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

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.

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Irish sean nós : Rich and deep

Sean nós  (say shan-nose) means old style in Irish, and I have often wondered just how old old really is. The very first time I remember seeing Irish sean nós dancing was in  early 1989 at my very first Irish set dancing weekend in Donegal Town, Co.Donegal. The snow was all aflutter outside the big windows of the hotel ballroom and three auld fellas shuffled along, “doing a bit of shtep” during the céilí -that’s how I recall it. It was relaxed, simple, very rhythmic and obviously, memorable.

Picking up the thread from my last post  Irish dance history: A contrary tale: Part 2 , I have been exploring more about the potential roots of Irish sean nós heritage, which it seems, may possibly originate from North Africa.  Bob Quinn, in his 1981 documentary series The Atlanteans, illustrateEurope map with travel route of Berberss his theory that  dwellers on the West Coast of Ireland, particularly in Connemara,  are not Celts but what he terms “Atlanteans”. They are ancient descendants of sea-faring people from Algeria and Morocco- the Berbers – who travelled all along the Atlantic coastline – West along Spain, Portugal, Basque country, Brittany in France and then North -West to Ireland – settled in parts and continued using the sea as a big super highway, that was much safer than travelling across land.

I found the evidence presented in the documentary compelling and curious,  with potential multiple connections between ancient Irish and Berber civilisations starting with traditional singing, dancing & music, musical instruments including the Irish drum bodhrán which has a double in the Berber bandir, sailing boats – Galway Hookers with púcán sails & Felucca with lateen sails,  stone circles, standing stones and carvings in similar contexts in both countries, art and fine jewellery pieces thought to be Celtic have an eery resonance in the Berber style, and on it goes.

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St. Valentine – from Ireland to Australia

Moved by the music - Annie Hayward Art

Moved by the music – Annie Hayward Art

It is said, that Valentinus, as he was known before he became St.Valentine, was canonised for giving help to Christians, including marrying them, when this was a crime.

“He was arrested and imprisoned upon being caught marrying Christian couples and otherwise aiding Christians who were at the time being persecuted by Claudius in Rome… Claudius took a liking to this prisoner – until Valentinus tried to convert the Emperor – whereupon this priest was condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs and stones; when that failed to kill him, he was beheaded  on February 14th outside the Flaminian Gate, North of Rome.” Wikipedia

What not many people know that St.Valentine’s remains are in Dublin, in Whitefriar Church in Aungier Street, not far from St.Stephen’s Green. The remains of St. Valentine and “a small vessel tinged with his blood.” were a gift from Pope Gregory XVI to a famous Irish priest and preacher, Fr. John Spratt in 1836.

And, so it was that I also met my Valentine in Dublin in 1999, a long time removed from the third century and killing of christians.  Martin and I were fortunate to be living in a time and a country more concerned with attaining peace and love. We spent a lot of our energy together achieving that through Irish music and dance in Ireland – doing classes, going to festivals “down the country, connecting with people and the craic.

And we’ve continued striving for that here in Australia. And that’s what I’m hoping for everyone today and every day- peace and love to all.

Happy St.Valentine’s Day.

Nora Stewart
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