The Monthly interviews Ann Godfrey about Set Dancing on the Antrim Coast – Part 1 – The History of Set Dancing

What is Set Dancing?

Set Dancing is the dancing which has been practiced in Ireland and has been around for centuries. It is very much the dancing of ordinary people and was done mainly in people’s houses. It was brought to Ireland from France in the form of Quadrilles but Irish musicians added jigs, reels, polkas and hornpipes; they added musically to the form and they had a lot of fun with it, they livened up the music.

It was part of the tradition which included ceili houses, where people would visit each other, play music, would have cups of tea and would clear back the furniture and dance. In fact Set Dancing was very much part of community life, and would often take place on pretty much any hard surface, anywhere where people could congregate.

What happened to the practice?

There were a couple of things which happened which almost made Set Dancing die out. One was the Gaelic Revival, which was carried out by people who wanted to revive what they thought was Irish Culture. They considered Set Dancing to have come from Europe and so it was not considered part of Irish Culture.

If you look at what most people consider Irish Dancing now, most people would think about bright costumes, make-up, wigs, something like Riverdance. Set Dancing was actually stamped out in favour of this style of dancing. The Irish dancing you might see now was considered a more pure form of Irish Culture, but actually Set Dancing was closer to being much more a traditional practice.

There was another development involving the government and the Catholic Church in the 1940’s where the Irish Dancehall’s Act was introduced. What that was about, was taking dancing out of the houses and into dance halls so that it could be controlled and it was also overseen by the priests. Set dancing was not allowed in dance halls and you would be fined if you held dances in your house.

Set Dancing has had a revival recently?

Yes, it had struggled on here and there but it was in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when it re-emerged. It also re-emerged in London in the mid 80’s; I started dancing sets there in 1986. I have an Irish background, and so it was something which attracted me around that time. I learned from a Set Dance teacher in London, Kevin McMahon, and sometimes we would have weekend events where you would learn from visiting teachers, like the late Connie Ryan. This form of dancing doesn’t get a lot of publicity, partly because it really is a traditional form of dance, a very community orientated form of dance as I said, and unless you know about, it is quite hard to find out about. It is social dancing, 8 people dancing in a set, and that is quite important. It is a community based dance form.

It is practiced island wide?

Yes. That is what makes it quite wonderful in that the border doesn’t matter. There are Ceilis and classes all over, for example in Cork, Clare, Dublin, Donegal. Fermanagh, Tyrone, Mayo, Kerry and Galway.

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