Irish Dance Unbuttoned

As a child, Gene Kelly was my on-screen dance hero. I loved his athleticism but mostly, it was his mega watt smile and that extra bit of spontaneous lift that really made him unmissable. He radiated joy when he was performing (even though, according to his wife, on the day he filmed the famous Singing In The Rain dance number, he was extremely unwell with a temperature of 104ºF!)

So, it’s with these images in my head that I sometimes wonder how so much Irish dancing became so stiff, so formal and so obviously lacking in delight.

I have often had friends and others telling me how, when they were small, they were sent off to learn the irish dancing only to be whacked with a stick to make them straighter, shouted at to jump higher and to pay attention. Continue reading

How to get a party crowd Irish dancing



  1. Have a leader someone who knows what they’re doing & a few more. Preparation is important- know the steps and have the music ready.
  2. Be heard: have a microphone so people can hear you.
  3. Make the moves really big & easy:
    1. Make advance & retires into the circle 4 bars, not 2 bars: in once, out once.
    2. Substitute swinging for right arm or left arm hook
  4. Music:
    1. Not too fast – Try to pick music that’s not too fast at the beginning – give everyone a chance & make it reasonably safe.
    2. Not too long – Music length for each dance at about 2- 2 1/2minutes – most people won’t dance longer than that.
  5. Fun: Get as much clapping and stamping in as you can – we’re all kids at heart!
  6. If- and when- the dancing all goes a bit pear-shaped, laugh as hard as you can. That’s the whole point 🙂Crowd018

Happy dancing this Christmas.

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

irish bliss globe of world flags

Irish dance music: It’s child’s play

Great music is tSeamus_Begleyhe lifeblood of dancing and fortunately, Ireland has it in abundance. One of Ireland’s most beloved musicians and singers, Séamus Begley (RIP 2023) reveals more (hear audio link below) about the unbreakable bond between Irish music & dance when being interviewed by Joan Armatrading for the BBC.

As he says, his experience of playing music on his accordion was only for dancing and when there was no dancing, he was told to “put it away”.

So, how do you tell a jig from a reel? Or a polka from a slide?

As with most things Irish, it’s complicated. The intricacies of music mathematics can be a difficult thing to get your head around: even the best musicians seem to struggle to explain how it works mostly because there are style differences in the playing, in some cases. In addition, some of the names sound like musical timings – eg, “treble jig” and  “light jig”, but are actually names of a dance rather than a specific musical timing. So, thinking about all this too much will not help your understanding.

Happily, one of the best ways of learning this difference is by moving or by singing/ humming to each different signature timing, and this also goes for musicians who are learning to play Irish music. And why not try to remember each different type – hornpipes, reels, jigs, waltzes, polkas, slides– by what we did when we were kids?

By having fun – playing, clapping and singing to nursery rhymes, and using pictures and word games to remember the basics.

Continue reading

Irish summer dance and music 2015: Always absolutely brilliant!

Summer time in Ireland, particularly July is really the best time to get your concentrated dose of learning in music, dance, singing, culture and craic with a mix of well-established festivals and new ones springing up all over the place.

I remember my first trip to the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay, travelling down from Dublin to Co.Clare in 1999, zipping down the roads in my new bright red, sporty Honda. Besides the gorgeous trip down the very narrow hedge-bound winding country lanes and roads to get there,  glimpsing the Atlantic over the brow of the hill, the shock of dancing every day and every night for a week in a sea of 300 or more slightly damp, very enthusiastic, experienced dancers was absolutely exhilarating, as you can see:

It’s hard to convey the excitement these festivals generate : providing comfortable predictability, laced with the unexpected. And on each of my successive return trips almost every year since then, as I said to Bill Lynch at the Set Dancing News, they never disappoint – always absolutely brilliant, no matter what the weather.

IRELAND SUMMER SCHOOLS (in date order)Google map icon

Seosamh MacGabhann (Joseph McGavin) Summer School, Kilmovee, Co. Mayo 27th June – 3rd July 2015 This is a relatively new festival started in 2011, with music classes each morning & sean nós dance classes and singing classes amongst others, in the afternoon.

Willie Clancy Summer School, Miltown Malbay, Co.Clare 4th July – 12th July 2015 Also affectionately known as Willie Week, this is probably the longest running of these festivals. There’s always a great buzz in Miltown: we call it Set Dancing Mecca! Classes for music and dance are run each morning from 10-1pm from Monday – Saturday, interspersed with a wide range of afternoon and evening set dancing céilís around the area, singing sessions & music sessions in pubs. Highly recommended for those who want full immersion, deep dive into Irish culture & craic.

South Sligo Summer School, Tubbercurry,Co.Sligo 12th July – 18th July 2015 This has become my favorite festival for it’s laid back nature but also the learning to dance program is excellent. Different energy to Willie Clancy, it’s more intimate, gentler and very enjoyable in this beautiful part of Co.Sligo, with very deep music & dance tradition. Set dancing and music classes are in the morning 10am-1pm, a fantastic sean nós dance program in the afternoon with Edwina Guckian (deep dive immersion here also!) from 4-6pm and a range of concerts in the afternoons, and set dancing céilís in the evenings, with sessions in the pubs to follow.

Joe Mooney Summer School, Drumshanbo, Co.Leitrim 19th July- 25th July 2015 If you have any energy left after the first two festivals, Drumshanbo is delightful. A similar format to South Sligo Summer School, the difference here is the focus is very much around the unusual main street, which has a pedestrian mezzanine above the lane of traffic, where you can sit out in the sun, dance, listen to music & enjoy the people going by and enjoy a number of excellent evening ceilis.

Camp Rince 2014, Dublin, Co.Dublin July 27th-31st 2015 A workshop in Irish step dance with expert tuition from Ronan McCormack in solo technique, stage performance , céilí, show style and injury prevention.

The Irish Dance Festival – NEW COMBINED FESTIVAL Carlingford, Co.Louth 2nd-9th August 2015Irish Dance Festival 2014 2014 saw the emergence of a festival that blends Irish step dancing, Irish set dancing & Irish sean nós dancing in the absolutely stunning 800 year old town of Carlingford, on the Carlingford Lough.

Blas, University of Limerick, Limerick June 22nd- 3rd July 2015 If you want a more structured intensive program which provides academic credit for further studies –range of Masters degrees, there is this program at University of Limerick.

USA SUMMER CAMPS I have this information from The Irish Dancing Magazine about a range of Irish step dancing camps across the USA. I’d be very happy for reviews or more information about any of these and other favorites you may map icon folded

CAMP RINCE CEOL (NYC), USA for Adult Dancers- NEW!! 5th-10th July 2015 Camp Rince CEOL now welcomes Adult Irish dancers from around the world for a week of hard work for individual dance improvement, enhancement of physical abilities and to increase social opportunities, through céilí, music and other optional Irish cultural activities and events. The Camp has put together a full week of all that the kids’ camp has and more….our voices have been heard…Dance Camp isn’t just for kids, anymore I Let’s create a global adult Irish Dance movement….at Camp Rince Ceol 2015!!

CAMP RINCE CEOL, Santa Inez, California, USA 21st-26th June 2015

CAMP STEP ABOUT, Schenectady, New York, USA 7-12th July 2015

CAMP RINCE CEOL, Schenectady, New York, USA 11th-31st July 2015

CAMP RINCE NUA, Lenox, Massachusetts, USA 16th-21st August 2015

CAMP RINCE BERLIN, Berlin, Germany 17th-23rd July 2015

CAN’T MAKE THE NORTHERN SUMMER? If you decide to go in either Spring or Fall, you are most likely going to find that regular weekly classes in an area or weekend workshop/ festivals is what is most available. Bill Lynch, Set Dancing News has an exhaustive listing of Irish set dancing, Irish sean nós dancing classes, workshops and festivals all over the world.

Happy, sunny dancing, folks!!
Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

irish bliss globe of world flags

Irish dance is not all the same!

A guide to 6 different Irish dance styles

I was reminded yet again this week that most people are only aware of one style of Irish dance- Irish step dancing, brought to world fame by the Riverdance production. However, there are many other Irish dance styles –  at least six that I am aware of. The biggest difference in style is being whether the dance is balletic – with pointed toes and high on the balls of the feet – or a relaxed, flatter, gliding style with more use of the heels. 
Have a look at the videos below and see if you can spot the difference? Whatever the style, the essence is that they all use Irish music, are very rhythmic and should be fun to do!

1. Irish Set Dancing– FLAT DOWN STYLE
Social dancing with four couples in a set of eight dancers; feet flat, gliding style, relaxed body and arms, having fun!
Set dancing is a vibrant and fresh style of dance, based on dancing Quadrilles, which originally came from France. The Irish have added their own unique steps and music to this dancing to make it energetic, rhythmic and great fun.The style is with the feet very low and flat to the floor, sometimes silently pushing and swishing around the floor, and other times making a rhythmic tattoo on the floor that is hypnotic. Set dancing uses the whole body in a relaxed stance.  Irish set dancing has similar roots to American square dancing, although sets have a more disciplined structure determined by the structure of the music.


Continue reading

Irish dance – whatever happens, don’t laugh!

I came across this little gem some time ago, and initially thought it was a pretty good explanation of some of the different styles of Irish dance. Re-visiting this, I was struck by some of the comments made by Ray McBride  being interviewed by Gaybo on the RTÉ Late, Late Show about his recollections about some of the most important aspects of learning Irish step dancing when he was a boy.

He starts with Irish step dancing with what he calls an easy reel (over 1,2s), then a light reel and then into a treble or tap reel.

You might also notice the complete change in his demeanour when he starts doing Irish sean nós (which he introduced as Tennessee clogging)  and then moves into what he calls the “John Travolta sidestep.

I think that last side step could easily pass for Irish sean nós dancing.

What do you think?
Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

irish bliss globe of world flags

Irish dance – no laughing matter?

My last post alluded to my view that craic – fun, humour and general horsing around – is a treasured part of Irish culture, and has been an important part of my life and dance experience in Ireland.

Amuse yourselves with examples of a few well-known Irish people – Niall Tobin and The Builders, Maeve Binchy and her famous Veal Casserole, Dillie Keane and the Fascinating Aida troupe doing Cheap Flights – to name but a few.

Continue reading

GET A RHYTHM…when you’ve got the shoes!

It was ten years ago now in 2004 that I went to my very first Irish dance workshop to learn the sean nós or old-style of Irish dancing from Kathleen McGlynn. Kathleen has an inclusive  and encouraging approach to teaching and she put everyone at their ease – as much as you could have with about 50 of us keen learners crammed into the smallest space imaginable at the venue An Grianán in Co.Louth (the workshops have since been moved to bigger venues).

Continue reading

Grace, rhythm and a little bit of craic – still part of Irish dance?

I love trawling YouTube for Irish dancing of all different styles, and I find myself going back to the older recordings – not that long ago, but not contemporary.

They have a grace and class that I don’t see in newer recordings – even in most of my own, I have to confess. RTE, the Irish national broadcaster, did a lot of filming of Irish traditional music, dance and song in the late 60s’ through to the 1980’s and produced some wonderful stuff. Most of the best of these recordings are available in the “Come West Along The Road” series of DVDs.

I understand the need to update, move and change with the times to inject new influences and trends into Irish dance but a lot of what I see seems to be a move backwards from what was. In Irish set dancing, the trend to play faster and faster music means that the nuances of the tunes are lost, and the rhythm and flow of the dance is completely overtaken by tempo-not nice to dance to really.

In Irish step dancing, it’s hard not to laugh out loud (LOL) at some of the get-up- the bouffant hair matched with the bouffant dresses – a real distraction from the dance itself. The amazing athleticism and skill of  the dancers is impressive – it must take a huge amount of time and commitment to be able to pull off some of those moves, and that is a truly admirable quality.

But mostly, I am left cold watching these performances, as the experience seems lacking in joy and spirit, the music is like wallpaper – just background, and not integral to the rhythm and meaning of the dance. Perhaps I am expecting too much?

As I write, I have just seen a nice bit of updated Irish dancing (to Michael Jackson music)  that has much of what I am talking about – rhythm, graceful dance and looks like they are enjoying themselves!

So there is hope. What we  had once we could have back again, and even better, if we tried and took a bit more thought and care with the beautiful Irish tradition.

An áit a bhuil do chroí is ann a thabharfas do chosa thú.

Your feet will bring you to where your heart is.


Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss
irish bliss globe of world flags

Irish music and dance: The Ard Macha (Armagh) Fleadh


I was cleaning out some papers today and I came across this little poem I wrote over 12 years ago when I was living in Ireland. It brought a smile …

“How’s about ye?”
They say with a grin
“One more couple needed…”
“…You’re welcome in” Continue reading