Irish dance partners: Dancing under your own steam

Some of the nicest, most pleasurable dance experiences I’ve had in Irish set dancing have been with partners who are… how can I say it? Comfortable. It’s like moving on in the set and arriving at your favourite armchair – aaah, a space that is obliging, giving and freeing, all at the same time with the added pleasure of moving exactly in rhythmic time with another.

Sadly, that’s not always the case. Many will have had the experience of being tackled by a smiling partner who seems to have wandered in off the sporting pitch, is full of energy and enthusiasm that’s just bone crackin’. Or collecting the demure-looking woman who’s leans on you and is like 20lbs spuds to get around the floor.

So, despite being convinced that all dancers are doing their best to dance, enjoy and have a good time, I think sometimes there’s a small lack of technique, knowledge or thought about what kind of experience it might be for the other person. It doesn’t mean completely changing your dance style but simply being mindful of others and making small accommodations to suit.

1. Dancing under your own steam – as much as your partner may be comfortable, their job is not to carry you. Your two legs will do that and all your weight needs to be on them, not your partner. To see if you’re already doing that, challenge yourself. Have a look at the dance practice exercise on the film  (below) and see if you can dance at home, and then do a full house with your partner with only your palms touching palms as you dance.

2. Flat resting hands, light touch – Pulling, yanking, poking, gripping hands are most unattractive and are usually evident in the excitement of brilliant music and fast moves – we’ve all done it. Taking care also applies to moves like turning the lady under where all you need to do is use the tips of your fingers to touch, not using your whole hand. People carry all sorts of injuries and pains – arthritis, bruising, sprains – and it pays to take care with all hand holds.

A tip for dancers who partner with much taller people: don’t try to reach up for the hand on the shoulder if it’s in the stratosphere for you. Stretching up will only result in pulling the shoulder down. Instead, place your hand around the person’s waist or up under their arm (not on their arm), wherever is appropriate and doesn’t restrict your partner’s movement. This will also help you keep your balance as your centre of gravity is lower, stop you from slipping and sliding and makes it easier if you want to do battering steps.

3. Dancing is not a full-contact sport but it does pay to be part of the team. Look at your potential partners in the set and look ahead to your next partner and see how they’re doing. Are they full of beans or flagging?  Do they have great rhythm or none at all?  Adjust your style accordingly to make the dancing smooth and pleasurable. This is particularly so with swinging. My advice is go gently and with the rhythm if you’re not sure of the speed your new partner is happy to dance at. There’s always the opportunity there to go a bit faster once you’re sure it pleases you both.

4. Landing your partner with elegance – the sign of a good dancer is their ability to judge time and space. Gents, your mission is to land the lady into the right place calmly and gently, not flinging or pushing her into place so that she’s reeling like a tot. Ladies, same applies when you’re dropping off the gent, like in the Labasheeda set.

Of course, all this is only my opinion and you are very welcome to contest anything  said here. I’d much rather we had our debate and competition here or in the pub than on the dance floor!

Happy, healthy dancing.

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss
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2 thoughts on “Irish dance partners: Dancing under your own steam

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