Set Dancing – Summer 2003

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“Around the house and mind the dresser”…

This a familiar Irish phrase and of course us older folk know it comes from the ‘Chéilí in the house’ days (nights!) before the nineteen fifties/sixties ballroom dancing days. This was the period when Irish people held ‘chéilís’ or dances in their homes.

Small and all as some of these houses were many people used to gather in the kitchens of those houses dancing the night away with traditional sets together with a mixture of quick steps, waltzes and polkas. The expression came about because of the small kitchens and one was supposed to dance around the kitchen floor and avoid hitting off the dresser….

Set dancing was the popular type of dancing in the Irish countryside going back over 150 years. The dances themselves originated from the French quadrilles and were brought to Ireland by the English Armies in the nineteenth century. The Irish peasants took to the dances, put their own music to them and made them their own.

Following a period of decline in set dancing in the fifties and sixties, a revival took place during the seventies and this revival has carried on to the present day where set dancing is now, not alone popular in Ireland but has huge interest in America, Europe, Australia and parts of Asia.

Weekly classes, weekend chéilís and weeklong workshops are the order of the set-dancing scene throughout Ireland. In addition to that, are the yearly summer schools in towns and cities of Ireland altogether making for phenomenal interest.

Athenry was no exception when the revival came about. From the nineteen eighties, classes were held continuously under the tutorage of Tony Ryan who held weekly classes, initially in the Presentation Gym and later the Community Hall right up until last year when due to other commitments he could no longer continue. However as there was a large group of people and a lot of beginners it was decided to keep the session going.

The Monday night weekly session has proved very successful and new people continue joining all the time. This is due in no small way to the commitment of a few and especially Michael Cannon who ‘calls the sets’ for us. The classes start at the end of August and continue ‘til the beginning of May, and dates are announced on the parish newsletter.

Pub chéilís take place weekly all during the year in Oranmore and in Craughwell, with weekend regular sessions in Kilbeacanty and in the Galway Claddagh Hall. For those who want the real Clare flavour of music and dancing there are Thursday and Sunday night cheilis in Kilfenora throughout the year.

Our photograph was taken at a chéilí in Kilfenora earlier this year when a busload travelled from our weekly class to this Mecca of Irish music dance and craic.

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About this record

Written by Martin O'Grady

Published here 03 Jan 2024 and originally published Summer 2005

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