath. Almost too soon, we restarted with a Cashel and Caledonian. At this point Paddy Hanafin announced the news of the untimely passing of Joe Mannix and, rather than a minute’s silence, we danced the Ballyvourney Jig in his memory and finished with a mad Clare Lancers.

Saturday morning came round very soon and our first workshop with Pat Murphy. We have done the Ath a’ Caoire before but it is a lovely dance and we enjoyed re-learning it. Then it was on to a completely new dance to, I think, everyone—the Port Fairy set from Australia. It has complex patterns with a lot to think about but we certainly enjoyed being taught the first two figures. Ger Butler then tried to teach me and the rest sean nós but the wiring between my brain and feet must have a loose connection. I struggle.

Early in the evening there was a seisúin in the bar with Danny Mahoney, All-Ireland box champion, with Cyril O’Donoghue on bouzouki. A couple of sets were danced, a Connemara and Ballyvourney Jig and an impromptu display of sean nós by two children.

Then, at last, it was time for the mighty Copperplate to play for us. I am sure they think we are stalking them as we get to as many of their céilithe as we can.

They played a great mixture of sets, beginning with a Corofin Plain, Cashel, Clare Lancers and a Ballyvourney Jig before the break. Then a Plain, Sliabh Luachra, Claddagh and a Connemara to leave us hot and happy. There was an after ceili seisúin with Johnny Ashe on box and John O’Shea on guitar in the bar but bed beckoned us.

Sunday morning dawned and we were back for another workshop with Pat. The third figure of the Port Fairy was taught (notice I didn’t say learned!) and then it was the last ceili of the weekend with Brian Ború.

We started with a Plain (again), Antrim Square, Claddagh and West Kerry, then after the break a Clare Lancers, Caledonian, Cashel and Connemara to end a magnificent weekend.

On Monday, we decided to drive round the Ring of Kerry. The weather was perfect and we had a lovely day. We also managed to visit six places en route having associations with set dances—Caragh Lake, Portmagee, Valentia Island, Sneem, Kenmare and the Black Valley (how sad are we?)—followed in the evening by a visit to Paddy and Carolyn’s weekly class in Tralee. Three sets danced a Plain followed by a brisk Ballyvourney Jig, Connemara and finished with a Sliabh Luachra. This was a milestone as it was the first Sliabh Luachra Audrey had ever done. Having first seen it on DVD danced enthusiastically by Timmy ‘the Brit’ McCarthy and his group she was put off for life and it took great persuasion to keep her on the floor when it was announced. She managed very well for a first try.

Tuesday brought the rain and a damp drive ’round the Dingle peninsula before an early night to catch up on some of our lost sleep, helped by a couple of pints of stout.

Wednesday took us to Shannon via Limerick for new dance shoes for Audrey with a quiet night in again and then home on Thursday.

Our thanks go to Paddy and Carolyn for organising a great event, Johnny Reidy, Copperplate and Brian Ború for wonderful music for the céilithe, Pat Murphy and Ger Butler for the workshops, Danny Mahoney, Cyril O’Donoghue, Johnny Ashe and John O’Shea for the sessions and to all the members of Paddy’s class for making us so welcome.

Ian McLaren, Paisley, Scotland

Skibbereen in Frankfurt

At the end of October, dancers from around Germany joined with the Irish set dancers of Frankfurt-am-Main for our third workshop. The Builders, Agricultural and Forestry Workers Union again allowed us to use their spacious symposium facilities. Soft sunlight streamed through the bright autumn leaves onto the dance floor. Annie and Bert Moran from Schull, Co Cork, saw us through the weekend with their good humour, patience and attention to detail.

Five of our own musicians were joined by Sean Walsh (accordion) and Martina Walsh (concertina), and Lisa Collins (fiddle) from Skibbereen to form the “Frankereen” Ceili Band for the Friday evening ceili. Lively polkas, slides, jigs and reels kept us flying through nine Kerry and Cork sets.

The Ballingeary Jig Set, Black Valley Square Jig Set, Newport Set and Waltz Cotillion were the best loved of the sets taught in the workshops.

Sean, Martina, and Lisa of the Skibbereen Ceili Band together with Ekhart Topp played such good music at the Saturday evening ceili that it was almost a shame to dance to it! Not satisfied with playing for two hours in the first half, Lisa went on to give us a brilliant brush dance display before continuing to play with the group until the end of the evening. Bert Moran joined in the closing session to round off an amazing evening.

Sunday saw a continuation of the workshop in the dappled sunshine of the dance floor. Annie and Bert helped everyone with their steps, and went over some of the finer points of set dancing. It was a great weekend!

Next workshop: Halloween 2012.

Andrew Podzorski, Frankfurt, Germany

The power of the Johnny

Missus Kate Howes, you have a nose for it, haven’t you? Kate was in luck at her Birmingham Johnny Reidy Weekend, February 18–20, when she was beset not only by musical stars, but also with journalistic ones! The one and only Bill Lynch, (together with an assistant) with the biggest stride, in Birmingham on the last leg of his grand tour, and was revived and revved up quickly by the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band (JRCB) despite claims to the contrary at first. He was seen hoppin’ and bobbin’, and wriggling and wiggling, and doubling to his heart’s content as is his wont!

Getting Johnny for three ceilis is a safe bet, the driest idea to have in rainy season. Dancers get what they know they can expect, a tight ship run with four plus four sets, a waltz and a quickstep, no messin’. Or can they? On Saturday night, you see, things changed, unexpectedly. Whoever was there can say in years to come, “I was there. I was a witness!” A witness, one wonders, to what?

Kevin Monaghan announced it first to the (online) world, “JR played 9 sets tonight!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” [sic]

Nine! That’s unheard of, and according to Johnny himself, won’t be heard of again. “I got caught!” he said, with a mingled look of disbelief and bewilderment on his face, extracting roaring laughs from those overhearing him. Well, we won’t feel too sorry for him, will we? Tsk, tsk, Johnny, Johnny, not even the cool leather jacket and denim jeans helped you out here, did they! Ha ha! We are going to get great mileage out of this one, so batten down the hatches and prepare for the slagging. Thank goodness, being from Kerry, this shouldn’t feel too unfamiliar for you—reader, you’re getting the vibe, right? Kevin Monaghan summed it up, claiming to having been plunged into shock and disorientation when an additional set was announced!

All of this good-natured joking—you know who you can go how far with—of course also sums up the atmosphere of the weekend. And here we may insert a few words to comment on the good-natured teacher for the workshops on Saturday. Margaret Morrin and husband John lost no time to start and sped dancers through no less than seven sets. Seven! Sliabh gCua, a nod towards Waterford, to warm ’em up, the South Sligo Lancers to get the pulse rate up, the Lough Neagh to switch on the intellect, the Killyon, Fermanagh Quadrilles and Skibbereen to make some people lose it and find it, and the Fermanagh, bowing northwards again. All the good dancers there made it manageable though to go through all those sets in one day. Margaret is ever so skilled in condensing something that is slightly difficult into an easy-sounding direction. And what was really cool was her choice of phrasing: “. . . and then I will ask you to . . .” house, swing, chain or whatever. Thank you, Margaret, for an enjoyable, no superfluities day of sets. Giggling, plenty headway was made through the 4-bar advance and retire in the wheelbarrow movement in the Skibbereen. The Bill Lynch, the man with the biggest stride, repositioned his set to make sure there was enough space to back into, and removed some cumbersome chairs that were blocking valuable carpet-space off the edge of the floor. (Having a double-compulsion to indulge, he doubled around the house in cross-hands hold in the Connemara—nifty.)

His assistant at the same time got some things wrong, ha! She chained halfway in the Boyne, second figure and picking up her partner, she turned to lead home. Only that you don’t do that! For an awful moment she was going to go forward, bumping into the couple facing her, when, in mid-stride, the realisation dawned—Blast, I’m heading the [expletive deleted] wrong way! Scream! Yanking her partner (sorry, Caroline) around, she managed to pick up those pieces in the end, and no one ended up on trollies in the A&E! But you know what, as Ann O’Shea said, JRCB could make cats dance, but the assistant felt very much the dancing cat novice in this instance.

Never mind. In a madcap Sliabh Luachra later on at the ceili, all rules were let go of altogether, and the big blur occurred between right and wrong. Did I count eight cats screeching their way through it, doing nutcase things like the square and house back—three of them together? Yes, there was. Definitely eight pusses, straight out of the alley, donning boots and giving it some wellie. Oh man. All of a sudden I also seem to remember a Cashel Set which was on a par, lunacy wise, with that Sliabh Luachra. Praise the madness!

And just in case you assume that scientists can’t have a hair-down time, they can. Take Doris Klisch, for example. German in origin, she moved to Nottingham to work with her husband (both scientists), where set dancing found her a couple of years ago, and Eugene Murphy, the local teacher, took her on board and trained her up real good. Says she, “If I hadn’t come to Nottingham, I wouldn’t have taken up set dancing,” with a perplexed, alarmed expression on her face, and if you see her dancing and enjoyment thereof, it’s easy to imagine why the very thought of not dancing is distressing.

There was a new face in the band, Tracey O’Grady, and with her, a new fiddle which looked like a Picasso-ised version of one. You had to look twice to make sure what you were seeing was right—there was no body. A skeleton violin, sleek modern design in blue and black, played by Tracey in moon boots. She looked so much like Martina O’Neill, the regular fiddler she was substituting for, that voices were heard saying it was Martina. Her playing was also very much like Martina’s, and there were no discernible differences in the whole package to my ears. A newly styled JRCB? Temporarily, anyway!

Away from the ceilis and workshops, Bill’s assistant was taking further advantage of the supplies and services that were on offer in her accommodation—a Beddy-Bear , nighty, satiny bedsocks, toothpaste, Carol Gannon’s homemade Seville orange marmalade on toast, conservatory-served dishes, a chauffeur, a belt to fasten the trousers and super company in the shape of Liz Somers and Pat Crotty. The assistant was a bit pissed off for only being able to bring the camera and the most basic clothes due to cabin baggage restrictions on the flight over from Ireland, but I thought I’ll be damned if I pay an extra €20 to check in a bag, giving in to blackmail. So stubborn me had to ask online for advice on how to pack a rucksack thriftily. The camera took up half the space. And to end all speculation, here’s what fitted into it—some underwear, a toothbrush, a comb, hairclips, trousers, four tops, three chargers, one pair of dancing shoes, notebook, two biros, spare batteries, mints, wipes, tissues and, um, that’s it. Frankly, I’m getting too old and comfort-loving for this. But any lack of comfort melted away swiftly when the band started playing.

JRCB do draw a big crowd, always. They also are capable of eradicating apathy, and no one stares into space when they let their music fly. Dancers start fidgeting in their starting blocks well before the first note is played. And once they’re off, you can enter into the zone of long-distance runners. All thoughts perish, the head is empty for once—ah, the freedom of it! You could just believe it, or try it out yourself if you haven’t yet.

And the Bill Lynch said how the Sunday ceili was best for him. Not only music-wise and atmospherically, but also he got two sets and a half with a lady who knows how to wear her men down! She was dancing the final Plain Set with another gent who had already done two sets with her, and he succumbed to fatigue and excessive panting after the third figure and was unable to continue. Bill, fortunately free and available, was called upon to save the day and sub for the remaining figures, which he did, no bother, despite also having danced two sets previously with her. The cat and the cream!

This set dancing miscellany gave budding new sets on the scene an outing (Boyne, Moycullen) as well as the autopilot ones, mixed in with a spritzer of workshop sets. In total, there were about thirty people over from Ireland, same as last year in numbers, but not necessarily in names!

Judging by the way this is writing itself, easily, jokingly, no worries, it’s a true reflection of how I felt in England. I don’t know what some folks are on about, old animosities between Germans and English, (don’t mention the war, ha ha!) because I personally have never had a single bad experience, even when shipped off to Cornwall on pony farms, together with a bunch of other continental kids, to learn English. A lotta good it did us, and we were perfectly able to say “stupid ass” and other essential phrases in Dutch, French, English and Swedish by the end of it. English folks have always been perfectly friendly in an English sorta way.

And if there are any hang-ups for anyone, weekends like these dispel them quick enough.

Chris Eichbaum

Jam-packed Omagh weekend

January to January rolls round so quickly, and it really doesn’t seem like a year since we were all gathered in a snow-covered Omagh in 2010. Yet here we are in 2011 enjoying another excellent weekend of music, craic and dancing from January 28 to 30,. Speaking of gathering, it’s certainly a common Irish tradition to come together to renew friendships and make new ones, hear yarns, tell stories and enjoy music and dancing. This year, like before, we welcomed our friends from near and far. Mickey Kelly put half of Mayo, and a few other counties as well, on a bus to Omagh. Others made the journey from Glasgow, as well as from all over Ireland. The Omagh Traditional Dancing Club’s annual weekend brings over a hundred guests to the Omagh area which, in these recessionary times, is important to the local economy through bringing business to and also promoting the local area. As a relative newcomer to set dancing I am continually blown away at the sheer unadulterated fun, enjoyment and satisfaction derived by “regular sets goers”. I have to confess to getting hooked myself and have no desire to go cold turkey anytime soon.

Jam-packed with all things set dancing, the weekend kicked off with a welcome ceili in the Silverbirch Hotel with one of our local bands, Ceili Time, which was just the thing to get me up on the floor, to test my memory of the sets and enjoy the satisfaction of getting through it. Marie Garrity called the dances over the weekend to help keep everyone right. After a couple of sets I danced the Cashel with Bridie from Glasgow. As you set dancing aficionados will know, the Cashel is fairly frenetic so I was pleased to dance it without too many mistakes. As James Joyce said, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” Ceili Time were in great form and they played my favourite piece, The Pinch of Snuff, which certainly gets the blood flowing, hands clapping and feet tapping. The band played a mix of social and old-time dancing in between the sets.

Activities then moved to Dún Uladh Heritage Centre on Saturday where Pat Murphy’s set dancing workshop ran from 10.30am to 4.30pm. Participants enjoyed learning the Clare Orange and Green, Port Fairy, as well as a revived version of the Blacktown Set which Pat had planned especially for us. We learned how to ‘jazz’ in the fourth figure of this set which was a new experience for most. His laid-back and relaxed style always sets the tone for an enjoyable workshop which whizzes past in no time. This was followed by Mass at which the St Brigid’s crosses made by our resident weekend craftsman, Paddy O’Grady from Co Donegal, were blessed and distributed.

The big ceili with Brian Ború Ceili Band hit the ground running on Saturday night. The 23 sets ensured an electric atmosphere and the craic was ninety! Mayo’s Mickey Kelly gave Marie a break and called the Deradda and Newport sets as only he can. I have to say that the Moycullen is my favourite set. Doors had to be opened to let in any cool air available. Even when the ceili finished there was an opportunity to enjoy the usual Saturday night session in Dún Uladh. The great thing I find is that everybody is so accommodating to new dancers and willing to support you through the figures you are not sure of. Ach, sure the camaraderie is second to none!

Sunday morning brought a range of two-hand and social dancing at which Marie taught the Bossa Nova Brazil, Spanish Waltz and Avalon Foxtrot. Easy listening music with social dancing in good company, sure where would you get it?

After lunch, which was all homemade by our club members on both days, our other local band Copperplate played the farewell ceili and gave dancers a chance to work off some of the calories. The floor was soon heaving with dancers advancing, retiring, swinging and housing around to the lovely music. I met up with an old friend, Mickey McAleer, who kept me on the right track, something I really needed. The band played a mixture of sets including the Plain, Lancers, Kilfenora, Caledonian and Antrim Square, another one of my favourites as I hail from Béal Feirste in County Antrim.

Set dancing means camaraderie, craic, meeting new friends and at the same time getting fit. Dancing and sharing food are two of the best ways to meet people and there’s no better place to do it than sweet “Omey” town in the county of Tyrone. This year we decided to become eco-friendly which involved asking people to mark their cups with faces, designs or names so they could be multi-used instead of just once. Some of the artwork was interesting to say the least but the concept was well accepted by all.

Research shows that dance’s creative and collaborative nature can bring personal and social benefits and all you need do is ask anyone who’s attended a sets workshop or ceili and they’ll confirm that. On the other hand, if you’re looking for good music, fun and friends resulting in the kind of joy you probably haven’t experienced since childhood, then the set dancing weekend is for you. You’re always assured of a warm welcome whether you’re a relative beginner or you’ve danced before. Tea, scones and craic guaranteed.

A special word of thanks to all the Omagh club members who worked so hard to make this another enjoyable and successful weekend for all our dancing friends. I am already looking forward to next year’s workshop weekend, which will be held from January 27th–29th 2012.

Aidan Bunting, Omagh Traditional Dancing Club

All was well at Sets by the Sea

Arriving at the Sets by the Sea weekend at the Bellbridge House Hotel, Spanish Point, Co Clare, on Friday 11 March, organiser Tina Walsh greeted me with a big kiss. Just as well, because I needed one. Having forgotten my dancing shoes, I knew I was going to be in for a weekend of sore feet—no, not dancing was not an option! And true enough, between dancing a ceili in socks (not that anyone noticed the shreds of fabric flying around the place), one ceili in a borrowed pair and another in shoes I acquired from a local shop, the poor feet were begging for mercy, but could they get any? No, not until the whole thing was over, when on Sunday night they got their soak in the bathtub and were sang a lullaby to. It was all just too good, you see, the music, the buzz, the dancers’ battering, that greatest mix of all—rhythm, love, bounce and hell-raising fun. Rockin’ all over the (set dance) world! By the sea, no less! And what a sight it is, what a smell it has and what a feel it has when the sun just begins to penetrate your clothes with its warming rays, and “twists of seaweed” on top of the surf drift languidly to the sound of waves crashing, and wailing seagulls breeze into your ears. It’s then that the meditative qualities take full charge.

Walking down to the strand, people met other people they know. On this fine day, one would stop for small talk about how well off we are, to praise what we’ve got, and share it generously in mind and spirit, making it bigger somehow by confirmation.

Phil said, “We are having a ball. Couldn’t be better!”

Nuala said, “It takes you out of the time zone! What day is today? I haven’t a clue!”

Norma said, “The hotel does go the extra mile. They said at reception how pleased they were to see us when we checked in. What a nice welcome!”

And Mary served free tea and coffee and cakes baked by Tina Walsh at the beginning, just so.

Now though, the bands have to be discussed!

Take three words describing something brilliant, starting with F—fabulous, fantastic, favourite—and randomly throw them at any of the ceili bands playing at the Bellbridge, and you get a snug fit.

The Abbey on Friday night couldn’t get enough. After the ceili, all the fab four (with super-sub Ralph Morgan on banjo) joined the session that was already sailing the high seas with no fewer than ten musicians, mostly young people, and together stormed ahead until about 4am. “Ah, you couldn’t leave the session, just couldn’t leave it,” someone said next morning, “’Twas that good!”

All musicians are naturally nuts to varying degrees on the lunacy scale. They have to be to live the life they do and hold their breath for so long under water, immersed in this trad music bubble. Tucked tightly around a table with people encroaching on top of them, they fabricated this enchanted world of Irish music for us, where bones start swaying and hair gets tossed in the tunes-wind. Of course, I was in socks at that stage, and somehow that fitted as well. Later, I met three ladies in their striped pyjamas running up and down the corridor—no, really! It would have been no surprise to see someone in a gown joining in or trailing their comfy-blanket. A home from home? Bellbridge House Hotel has a name for it, going by how relaxed people were.

That session actually caused a sleepless night (or what was left of it) for a couple of ladies whose room was right above it. Next day, asking at reception whether they could maybe change the room, they were driven to one of the lodges a short distance away, which are a part of the accommodation of the Bellbridge. A fully equipped apartment, they both were looking at two single rooms and plenty space and quiet for no extra money. Beat that!

The back to back ceilis with the Abbey again on Saturday afternoon, and they had the ballroom hopping. They played the night before but it seems that they were so well-greased that they got stamps and claps and shouts and whistles galore, and plenty people went mad jump-dancing and fooling around—sheer and utter class. Is it the Clare air or the Cork torque or what? That was the ceili I danced in socks, the whole lot of it, and ignored the screaming that occasionally reached my ears from the balls of my feet. Yes, I know it was somewhat crazy, but just too good to not to dance to— just couldn’t stop! I thought I had heard the Abbey at their very best. Not true. They still change and sometimes dig deeper again into some fathomless pits of musical riches and surprise me. They did so that afternoon and totally wowed the crowd. And then, looming ahead, the Johnny Reidy Ceili Band for the night ceili. In a way, I had told my feet that I might not dance every set. Or go in a little later. Or stop before the end, and go to bed. Bah! All lies! Johnny rocks it, and one particular fan calls him King.

Saturday morning brought disaster news on the telly, the earthquake in Japan and nuclear reactors risking meltdown. I went to town, bought the shoes, feeling slightly out of phase. Here am I buying shoes while elsewhere people are losing limb and house and sanity. And by the time I was back I had myself convinced that I shouldn’t be enjoying this event really—think of all the awful stuff in the world—and bogged down, limped into the sean nós workshop with Ger Butler. The music began, the workshop began, the steps began. Watching Ger’s feet tapping a well-known beat, the familiarity began, and somehow, it comforted me. Trad music, and dancing to it, has become so intimate, so associated with feeling well, that All Was Well. There and then. It didn’t make the disaster any better, no, of course not. But feeling depressed about it doesn’t help them and benefits no one. Action always starts from an energy-rich emotion, be that compassion, anger, excitement. So I baked in the familiar, soaked up the smiles and bars of music and felt the world bearable again. Another bit of proof, if any more was needed, of the therapeutic powers of music and dance. Irish, that is.

Sometimes though, it needs someone fresh with new eyes to bring back the initial attraction to something, in this case set dancing. For example, after a while in Ireland, the once wowing fact of living close to the sea (nightly runs down to shore, mega screams and splashes, arms waved madly when we first lived there) we got used to it. And it lost a biteen of its sheen, until some naïve tourist brought a reminder to us and we could see it all through that binocular again, magnified, magnificently so. Same with the dancing.

Usually I don’t get beginners’ feedback, but did this time round. This is a selection—

“You can leave everything behind.”

“I’m having a great time.”

“This place is gaw-juss!”

“I could watch those professional dancers all day long!”

“A teacher from around here encouraged us to stay after me and my friend decided to walk out of a set, afraid to mess it up for the others who apparently were so good at it. She ran up to us and made us come back, split us up and gave us an experienced dancer each. And we were flying it!”

Ninety percent of comments were positive and left a loving afterglow. There was only one instance where a lady who wasn’t sure ended up dancing with another who was also inexperienced, but the two didn’t know until the dance had started. Then one told the other, “You, sit down, and get me that man over there to dance with me.” The lady in question, totally stunned, just obliged. She had no template that helped her to deal with this. Of course, such an occurrence could put anyone off for good.

When I heard the story I felt sorry that this should have happened to this lady, above all a most gentle creature, but it also made me more determined to do whatever possible to spur the kindness and helpfulness that is integral to the very spirit of noncompetitive dancing. Without the help of others, the dancers of yore, no one out there would have become ever a seasoned dancer. One generation teaches the next, parents teach their children, that’s the way the cookie crumbles and no fledgling dancer should ever be talked to rudely or, God forbid, shoved around bluntly and thus possibly increasing their anxiety, and this is apart from whether you know a set well or not. Sometimes you get anxious even if you have learned enough of a set to get by dancing it. A new place, strange people, a different language (a nod towards all foreigners making the effort for many a year to travel to Ireland to dance here or play music) can all contribute to heightening fears. “I don’t want to mess it up for the professionals,” was a comment that was heard often. Surely, if the inexperienced dancers can be that considerate, so can the ‘professionals’. And in all fairness, most people are. At some stage, everyone took the plunge and went to a ceili for the first few times. Remember what that felt like? I remember being frozen and feeling stiff with perceived pressure, and only because some kind souls tried their best to unfreeze me, have I persevered.

Rant over! Could there be a discussion about this? Could this be an opportunity to shed some light on the subject and hear some voices? Write in, I’d love to hear more feedback!

So the weekend yielded some interesting issues and also sad ones (Japan) but bandaged with the Irish brand of musical first aid, the punters enjoyed themselves immensely, going by the sizzling dancing that was going on. This time of the year has lit up so brightly on the set dance calendar since Sets by the Sea was born!

Chris Eichbaum

Articles continue in Old News Volume 66.

There's more to read in the collections of old news and reviews, volumes 11997-1998, 2, 31998-1999, 41999, 51999-2000, 6, 72000, 8, 9, 102001, 112001-2002, 12, 13, 14, 152002, 162002-2003, 17, 18, 192003, 202003-2004, 21, 22, 23, 24, 252004, 262004-2005, 27, 28, 29, 30, 312005, 322005-2006, 33, 34, 35, 36, 372006, 38, 392006-2007, 40, 41, 42, 432007, 442007-2008, 442007-2008, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 502008, 512008-2009, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 572009, 582009-2010, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 652010, 662010–2011, 67, 68, 69, 70, 712011, 722011–2012, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 782012, 792012-2013, 80, 81, 82, 832013, 842013-2014 (Index).

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Bill Lynch   Set Dancing News, Kilfenora, Co Clare, Ireland
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