Sets, Steps and Ceilis: Irish Dancing
Arthur Kingsland, University of Newcastle, Australia
rish dancing can be subdivided into Step Dancing, Ceili Dancing and Set Dancing. The structural root of Irish dance is found in step dancing with solo performance, intricate and energetic footwork and precise movements. The historical roots for Irish dancing lie in the Ceili dance. This article discusses these forms of dance briefly and provides detail about the movements, music and footwork for Set dancing. The "Sets" are a form of social dancing usually for four couples arranged in the form of square "sets". Examples of the activities within the classes of Newcastle Irish Dance are used to illustrate various points. Step dancing A number of historic influences served to suppress Irish dancing and other aspects of the Irish culture from the 14th century. Penal Laws enacted in the late 17th century sent Irish culture underground. These laws included the banning of education of Catholic children and led to the creation of hidden (hedge) schools. Irish dance continued during this period of intense repression - albeit in secret. Dance Masters appeared in the mid-18th century (Haurin & Richens 1996). The dance teachers traveled from town to town spending some time in each teaching dance in kitchens, farm outbuildings, at cross roads, hedge schools, etc. Each dance master had a repertoire of dance steps and created new steps over time (Haurin & Richens 1996). Sometimes the dance masters competed at feisianna, the winner being the one who knew the most steps. In Irish dancing a "step" is eight measures or bars of music. These men were the creators of set and ceili dances and created schools of dancing - the precursors of those we see today. In 1893 the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge) was formed to help the revival of Irish culture. In 1929 the Irish Dancing Commission (An Coimisiun le Rinci' Gaeliacha) was formed to establish rules for teaching, judging and competitions for step and ceili dancing (Haurin & Richens 1996; Murphy 1995:31-33). This standardization means that the form of Irish dancing known as Step Dancing uses Set Step Dances (usually just called "Set Dances") where the dance contains specific foot movements and sequences to specific set musical pieces. Poise, posture, hand, back, leg and foot position and use of stage are all considered in addition to the expectation that the steps will be in accordance with the requirements for the specific set dance. Individual interpretation is in terms of the skills of performing the set steps. Instead of the conventional 8-bar structure used mainly in social dancing, the set dance tunes have a one or two part structure with 8 or 12 bars in the first part and 12, 14, 16 or more bars in the second part (Rince Ceol Amhrán 1997). Ceili Dancing Ceili dances come from the informal tradition of dances evolving through time as is seen in most cultures (Rince Ceol Amhrán 1997). Ceili dances take a number of forms as round dances, line dances, progressive line dances. Many modern ceili dances have known authors courtesy of the efforts of the Irish Dancing Commission. A "Ceili" has a number of meanings depending on which Celtic grouping is being considered. In the context of Irish dancing a ceili is a gathering with music, song and dancing and participation by all those attending. Set Dancing The Sets or Country Set Dancing is social dancing usually in the form of square "sets" comprised four couples one on each side of the square. Irish set dances evolved from a combination of the footwork and movements of the step and ceili dances and the French Quadrilles or court dances of the 18th and 19th century. These dances were brought to Ireland and taught by the early dance masters. They were adapted to traditional Irish music and modified and elaborated to show off the dancers' prowess. Each dance is comprised of several figures (usually 5 or 6, but ranging from 2 to 9) set to traditional Irish tunes such as reels, jigs, polkas or hornpipes. The footwork ranges from simple stepping to fast battering steps, but generally the foot is relatively flat avoiding the leaps and travelling of the other forms of dancing. In set dancing you dance with your partner, yet in each figure each couple also dances with one or more of the other couples in the set. The sets are the only form of Irish dancing that retain the strong regional identity with differences in the types of tunes used and differences in the type of footwork. While Step dancing requires considerable fitness and agility almost anyone can participate in set dancing. A certain amount of stamina is required but simplifying the footwork and shortening the distance traveled when progressing can make a large difference to the amount of energy expended.