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Irish Set Dancing

I’ll begin by mentioning what most struck me about Irish set dances.  The dancers are good, especially the male dancers.  I kept wishing that I could convince some of the men to come Contra dancing but just like Contra dancers won’t go Irish set dancing, Irish set dancers won’t go Contra dancing.  The two communities know nothing about each other, however, Contra dancers are beginning to discover Irish set dancing.

Irish set dances are squares (ancient Quadrilles) that developed in separate communities in Ireland.  Because they developed separately but from the same roots, there are many similarities between the various Irish sets, but each set has its different sequence of movements.

First let me detail the figure that most of them have in common: House Around.  Think of a square as a baseball diamond.  You start at home plate and in two spins you and your partner (ballroom hold) reach first base, then second, then third, then home.  In some sense this is the most complicated move (it does require nimble footwork), but since it is a recurring move in virtually every Irish set, you do learn it fairly quickly.  However, for a Contra dancer used to “walking” all moves, “House Around” takes some learning.

Most of the other moves are simple, and familiar to Contra dancers: ladies chain, swing, promenade, right hand star.  Irish sets are squares, but you will not find the kind of square dance moves that infuriate Contra dancers because one couple does everything while three couples stand still and wait for their turn.  Sometimes two couples move while two couples wait, but the wait is not long, and the moves are so vigorous that you don’t mind when it is your turn to be “inactive.”

Irish sets seem to me closer to intricate Contras -- six separate “Contra” dances stitched together to make one long set -- than they do to squares, but the length of each Irish set is part of what puts off Contra dancers: the ratio of “explanation” to dancing is quite high, especially in beginners classes.  When you attend an Irish set dance, very little is explained, but then you are expected to know the sequence of moves in, for instance, the Cashel set, and Contra dancers don’t like the need to “remember”.  We expect a caller to prompt us so we can just dance unencumbered.

So why should Contra dancers do Irish sets?

The music is very familiar.  A great Irish set band could just as easily be a Contra Dance Band.  There is a driving rhythm -- and they play many of the same tunes we dance Contras to.  The pace of the dance is fast.  Yes, you are more frequently (than in Contras) an “inactive” couple as either “tops” or “sides” do a series of movements as the others watch, but the movements are fast, tiring -- and we Contra dancers want vigorous motion.  An Irish set dance will give you a workout.

There is also a frequent change of partners, but since sets last much longer than Contras, the change of partners is nowhere near as frequent as the change of partners in Contras.  You don’t dance with “your corner lady” as frequently as one does in Contra dances, but almost every Irish set has one sequence where you are dancing with every other lady in the square.

There is also one interesting thing I’ve noticed about squares (in the square dance community) and Irish Sets.  Contras dancers don’t like squares because if one couple gets it wrong the whole square, the whole dance, can flop.  Women in Irish sets (and the square dance community) try to see to it that you get it right.  They will forcefully move you to the right spot.  They take responsibility, and that is a refreshing change from social dancing where men are “in charge” and the burden of getting it right (and deciding the next move) is up to the men.  And that is another wonderful thing about Irish sets.  Men don’t have to choose the next move (as they do in social dances), and the caller can’t surprise you and confuse you (as they sometimes try to in squares).  Like Contras, all the moves are set in stone, and once you learn the moves, you can let go, enjoy, throw yourself into the dance.

I haven’t really talked about the footwork in Irish sets.  Mostly you are dancing threes to the music: left two-three, right two-three, and that takes awhile to master.  There is a definite “up & up” to some sets & “down & down” to other sets.  But none of these are crucial to generally enjoying Irish set dances.  I’ve been at it for two years and very often my feet just stand still in one spot as I think about the next move I must make.

Also, if you watch highly experienced Irish set dancers, you will see (hear) them “battering” with their feet.  This is an embellishment -- a little like clogging in a Contra line.  You do not have to batter to dance well.  In fact, women sometimes prefer partners who don’t do the fancy battering.  The herky-jerky movement makes it a little harder for the women to follow their partner.  Nevertheless, rudimentary battering does make Irish set dancing more pleasurable, and this “accenting” the count with your feet will occur naturally -- after you’ve danced Irish sets for a few years.

All in all, I highly recommend Irish set dancing.  Of the many forms of dancing I know of, it is probably closest in style and rhythm to Contra dances.  There is much swinging, much vigorous, fast dancing, and best of all, you will almost always find good dancers at an Irish set dance.

In certain parts of the country (New York, Boston), you can Irish set dance virtually every night of the week.  Like Contra dancers, Irish set dancers don’t understand why the whole world doesn’t do Irish sets.

PS: If you want to find out where  you can do Irish sets (all over the world) check out the Set Dancing News published by Bill Lynch.

Copyright 2001   Henry Morgenstein

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