Changing the Set

Well, been a while since I wrote – not that there was no material! Had a great visit to Zagreb dancers, and then we enjoyed a workshop with Emma O’Sullivan in Berlin, organized by Jigs and Reels back in March. However, somehow I’m always rushing around too much to sit down and write about these experiences and I only have myself to blame.

So, to avoid this little bad habit of mine, I’m writing this one NOW – just got back home from the airport, poured a bit of scotch, and now we can talk! I came back from Prague – they had a set dancing weekend, including workshops and ceilis led by Kevin & Carol Monaghan, and organized by one of the local Irish Dancing Schools – Sona Sól. To be more accurate, it’s a yearly event and if I’m not mistaken this was the fourth year it’s been organized. The music in the ceilis was played by the relentless Rise the Dust – you can see them (and set dancing!) in action here (the music starts around the 3:20 mark)

Sooo, if you had no idea what Irish Set Dancing was – now you’ve seen a piece of that as well. Sidebar: This was the first time I did set dancing, so I’m writing this from the perspective of a person new to the style, and keeping in mind that this is a very unknown dance in my country – it is obscure even to the local Irish dancers. As usual, Marko from Ale in the Middle/Krčmarice joined me – he actually did a set dancing workshop last summer at Bernard’s Summer School so he had a headstart on me. Once we arrived we were happy to see that our friends Britta from Estonia, and Eva & Andre from Switzerland, were joining as well. Lately we keep running into each other at these events!

Which brings me to my first point – since our great experience in Prague last summer, I really try to travel as much as I can and get in touch with different people involved in Irish dancing and music, and the event here was a great addition. At this point, my favorite part of doing this is meeting new people and hearing their stories. Which makes no sense – I don’t REALLY consider myself a people’s person! Either way, from that perspective it was a blast – the set dancing community in mainland Europe is very interconnected and they really support each other and try to meet as often as they can. I was sort of expecting to see a lot of people from Austria, Switzerland and Germany – they’re nearby and all have very active set dancing communities. The real surprise came when I realized how many English and Irish people were there! All in all, there was, I believe, more than 80 dancers involved from 14 different countries! All for this “old people” form of Irish dancing!

Before I take a dive into my first impressions of the style itself, I need to emphasize that the set dances are what is usually called “social dances” – once you know the foundations they’re easy to pick up and they’re really a thing of the moment. More than any other form of Irish dancing, the set dances are best enjoyed by participating – looking at videos and trying to describe it simply doesn’t cut it. And it’s definitely not the type of dance you’d want to do on stage for an audience – it’s just not made for that.

So, how was it? The first thing I had to face was that the basic rhythm is (wait for it) different from step dancing, different from competitive ceili dancing, different from sean-nós – there was basically nothing I could connect to. My prejudice that all of set dancing works off from battering the floor in the usual Clare step was ridiculously misinformed. In actuality, set dancing embraces the “less is more” principle even more than sean-nós – the footwork is incredibly economic. Well, if we take into account that a typical set dance has five or six parts which total to 25-30 minutes of dancing, it actually makes sense but I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. The second part was that the man always starts off his steps on the left foot, which was (ok, IS) very counterintuitive to my habits. Still – the good news is that the dance is fairly informal and that the guys were very supportive, so it was easy to pick things up as we moved along.

As far as the atmosphere goes, it was good fun – the music is very intense, and with all these people moving around and groups of dancers mixing up between themselves after each set you really get to experience a lot of different personalities. This is something that’s not typical of other forms of Irish dancing – even though sean-nós is about individuality, it’s still a solo form. Here you really get to feel the different energies and movements of your partners as you change them, and look for ways to adjust to them so that things keep flowing. Speaking of flowing – the dynamics of the dance are also broader – over the weekend I’ve danced the slowest AND the fastest tempos I ever did, and there’s a lot more variety in the rhythms of the tunes played. The event itself was fantastically organized – the hosts really had great control over the flow and we had no hiccups along the way, which is no small feat!

On a completely personal level, one unexpected feeling I got was that the weekend, in a roundabout way, reminded me how much I love sean-nós. While doing sets was great fun, and I’ll definitely be happy to join some more in future, I must admit I couldn’t wait for the session to start, so I can just burst out some steps on my own. Nevertheless, both are important. There’s a great huge world in Irish dancing beyond the canonized CLRG soft shoe/hard shoe dichotomy, and I do feel that the dancers should have opportunity to be acquainted with all these other styles as well. After all, you do need to at least dip your toes in all of these to really be able to have a complete picture and see what works for you best. I know for a fact that a lot of people in Belgrade were turned away from Irish dancing completely due to them not fitting in with the competitive model and not even being aware that there are alternatives.

So, somewhere in the infinity of my todo list, I hope at some point I’ll be able to help and support development of a local set dancing community – it’s a wonderful experience and it should be offered in the scene. Once again, the Prague dancers show us the way – both the Irish music and Irish dancing scenes over there are so well developed for one reason or another, it’s great to see!

How do you feel about the different styles? What do you prefer and what really matters in Irish dancing? Leave a comment and let’s argue about it 😀

(and hoping I’ll write the next one in less than six months)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s