Irish Set Dancing: Keep People Coming Back to Classes

Keeping people interested in coming back to class is so important to ensure there are enough numbers to keep a class going but also to have a blend of skill and experience levels, that lifts everyone in the group.

Classes are also vital to keeping the set dancing going because there is so much to know, so much to learn and that makes for a great time dancing.

Why do people stop coming to dance classes?

A very complex set of reasons are possible but the most likely in my experience are:

  • People have moved away or moved far enough away that class location is an issue;
  • This can have a knock-on affect with others they know or are close to in the class choosing not to come back;
  • Dancers gain new caring responsibilities that clash with class time;
  • Dancers have an injury or illness that puts them out for a while, and they never get around to coming back or can’t dance any more;
  • Women who like to dance with a man find there are not enough at classes;
  • Dancers feel they don’t fit in with the group or don’t feel welcome;
  • Experienced dancers can get bored with classes.

How many do you need for a class?
Based on my experience, you probably need at least 20 people on your list of regular dancers to keep a class properly sustained. You have to expect that possibly 20%-50% may not be able to come to any given class. That may leave you with 10- 16 dancers, worst case scenario, which should be enough to keep people active and interested.

My most recent class at the Wodonga Tradathon. Credit:J.Moran

However, if the group drops below 10 or so, you may find that you start to lose others, simply because there is not enough energy in the room or critical mass to sustain interest. Teachers / organisers must be vigilant and keep a close eye on the numbers and level of interest. Don’t leave this to chance – start doing something about it immediately or you will risk losing the whole class.

Inviting people who are already part of a small group of friends – can be good if they are genuinely interested in dancing, as they will have another reason to come to class. However, my experience also tells me that if one is away, they will often all not come. So, beware having everyone in your dance class part of a friendship group.

Payment in advance- I have played about with various models of payment for classes. There is a traditional view that dancers should not have to pay much for a class, if at all, and we are all sharing our knowledge that has been passed to us from others.

I respect that view, and if teachers/ organisers can make a class work on that basis, hats off to you! However, in the days of hall hire costs, public liability insurance costs, digital marketing costs and just generally time taken to organise to teach classes, I think attaching a payment is a sign of respect, attribution of value for effort, and also helps to ensure the continuation of the class.

I have recently moved to offering an EARLYBIRD option for a pre-paid term of classes, aimed at about 75%-80% of the regular casual class fee, paid before term starts. The aim is to get at least 10-12 people signed up this way to ensure there is a quorum of people in the group before we start.

This has the effect of ensuring dancers turn up for classes more often than not, and also ensuring there is enough money in the kitty to pay for hall,insurance and other outgoings.

Needs to be flexible; able to deal with the varying numbers and skill levels of dancers. The teacher should try to gauge that and make a class that is appealing to as many people in the class as possible. This is where having an idea of how many people are coming, and who they are will help planning.

It is very important to get people active as quickly as possible. Avoid leaving people sitting out of the class & do not spend long periods of time talking at people.

Some options you might like to try:

  • Do a simple group warm-up at the start for 5 minutes or so to some lively music. A simple 4 or 5 part dance that includes lots of quick walking in a circle for 8-16 bars and interspersing it with some advancing and retiring, little kicks, knees up, steps to the side (think Nutbush), then more quick walking the other direction, with few claps and stamps thrown in for good measure. Something very easy that gets the blood going, warming up the body before starting and that gets the whole group working together with a smile.
  • Half sets – this is really the best way of getting good practice in for sets, whether you have full sets or not.
  • Couples dancing for practicing dancing at home, swinging or indeed any movements done in pairs by all the pairs in the group.
  • Solo for some basic step learning or practice – reels, jigs, hornpipes or polkas can all be done solo. Slides are probably a little trickier.
  • Teach a two-hand dance for variety – Peeler and the Goat.
  • Teach a few simple sean nós steps with a broom. This is great fun and gets people focused on what they are doing rather than feeling awkward in front of others. Get people to bring a broom to class.
  • Finish the class with a 3-5 minute head-to-toe stretch to music with everyone participating.

You can see more of my posts about teaching sets and teaching kids to dance.

We’ve all been to ceilis where we think we’re done, we’ve danced our feet off and suddenly, on comes a tune that we ABSOLUTELY have to dance to and up you jump, enlivened all over again. You need an injection of that energy for your classes as well.

I know it’s easy to rely on music that has been recorded for specific sets (Matt Cunningham and others) to ensure the right length but really there is a world of AMAZING Irish music out there that can be used and adapted for set dancing.

Add some variety to your music – music that has great lift, music that perhaps is a little slower for learning, and a little faster for some fun once everyone is able. You could even experiment with other non-Irish music for simple reels etc – anything with a strong 4/4 timing and rhythm can be great fun.

Make sure the music is loud enough to be heard clearly, but not so loud it drowns everything else out.

Every teacher faces this dilemma – trying to manage teaching a class those who know how with those who don’t. It’s always a balancing act but an important one in set dancing as every group needs experienced dancers to help guide those not yet confident with their dancing.( This is also the case at ceilis – more on that later).
It is useful if the teacher acknowledges this as well and show appreciation for those more experienced people.

Knowing what motivates them is important to ensure you keep enough interest for them to keep returning. It might be the social, it might just be the act of dancing itself, to get out of the house, it might be to help others (a possible teacher in the making) or whatever. Find out what it is and practice getting better at offering as much as you can.

I will post more about managing these kind of teaching specifics soon.

Aaah! We have all had that experience of negotiating around a person we like dancing with much less than everyone else, let’s say. Bad breath, heavy on their feet to dance with, gripping your hand/ back /other parts too tight or hands in the wrong place altogether…you get the idea.

This can be a real turn-off and can cause people to not return to class because they feel uncomfortable or dancing becomes an unpleasant experience for them. It’s embarrassing but real.

What to do?
In the first instance, every teacher should address this issue in class on a regular basis as a matter of dance etiquette. With the class leader acknowledging these issues up-front, this gives dancers permission to raise this with their partner, if they need to and feel they can.

In the case of tight grips and squeezes, teachers can be address this in the class as part of the lesson showing people where and how to hold, and to be aware that some dancers can have arthritis in their body, injuries or other sensitivities that we should all be aware of.

Bad breath? Bad body odour? You could venture talking privately with the person but this may not work. I’d love your suggestions about how to deal with this.

Heavy to dance with? Sack of spuds? Good luck with that. Very difficult to fix, I’d say…! If you have any strategies that work for this, please let me know.

It might all sound like a lot of effort; a lot of work for a class. But taking an interest in the people who want to come to class and learn to dance, being prepared and ready for them is the least you can do. And, if you want to dance with other people, what choice do you really have?

Wishing you all the best with classes,

Nora Stewart

Your Top 10 Irish Set Dances 2015 – 2017

I thought it was time to have a look at all the votes over the last three years (2,602), just to make sure that there is some consistency and a proper pattern to the results, not just a random set of numbers. You can find annual poll results from 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Happy to say there is definitely a pattern: a beautiful set of numbers, if you’ll pardon the pun. In fact, the 80/20 principle is very evident, with almost exactly 80% of the total vote over 3 years for just 20 sets, out of 230+ possible sets.

Which is just as well because I’m not much of a numbers gal myself – dyslexic with them most of the time. But, I can count to 8, which is mostly what you need to be able to do to dance a set.

RANK SET 2015-2017 vote total
% of vote total
1 Ballyvourney Jig 241 10%
2 Clare Plain 201 8%
3 Clare Lancers 174 7%
4 Connemara 170 7%
5 Cashel 130 5%
6 Merchant 126 5%
7 Claddagh 102 4%
8 Moycullen 101 4%
9 Antrim Square 95 4%
10 Corofin Plain 93 4%
11 Caledonian 83 3%
12 West Kerry 82 3%
13 Sliabh Luachra 72 3%
14 Kilfenora Plain 66 3%
15 Borlin 63 2%
16 Labasheeda 56 2%
17 Newport 52 2%
18 Paris 46 2%
18 Aran 35 1%
20 Mazurka 33 1%
    2021 78%

Thanks again to everyone who has voted, and to all those who have a passionate interest in our lovely dances. We’ll do it all again next year.

Best wishes,
Nora Stewart
 Irish Bliss

irish bliss globe of world flags

From Clare to Canberra: The Jack Canny Story Part 3-The Half Set

This half set began it’s life in Canberra over 3 years ago at the King O’Malleys music session with Libby and Richard Conrick, amongst others. Richard and Libby knew Jack well : in fact, one of their sons is named after him, and Jack Conrick is now a fabulous fiddle and concertina player himself.

Go directly to each figure of this set:

Figure 1: The Clare Cosy

Figure 2: The Bridge

Figure 3: The Canny Chase

Martin and I would often go to the session on Tuesday nights, and occasionally, we would get up and “throw a few shapes”, as they say, just the two of us in a very small dance space, enjoying whatever music they were playing.

Some of the signature moves came from experimenting at the session. But mostly, the influences have come from my years dancing in Ireland, and in Clare, reflecting many of the Clare dance moves we know and love, with a few twists.

martin and Nora O'Malleys

Martin and Nora dancing with Jack Conrick playing concertina in the background at King O’Malleys, Canberra.

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Irish dance basics: How going backwards can help you go forward

MOST Irish traditional music is very lively, and it really makes you want to tap, hop, skip and generally jump for joy. I share that feeling but those steps are not always in keeping with the traditional flat style of set dancing, particularly in Clare, Kerry, Galway and surrounding areas.

It’s another contrary fact about Irish set dancing that what makes you want to go up, actually asks you to come down.

The style of Irish set dancing is subtle and I have had great difficulty over the years putting my finger on what it is, what it’s not and how best to explain it simply. I have found it most tricky explaining the style to dancers who already dance many other styles because it can seem counter-intuitive to them.

Some basics for set dancing style & steps:

1. Keep your feet close to the floor – some say “dancing from the ankles down”
2. Take small steps
3. Listen to the rhythm of the music to keep time

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Irish dance: On pointe – is it safe?

“I’m jealous. I’d like to be able to dance up on my toes like this”.

About six months ago, my new young FaceBook friend from Vietnam emailed me, including a photo of Irish dance shoes on point or toe hard shoes toe dance

My instinctive response was quite horrified (also shows I am out of touch with what Irish step dancers are up to),  and I told him that it wasn’t safe to do this without training and knowledge of how to do this properly. After my initial response, I then reflected on why I was horrified. I did ballet for 5 years as a youngster and dancing en pointe (on point or tips of toes) was something you had to be selected to do and undertake considerable training for.

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Irish dance: Tips for Body Style

Body Style : The Sweet and Lowdown

So, you’ve got the hang of the steps that you’ve spent ages learning, and finally the rhythm is starting to come after lots of practice, and perhaps also the moves in the set if you’re doing set or céilí dancing. But there’s this other elusive bit that you see “the really good dancers” doing and you can’t just work out why you’re not quite as cool as they are! They’re doing something different and you can’t quite put your finger/ toes/ feet on it….

Well, each style of Irish dance has it’s own unique body stance or sometimes you get a choice! Most styles of Irish dance require bending the knees and hips while dancing to allow looseness in the lower half of the body, giving a bit of bounce and spring – think of car suspension acting like shock absorbers.  Lower centre of gravity also gives you a lot more control, particularly reducing uncontrolled sliding on the dance floor.

For those of you whtelemark skiingo have learned snow skiing, the same principles apply – bend ze knees and get control over your movements. (And no, leaning a long way forward  with your butt sticking out on it’s own doesn’t count as bending the knees…!)

I’m going to try to explain for each of the 6 styles of Irish dance using static photos of Martin (below) but it will become clearer when you see people dancing and moving, and you know what you are looking at. Continue reading

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.


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Dance Down Under – Strictly Irish?

Irish dance in Australia is incredibly vibrant at the moment, with 99 approved Irish step dance schools and untold informal Irish dance classes and events that include céilí dance, set dance and sean nós dance.Australia is hosting an inaugural International Oireachtas at the end of May this year.

A 10-part TG4 TV series following Australian Irish step dancing champions in their bid to get to Ireland for the World Championships in 2011 – Damhsha Down Under– has been recently released to YouTube by TG Spraoi (say SPREE, which means to play or have fun!).

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Irish Dance Music: Irish eyes are smiling and Irish feet are tapping

When I first started Irish set dancing in Dublin 1999, my friend Maureen used to occasionally stop mid-step when we were dancing, turn her head and say in a slow, breathy voice “Isn’t that just beautiful music?”.  I could only politely agree with her, not really knowing whether it was any better or different to the last 20 tunes I had been dancing to.

But it was a useful tip for an Irish dancer new to the scene, who was more consumed with the terror of forgetting what comes next (until I realised that’s a contagion amongst set dancers!), standing on my partner’s toes or trying to remember how the reel step goes.

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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.

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