Irish Set Dancing: 3 Sets For Beginner Classes-Ease Them In Gently

I remember my first set dancing experience in early 1989 as a blur – a great fun, sweaty, frustrating blur of people, heat and amazing sound. I have no recollection at all of the sets I learned but the remainder was a great sense and wonderful feeling of what it was all about. And that is an important thing to reflect on when you are preparing to teach a group or a class who have no experience of dancing sets.

What you, as a teacher, are doing initially is trying to create a good positive experience – one that hopefully will inspire & encourage new dancers enough to keep them coming back, as learning set dancing is a long-term pursuit, not a quick fix.

And predictably, as a dancer making the transition from doing to teaching, I made lots of mistakes – still making them, actually! I started teaching my new class what I had started with-the Caledonian Set, the Ballyvourney Jig Set, the North Kerry Set, the Clare Plain Set, as examples.

What I quickly discovered was that for people with little dance experience, dancing a full house, dancing at home and swinging in succession made them incredibly dizzy, and our class lost quite a few people because I did nothing about this, initially. New dancers also found the concept of dancing with a partner, and dancing in a square shape pretty tricky. This is particularly so when you have large groups of new dancers- people unfamiliar with the music, the moves and the steps all dancing with each other – mayhem!

Dancers learning to chain

Chaining around the set at a dance workshop Blue Mountains 2013. Weatherboard Photography

For a new dancer, there are all these aspects of sets to come to grips with:

  • Understand tops and sides, and also have a good sense of the 4 positions in the square or circle, depending on how your perceive it;
  • Dancing & moving with a partner with everyone dancing under their own steam;
  • Learning steps that are right for the music being played;
  • Knowing how each of the moves actually work – house, swing, chain. etc.
  • It’s long – that there is more than one figure or part to the dance!

My suggestions for sets to teach when you have large numbers of new dancers in a class, that might help to ease them in gently:

  1. The Gillen Set: 4 figures of reels
  2. The Skirdagh Set: 4 figures- jig, polka, reel, waltz
  3. The Kilkenny Quadrilles (half set): 6 short figures polkas and jigs

1. The Gillen Set: 4 figures of reels
The reason I really like this set for new dancers is that it only has 4 figures, there is no housing or dancing at home and plenty of individual dancing-not holding your partner, and plenty of practice at “stepping it out” or getting used to dancing to reels on the spot. The most difficult part of this is learning a céilí-hold swing-lots of this swing in the set- an excellent reinforcement for learning through repetition. The Gillen Set develops enough complexity by the third figure to hold interest -I hope you like it.
Instructions: Toss the Feathers (Pat Murphy:1995) p.127
Music: Matt Cunningham Dance Music of Ireland Vol 10.

2. The Skirdagh Set: 4 figures-Jig, polka, reel, waltz
Love this one – this set has plenty of variety with minimal swinging and no housing or dancing at home. My suggestion for teaching would be to do it backwards – from Figure 4  Waltz first through to Figure 1 Jigs, then dance it all through. Waltzing is gentle and easy to dance and there is no swinging until you get to Figure 2, and then Figure 1. Figure 1 is a long 3 part jig figure, very like the Derrada Set (from an area close by in Co.Mayo) and very satisfying to dance and get through.
Instructions: Apples in Winter  (Pat Murphy:2009) p.169
Music: No specifically recorded music – my suggestions are below:

  • Fig.1 Jigs (208 bars)-Track 8 – Cooleys Jig i Gnoc Na Grai album (wild!) or 216 bars (use 16 bar intro) Televara Set Fig. 3-The Set 4 -Music For Four Complete Sets.
  • Fig.2 Polka (136 bars)-Cashel Fig.3- plenty of recordings for this.
  • Fig.3 Reel(152 bars)-Gillen Fig 4 – see above The Gillen Set.
  • Fig.4 Waltz (80 bars)-Glencree Set Fig 6. Matt Cunningham Dance Music of Ireland Vol 10

3. The Kilkenny Quadrilles – 6 figures polkas and jigs
I have to confess to not having taught this set yet but it caught my eye because it can be danced as a half set, and also the figures are short with a distinctly different move for each figure – pass through & chain (1), arches (2), turn the lady across the set (3), gallops (4) and a social figure (5). This would be a great set to teach children-short figures that can be danced to faster music to make it fun.
Instructions: Toss the Feathers (Pat Murphy:1995) p.145 or find an online source here.
Music: No specifically recorded music – my suggestions are below:

  • Fig.1 Polka (48 bars) Ballycommon Fig.1 Matt Cunningham Dance Music of Ireland Vol 9 (16 bars introduction)
  • Fig.2 Polka (56 bars) Ballycommon Fig. 1 Matt Cunningham Dance Music of Ireland Vol 9 OR Ballycommon Fig. 5  (16 bars introduction) Matt Cunningham Dance Music of Ireland Vol 9
  • Fig.3 Single Jig (72 bars)  Matt Cunningham Dance Music of Ireland Vol 12.
  • Fig.4 Jig (144 bars)- plenty of recorded jigs to choose from.
  • Fig.5 Jig or Polka (128 bars) Jig selection or Polka selection

If you have any questions about teaching sets or sean nós, please drop me a line. Always happy to hear from other dancers, as long as you don’t expect an instant answer every time – sometimes I am busy doing other things!

And remember: there’s no better way of learning than teaching.
Best wishes

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

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