Pat McNees

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Irish céilís and set dances

by Pat McNees

To get beyond the once-a-year shamrocks-and-green-beer caricature of Irish American culture, try dancing at a céilí. Pronounced KAYlee, because Celtic -- pronounced KELtic -- has no soft "c," ceili means "friendly get-together." But among the Irish it has become a virtual synonym for "dance." Céilís typically feature traditional Irish music (always live), a little beer maybe (never green), an easy-to-learn, very social kind of dancing, and a distinctly Irish brand of friendliness.

Céilís started in Ireland as neighborhood gatherings after the roving dance master had finished the children's dance lessons. They were originally held in kitchens, on the village green, or at a village crossroads on a Sunday afternoon, dance teacher Michael Denney tells us. Someone would put out soda bread and a pot of tea, and there were usually some fingers of fine Irish whiskey about. Then on the heels of Irish freedom came the Irish Dance Hall Act, which in 1931 allowed the Irish for the first time to dance in halls, a controversial idea at the time -- and one that changed the nature of céilís. Céilí music became the Irish equivalent of the big band sound.

(An attentive reader, Michael Harrison, writes: "The way you've phrased it makes it sound as though the dance hall act was a good thing. In fact, it set Irish dancing back quite a lot. The dance hall act was in fact a way to keep people from dancing by requiring that they have a permit before doing so. Prior to that time you'd find people dancing in private homes and at crossroads but after, anyone caught doing so would be taken to court an assessed a fine." For more information on the act, click the link below.)

"Ensemble playing is a relatively recent phenomenon," explains Denney. "In a bar or a kitchen, all you needed were a fiddle or a flute, and perhaps a rhythm instrument, like a guitar. When the Irish moved to the dance hall (as often as not a school or parish hall), they needed more sound; instead of adding amplification, they added more instruments." In a ceili band today you'll typically hear a fiddle, button accordion, flute, guitar, tenor banjo, piano, and drum set. Ceili music is quite different from popular ballads like "Danny Boy," which are out of American stage and vaudeville tradition rather than Irish folk music.

One thing that makes céilís so much fun is the lighthearted, upbeat quality of the music, which almost demands that you get up and participate. The dance steps are simple and the patterns basic, so with a little encouragement and someone to show you the way anyone can join in. It's group dancing, not couples dancing, so you're more or less forced to be sociable. Many of the dances are cousins -- no, uncles -- of American square and contra dances, though with different footwork and a distinctly Irish flavor. Even the "couples" dances tend to be progressive: first you face one couple, then you "pass through" to face another. Mike Kevany, who recalls playing with other kids at the monthly céilí his parents took him to as a child growing up in Los Angeles, explains that ceili dancing "is not all that hard to learn, to do at least passably, and the people who do the dancing seem to take pleasure in other people learning it. They help newcomers out, and it's rare that they'll complain if you do something wrong." Most of the dances are fairly energetic, so you end up getting a good workout. Singles are welcome; you don't have to go as a couple.

Poet ("Irish Musicians/​American Friends") and editor Terry Winch, who also grew up going to céilís, says what distinguishes a céilí is its prominent social aspect. "Which is not to say that the people aren't fervently there for the dancing -- it's just that they like the dancing in a social context. That makes céilís very appealing from the musician's point of view." Winch, who plays button accordion with the band Celtic Thunder, says céilís give the musicians a chance to fool around a lot more and to try out different combinations of tunes.

"Irish music is primarily dance music and it works best when it's in that relationship to dancing," says Winch. "There is a real symbiosis between the music and the dancing that makes it a pleasure for musicians. If you play a tune that they're not expecting or that's real dynamic, you will immediately get a response from the floor. Someone will let out a whoop, or they will put their foot down a little harder. You are in touch with the dancers and they are in touch with you. There's a real camaraderie there." Or, as the Irish would say, "It's grand craic," condensing to one word, pronounced "crack" -- not the drug -- the experience of good friends and wonderful times.

Betty Ann Stephens and her mother Bette got their first taste of céilís seventeen years ago and they've been dancing ever since with the Blackthorn Stick group [which appears not to be meeting anymore]. What hooked them? The dancing, of course, but, says Betty the younger, "I loved them because the people were so warm and welcoming-- genuinely welcoming -- they cared about you, they remembered your name, you were not anonymous, and in the Washington suburbs it's easy to feel anonymous. I have made and kept a lot of friends from that group, and it's been a long time, and they've been there through thick and thin."

In a town not well-known for its friendly gatherings, it's nice to know the céilí tradition is flourishing. The Irish population here is smaller and more dispersed than it is in towns like Baltimore and New York, but it's large enough that you can enjoy Irish music and dancing year round and not just on St. Patrick's Day.

Alcohol is neither encouraged nor discouraged at a ceili, but it's usually in evidence (typically BYO, or bring your own). Tea, coffee, soda bread and sweets are often provided and sodas ("set-ups") sold. Door prizes and raffles are common. Dress is fairly casual. (Wear street shoes.) In Ireland céilís now tend to begin after the bars close, around midnight. In America, they're held more often than not on weekend evenings. Traditionally family-oriented, most céilís welcome children.

This is taken from a story of mine that ran originally in the Washington Post, many moons ago! Copyright, Pat McNees.

I've included a little Scottish country dancing here, too. You can tell they're from the same part of the world when you hear the music, but the styles are different. It's worth trying both, to see which suits you.


Other dance pages on Pat's website


Dancing: A guide to the Capital area (Dancing in DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia)
Ballroom Dance
Ceilis (Irish céilís and set dances)
Country Western Dancing
Folk dancing in the Capital area (Contra, English country, international, Irish, Israeli, Scandinavian, Scottish)
Love at First Waltz (by Cheryl Kollin)
Shuffling Off to Buffalo Gap Dance Camp (Pat McNees)
Swing, lindy, jitterbug, shag, and hand-dancing
Dating -- again! (that's extra, but often relevant -- dancing is one way to restore your social self, after separation)
Many of the stories by Pat McNees posted here appeared first in the Washington Post
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