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.
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
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
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.
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