How will we ever get back to dancing?

Set dancing is under threat – again. It has faced extinction before and managed a successful revival, albeit after many, many years.

We have reached a stage of serious mourning for the loss of our beloved set dancing, with this pandemic stretching on into years- a loss we never thought possible.

In these dark times, it seems that life will never get back to normal and that is probably mostly true. However, it can be good again but it will have to be different.

As a person who has had my long-term health and subsequent dancing ability completely and adversely affected by other viruses, bacteria and fungi, I have strong reason for wanting this to happen.

The Virus

The SARS CoV-2 virus is highly infectious, as we all know, and is very airborne, which means it travels on the wind, on pollution particles and through people expelling it via coughing, sneezing, singing, shouting or speaking loudly. It can be spread through air conditioning systems & is obviously spread through touching contaminated surfaces.

It has on average a 6 day incubation period but can be anywhere up to 14 days- varies between individuals – which means that anyone who has come in contact with the virus may develop symptoms any time for 2 weeks – it is not safe to come in contact with anyone at any time during that period- isolation is recommended.

And most difficult of all, can be asymptomatic, which means people can be carrying the virus, spreading it without any symptoms of feeling unwell or any idea they have the virus.

Vaccinations are now being delivered and are a work-in-progress.  The timeframe for getting everyone successfully and effectively inoculated could be years, and meanwhile, other variants and other viruses are likely to arise.

Long-distance travel is going to continue to be fraught with problems for some years to come. And to top it off, the experts say that the likelihood of future pandemics is high whilst ever we continue to mess with the boundaries of wild animals and nature.

I have many more questions than answers, but now is the time for us all to start thinking and planning for a different and better future.


Set dancing can only be done as a communal activity and we all need to continue to be mindful and care for our dancer friends.

Set dancing itself is inherently an up-close-and-personal experience, which is why it is a very human, socially satisfying past time. Holding hands with lots of touch, couples are close, groups of eight in very close quarters doing all the moves we love so much –chaining, christmas and dancing at home.

Past dancing environments have generally paid little attention to health basics – no obvious hand washing options, poor or no hall ventilation, scant floor and other cleaning, and no expectation that dancers who were potentially ill & contagious would exclude themselves.

This is not a criticism of organizers because I know how much work is involved in organizing classes, workshops, céilíthe and festivals – I have done many myself.

Our generally slack attitude to health basics is widespread in all our communities, well beyond dancing, particularly when it comes to public health.

Community and public amenities have often become second-class, the poor relation to well-resourced private enterprises. There was a time when society took pride in having the very best for our shared spaces- look at all the beautiful churches and halls that were built in times past.

Poor infrastructure and low expectations have combined to make it difficult for organizers to insist on a higher than usual standard of hygiene. It has also been frankly embarassing to even discuss these issues. This will all need to change if we are to have any dancing community into the future.

We need a new attitude to ensure that set dancing thrives, and that all set dancing is done in a safe and healthy environment as is possible to give it the best chance of continuing.

We need some durable options to protect ourselves, and our dancing into the future, and here are some thoughts and suggestions.


  • Dancers from the same household have an advantage over others. Lucky them!
  • Exclude yourself if you are feeling unwell – cold, cough or flu coming on.
  • Keep hands well washed / clean as much as possible.
  • Masks – I dread to think that this might be necessary. I think it would be very uncomfortable and unpleasant having to do this while dancing. Not recommended. ( I have thought a snorkel and mask might be a bit of craic….only joking!)

  • Proof of up-to-date COVID vaccination. I know this will be deeply unpopular with those who feel this is an infringement on their personal liberties but getting ill and/ or passing it to others is also an infringement on the rights of people to stay well.

Dancing Sets

How to dance our beloved sets in a way that reduces the chance of passing the virus or other illnesses? Mmmmmmm – tricky! A totally strange thing to have to contemplate but here goes.

    • Spacing out the sets both within and between sets would be a good idea.
    • Half sets are likely to have an advantage over full sets.
    • Limiting/ reducing the amount of dancing where people are facing each other within close proximity would be better. For example, advancing and retiring facing in or out of the set is preferable to any moves where people are face to face.
    • We may need to adapt those movements to reduce the amount of very close face-to-face interactions – chaining in small or large circles, christmas in groups of 4 are two that come immediately to mind. We could chain without handshakes and step aside a little more rather than shoulder to shoulder. Yes?

Dance venues

  • Smaller events with fewer people are more likely to be easier to manage than larger dance events. Coupled with the long-distance travel barrier, local and smaller events are more likely to succeed.
  • Another possible option is more outdoor venues, particularly in the summer (see YouTube clip above, published with kind permission Colm Nestor). Dance floors with cover. Obviously, this involves a lot of effort and expense but I have always loved the opportunity to dance outside.

  • Compulsory hand sanitiser on entry to the hall / dancing area & at the start of each set.
  • Temperature checks on entry – possibly a bit rigid but it might be useful if it wasn’t too intrusive.
  • Clean toilets with lids, plenty of hand washing and drying facilities that work. Possibly even larger restroom areas would be helpful, that are also well ventilated.
  • All dance areas need proper ventilation, including plenty of windows open with fresh air. In my experience, this has always been a problem that has needed a solution.
  • Windows that are placed above 1.8m/ 6 feet that are easily able to be opened & shut to regulate airflow will work well in halls and large rooms. It is very important that windows in opposite positions are open to allow the flow and natural exchange of air.
  • Ceiling fans that can help circulate and bring the air up and out towards the windows.
  • Air conditioning systems are fraught with problems unless they have proper air exchange systems and are well-maintained. This is highly unlikely to exist currently in community facilities, and even most commercial establishments don’t have these either.
  • It is my experience that set dancing itself generates so much heat and damp that the need for continuous heat in dance halls/ areas is generally not needed. Indeed, there is usually a race for the door in the breaks to get some fresh, cool air outside.
  • We must also consider the very important social aspect of dancing – the cup of tea and chat. This is absolutely essential and we must organise ways to make this easy and safe for all dancers.( INSET: Angela and Martin at Mullaghboy céilí infamous tea that is a triumph of volunteering)


I have long thought that the continuation of well-organised events is taken for granted,  when the reality is that a huge amount of effort is often left to a quite small group of volunteers, year in, year out. This includes all our wonderful céilí bands.

As a dance community, we will have to overcome the idea that dancing opportunities are plentiful, cheap and always available, and start to really value what we have.

So that brings me to my final point which is that if we want set dancing to continue in any form, we are all going to have to be responsible for ourselves and each other to make this happen.

We are going to need to be willing to pay more, to step up and help, to adopt a different attitude to health and the value of our dancing, and to support each other to make these changes stick.

The beauty of set dancing is that there is very little in the way of formal structure or organisation but this could be its’ downfall if we don’t act collectively. It will only take one case of COVID in a busy dance event to bring us undone.

We need to be proactive, thoughtful and make conscious decisions all the way.
Your comments and suggestions are most welcome.

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

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