Irish Set Dancing: Attracting New Dancers to Classes

It’s a new world out there since I started learning set dancing way back in 1998 in Cork. Classes then were for 2 hours in the evenings, and they focused on teaching one set at a time, sometimes taking 2-3 classes to get to the end of a set. (My first set was the Ballyvourney, and we only ever danced this set figure by figure. Imagine my astonishment when I went to the big céilís and it was non-stop…and fast!)

Time, people and focus is now fragmented, with people ever increasingly busy with other things – children, grandchildren, work, and a general exhaustion from the stress of modern life. There are a lot more offerings now to tempt people including every type of online pastime imaginable.

The other challenges of set dancing classes were ever thus- not having enough people to make sets, not having enough men (men go to céilís; women go to classes!) and not being able to get commitment from people to stay the long course of time it takes to learn sets.
Oh, and set dancing having such a low profile that most of the general public not having a clue what it is – refrains of “It’s not Riverdance”. (I will write more soon about making set dancing visible)

And yes it’s hilarious that set dancing is one of Ireland’s best kept secrets:-except for one thing. Dancing sets is a numbers game, a bit like politics. You need lots of people, and you need most of those people who know what they’re doing.

The occasional upset, misdirection and mistake is great fun for a laugh in sets but not when it’s a complete frustrating shambles every time because there’s just not enough skill and confidence in the group to know how to right itself.

So, here are some insights and suggestions from my long years of teaching and running classes of all kinds;- my efforts of trying to light little fires with the hope of an eternal flame.

Sets are fundamentally about people in a group – attracting them, keeping them happy and ensuring they come regularly. All other aspects of class (below) are secondary to getting people there.

As a teacher/ organiser, you may think that most of your effort should be in perfecting your steps or knowledge of the sets but really about 80% of your time should be about looking after the people you have and attracting as many new genuine dancers to your class group.

Welcome in – In my role as a teacher and organiser, my most important task is to make a welcoming, inclusive environment, where people have a good time, feel they are appreciated, encouraged, not judged and that their time at class is noticed. I also try to take time to speak to each person one-on-one at some point along the way to make a more personal connection. Hopefully, this positive atmosphere sets the tone for everyone in the class.

My experience has also been that the best classes have most people in the class making you feel welcome, not just the teacher.

Providing name tags for all dancers (and the teacher) sounds a bit basic but seeing your name tag on the table as you come in to class makes you feel your presence is expected and welcomed. It can also overcome the embarassment of the teacher and other dancers not knowing someone’s name.

Every dancer will have a different reason for coming – with my friend, with my spouse, likes the social; the craic, Irish heritage aspect, loves the music, likes to dance, needs to get out of the house, is lonely or bored, needs to exercise, wants to be a champion dancer or performer, just for starters. All these motivations need to be sought out and reflected as much as possible in what the class is offering. It also helps with marketing your classes “What message?”– see below.

Feeling part of a group – For my current classes, I text/SMS every group before each class with a little reminder, tell them a bit about what we’re going to do at class and that I’m looking forward to seeing them…”You’ll be missed!”. Be open to suggestions from the group about social activities they might like to do – having a drink/ coffee after class or if they are interested in doing a performance and want to put it to the group.

All these things should help to ensure people to come back, which is what is needed for them as new dancers to survive and navigate the long and windey road of learning sets.

All these things will be driven to a large extent by the interests, motivation and availability of your dancers.
TIME, TIMING & LOCATION are all practical considerations that might need review if you are missing out on lots of people because this is not right.
Time and Location – most people no longer have long hours to devote to dancing, unless they are already passionate devotees. Take into consideration how long people may need to travel to get to class and home again, including finding parking if needed. Also, a lot of people are possibly not as fit as they might be, and 2 hour classes may also be a physical challenge for some.
Think about offering shorter classes -1 hour – and perhaps coupling this with a longer class once a month, or for a weekend workshop, if dancers are interested and available.

Timing – what time of day is best? Traditionally, most weekday classes are held in the evenings. Perhaps daytime classes might draw a better or different crowd of people. Another possibility is running classes immediately after business hours so people working can come straight after work for a class for an hour or so and then go home to relax.

This may seem obvious but I know that there are many classes trying to operate that have almost no visibility outside of the class. I also know that marketing takes effort and can be disappointing if it doesn’t yield results.

Have a variety of ways of getting the message out about your classes and having a plan to keep it going is really important. Trying out new ways of marketing/ communicating is well worth spending time on, and reviewing each method over time to know what works best.

What message?
In my experience, this is very tricky to get right. Set dancing is great fun, good for socialising, keeping fit, has great music, has cultural value… the list goes on. You may need to really think hard about what message you are giving, depending on what drives your audience/ new dancers.

Word of mouth is really the best form of marketing for your classes and this will work well when you have an attractive offering that people want to share with their friends.

Having an online presence is now not optional, even if it’s just a FaceBook page or group. Domain names and simple DIY website packages are now affordable via Wix or WordPress or other options, could be included as part of your charges for classes (see below).

It helps if you have someone in your group that is digitally able and interested who is willing to set up a website and maintain it, including ensuring you have exceptional Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) so people can find you online. It’s not really that hard to do a basic site. What it really takes is a genuine interest in communicating with people.

Images – Ask your class if you can take photos or post very short videos of the class in action. Images are so important to give potential newbies an idea of what goes on or to completely break the stereotypes that people expect!

Testimonials – Ask your class if they would be willing to give a testimonial that you could add to any of your marketing material.

Signage – Other options include having some proper signage OUTSIDE your class to help locate your class but also to market to others who might be passing by- include your class times and online address. For example, I have invested in two full sized heavy A-frame stand with corflute signs that slot into each side that includes my online address.

Handouts – Print yourself some simple business-size cards with class details on to hand out to people and to share at your registration desk. (I keep a supply of these with my phone)
I always have A4 printed posters with the little rip-off sections at the bottom (SEE image below)  with contact & online details, to pin up in busy local places- supermarket noticeboards, post offices, bus stops, health centres and cafes are all worth a try.

Newsletters and newspapers – you may have a local paper to provide some editorial to and advertise in, or there may be local newsletters including schools that may be happy to take editorial and/or advertising.

Contact and get their details– Make it easy for people to contact you and to register.
All your marketing material should have either a phone number and another way to contact you to either ask questions or register.

However, take care to NOT SHARE your phone number or personal email address directly online, otherwise your SPAM traffic will go crazy! The simplest way of adding contacts online to minimise spam is to turn the contact into a LINK, with the contact visible only on clicking the link.

I use Wufoo online forms to set up very simple, digitally shareable registration forms for my classes (I also use it for getting feedback, testimonials, etc). A basic Wufoo account is free and I know people LOVE filling out these forms because they are so simple and quick to do.
You can of course collect the same details from people if they turn up to class without notice, using a good old-fashioned piece of paper and pen.

Keeping in communication – Keeping a decent email address list is also important for re-connecting with dancers who may have taken time out or just to share longer form information for your group. For example, I usually only email my class groups at the beginning of every term if the information is longer than is sensible for a text message, contains links or photos. Find out what type of communication works best for your group and for you.

In summary, always have your eye to growing the group because there will always be reasons for people to not be there, and for those who leave or move away. But if there’s always a room of people, there’s a buzz and that bit of extra energy that is magnetic.

Please feel free to share your experience in the comments below or to ask questions.

I wish all you organisers, teachers and dancers the best of luck for more dancers and more classes.

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

Teaching Kids to Dance: Hop Skip Jump Clap!

St.Patrick’s Day beckons and with the last two years of disappointments and disruptions, the need to feel hopeful is persistent and growing. And for humans, what stronger symbol of hope are our children?

So, you’ve decided this is the year you’d like to do some dancing with the kids to celebrate- your kids or your students- but you’re not quite sure what to do or how to go about it. (You might also want to look at some tips for dancing during a pandemic)

I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of opportunities to teach children to dance and made plenty of mistakes.  What I learned though is that you don’t have to be perfect; in fact, it’s far better if you approach it as an experience and a journey of joy, much the way a child would do when learning something interesting, engaging and fun!


Start slow and simple– Start with something you are certain every single dancer will be able to do, and preferably something that is fun and enjoyable This ensures that dancers will gain confidence and that they feel they are part of the group, not the odd one out unable to dance.

Start with each individual dancing on their own in a large group, then gradually introduce the idea of dancing with a partner. I did this by teaching a simple, 3-4 part warm-up dance with plenty of repetition. The steps learned in warm-up could then progress to be used as a base for a brush/broom dance, allowing each child to focus on their brush and their dancing, not on each other. Then move on to a group circle dance where each child is paired with another (Rattlin’ Bog see below).

Boys germs – Be aware that some children will be alive to the “yuck” factor – that hand-holding and touching each other will be abhorrent to some children, depending on their age and experience.  So, don’t force anything. All activities and dance moves should be optional and you may need to find creative solutions to elements of dance that children are finding difficult or not responding to. Keep in mind the need for a Plan B.

Introducing dance movements – Work from what people find easiest to do and then work towards the more complex things. Build the movements and steps, bit by bit.Triangle from top to bottom of simple dance moves to more complexStart with a walk – walking is very close to an advance step for sets. A retiring step for sets is just like walking backwards – a little more tricky.
Most people can STAMP one foot while standing on the other- makes a great sound and is simple. CLAPS are also pretty simple and KICKS as finishing moves.
Little SKIPS, HOPS & JUMPS  are also easy for kids – they look and sound great when controlled and in unison. Got the idea?

For set or céilí dancing, focus on the figures first, then the dance steps. Teach the figure or the pattern of the dance first, without too much focus on what is happening with the feet- it will come. Learning dance steps, and especially battering steps, can be difficult and generally takes a lot of practice. For set dancing, I find reel steps tends to take longer to learn than jig or polka steps. That should not be a deterrent to trying to teach dance steps but be realistic about your expectations as a teacher, particularly if you have limited time.

Don’t talk too much – show them what to do, walk through it once, then dance it with some repetition, maybe 3-4 times. Get people moving as soon as possible after the class starts.

Keep the teaching sessions short- 30-40 minutes at a time is plenty of time for teaching and learning. Take note when children are becoming bored or distracted- either move into a different dance, take a break or end the class.

Music is most important – needs to be toe-tapping and inspiring enough to be still interested after listening 100 times! Even better for children if it has a catchy song that can be included in the dance. Spend time seeking out the right music and make deliberate choices.

Suggest you start with music that is slower, and increase the tempo as the learning progresses.You can slow a tune down so that the music is the same and as dancers get the hang of the movement, you can increase the pace, or not, depending on how well they are going and enjoying it.

I also have S-T-R-E-T-C-H music – tunes that have been stretched (by a sound engineer) so the music is slow at the start and gradually, imperceptibly speeds up to normal speed at the end.

Build confidence– plan your class to suit the abilities of the dancers (not your needs) and give them lots of encouragement.  Focus on what they are doing right, and not what they are doing wrong. Lots of praise works.


Your Top 5 Sets for 2016

Thank-you everyone for your 669 votes over a 2 week period…and the winners are:

1 Merchant 52
2 Ballyvourney Jig 47
3 Clare Lancers 44
4 Connemara  (aka Connemara Reel ) 34
5 Clare Plain (Reel) 33
6 Cashel 26
7 Caledonian 22
8 West Kerry 20
9= Antrim Square 18
9= Aran 18
9= Claddagh 18
9= Moycullen 18
10= Borlin 14
10= Clare Orange and Green 14
10= Corofin Plain 14
10= Kilfenora Plain 14
11 Croisloch 13
12= Caragh Lake Jig 12
12= Paris 12
12= Sliabh Luachra (aka North Cork Polka ) 12
13= Labasheeda 11
13= Metal Bridge 11
14= Newport 10
14= Rinkinstown 10
15 Camp 8
16 North Kerry 7
17= Black Valley Square Jig 6
17= Boyne 6
17= Connemara Jig (aka Freres Nantes) 6
17= Derrada 6
17= Hurry the Jug 6
17= South Sligo Lancers 6
18= Auban 5
18= Ballycommon 5
18= Sliabh gCua 5
19= Armagh 4
19= Corballa 4
19= Kildownet Half 4
19= South Galway Reel(aka South Galway Half & South Galway Half ) 4
19= South Kerry 4
20= Ballyduff 3
20= Borlin Jenny 3
20= Clare Plain Polka 3
20= Dublin 3
20= Glencree 3
20= Mazurka 3
20= Melleray Lancers 3
20= Roscommon Lancers 3
20= Sliabh Fraoch 3

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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.

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