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.

What I quickly discovered was that for people with little dance experience, dancing a full house, dancing at home and swinging in succession made them incredibly dizzy, and our class lost quite a few people because I did nothing about this, initially. New dancers also found the concept of dancing with a partner, and dancing in a square shape pretty tricky. This is particularly so when you have large groups of new dancers- people unfamiliar with the music, the moves and the steps all dancing with each other – mayhem!

Dancers learning to chain

Chaining around the set at a dance workshop Blue Mountains 2013. Weatherboard Photography

For a new dancer, there are all these aspects of sets to come to grips with:

  • Understand tops and sides, and also have a good sense of the 4 positions in the square or circle, depending on how your perceive it;
  • Dancing & moving with a partner with everyone dancing under their own steam;
  • Learning steps that are right for the music being played;
  • Knowing how each of the moves actually work – house, swing, chain. etc.
  • It’s long – that there is more than one figure or part to the dance!

SETS FOR BEGINNER CLASSES
My suggestions for sets to teach when you have large numbers of new dancers in a class, that might help to ease them in gently:

  1. The Gillen Set: 4 figures of reels
  2. The Skirdagh Set: 4 figures- jig, polka, reel, waltz
  3. The Kilkenny Quadrilles (half set): 6 short figures polkas and jigs

1. The Gillen Set: 4 figures of reels
The reason I really like this set for new dancers is that it only has 4 figures, there is no housing or dancing at home and plenty of individual dancing-not holding your partner, and plenty of practice at “stepping it out” or getting used to dancing to reels on the spot. The most difficult part of this is learning a céilí-hold swing-lots of this swing in the set- an excellent reinforcement for learning through repetition. The Gillen Set develops enough complexity by the third figure to hold interest -I hope you like it.
Instructions: Toss the Feathers (Pat Murphy:1995) p.127 or download here.
Music: Matt Cunningham Dance Music of Ireland Vol 10.

2. The Skirdagh Set: 4 figures-Jig, polka, reel, waltz
Love this one – this set has plenty of variety with minimal swinging and no housing or dancing at home. My suggestion for teaching would be to do it backwards – from Figure 4  Waltz first through to Figure 1 Jigs, then dance it all through. Waltzing is gentle and easy to dance and there is no swinging until you get to Figure 2, and then Figure 1. Figure 1 is a long 3 part jig figure, very like the Derrada Set (from an area close by in Co.Mayo) and very satisfying to dance and get through.
Instructions: Apples in Winter  (Pat Murphy:2009) p.169 or download here.
Music: No specifically recorded music – my suggestions are below:

  • Fig.1 Jigs (208 bars)-Track 8 – Cooleys Jig i Gnoc Na Grai album (wild!) or 216 bars (use 16 bar intro) Televara Set Fig. 3-The Set 4 -Music For Four Complete Sets.
  • Fig.2 Polka (136 bars)-Cashel Fig.3- plenty of recordings for this.
  • Fig.3 Reel(152 bars)-Gillen Fig 4 – see above The Gillen Set.
  • Fig.4 Waltz (80 bars)-Glencree Set Fig 6. Matt Cunningham Dance Music of Ireland Vol 10

3. The Kilkenny Quadrilles – 6 figures polkas and jigs
I have to confess to not having taught this set yet but it caught my eye because it can be danced as a half set, and also the figures are short with a distinctly different move for each figure – pass through & chain (1), arches (2), turn the lady across the set (3), gallops (4) and a social figure (5). This would be a great set to teach children-short figures that can be danced to faster music to make it fun.
Instructions: Toss the Feathers (Pat Murphy:1995) p.145 or find an online source here.
Music: No specifically recorded music – my suggestions are below:

  • Fig.1 Polka (48 bars) Ballycommon Fig.1 Matt Cunningham Dance Music of Ireland Vol 9 (16 bars introduction)
  • Fig.2 Polka (56 bars) Ballycommon Fig. 1 Matt Cunningham Dance Music of Ireland Vol 9 OR Ballycommon Fig. 5  (16 bars introduction) Matt Cunningham Dance Music of Ireland Vol 9
  • Fig.3 Single Jig (72 bars)  Matt Cunningham Dance Music of Ireland Vol 12.
  • Fig.4 Jig (144 bars)- plenty of recorded jigs to choose from.
  • Fig.5 Jig or Polka (128 bars) Jig selection or Polka selection

If you have any questions about teaching sets or sean nós, please drop me a line. Always happy to hear from other dancers, as long as you don’t expect an instant answer every time – sometimes I am busy doing other things!

And remember: there’s no better way of learning than teaching.
Best wishes
Nora Stewart
Easy Irish Dance
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