FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Irish Set Dancing and Sean Nós Classes
This page provides answers to some frequently asked questions.
What is Set Dancing?
Set dancing is a means to meet up socially and have a bit of fun, while at the same time getting a good workout! (there's a
longer explanation near the end of this page, but this one really sums it up).
If you are new to it, by far the easiest and quickest way to understand what it's all about is to come along. Set dancers are very welcoming
of new people and you will get a good understanding of what it's all about at the first class.
What is Sean Nós?
Sean Nós is a form of solo dancing, with no rules, other than to dance with the beat of the music.
Each dancer can dance in their own style and some dancers make up their own steps after they've got to grips with the basics.
The term "Sean Nós", which literally means "old style" is a relatively new term, which I understand was coined by a television station, when broadcasting
an event, as a means to differentiate this type of dance from the many other forms of traditional Irish dancing.
Prior to that, it would have been described as "dancing a step", or "dancing a turn".
Nowadays, Sean Nós tends to be associated with Connemara, but in past time it was common practice throughout Ireland to "dance a step", often times taking
down the half-door to provide a platform to dance on.
Are these classes about Set Dancing, or Sean Nós, or both?
Mainly Set Dancing, with a bit of Sean Nós. At each class, the aim is to do two hours of Set Dancing, plus an optional half hour of Sean Nós.
Where do the classes take place?
Evening classes take place two nights a week in Dublin and there is one daytime class.
Click on the relevant day below for details, including directions and maps.
Beginners and experienced dancers welcome at all classes, just pick a class that suits you and come along and give it a try.
In any case, you can switch classes at any time, or you can flick between classes/venues on a week-to-week basis.
Are there any prerequisites for attending the classes?
The only prerequisite that you can walk and are willing to give set dancing a try.
Who teaches the class?
My name is Pat O'Reilly and I teach the classes. All I ask is that you come along and give it a try. When I started set dancing, I reluctantly went along
to the first class, on the basis that it was "for one night only", as I didn't expect to like it - that was over 30 years ago and I've been dancing ever since!
As the song goes: you never know what you're missing till you try! So, come along and give it a try, if you decide it's not for you, there's absolutely no
obligation to stay or return.
Why is it not allowed to take photos, video, or audio recordings?
Being photographed, filmed, or otherwise recorded makes many people uncomfortable, this is especially so in a class situation, where people are learning dance
If you would like to take a momento photo, for personal use, please mention it to me during class and I will announce it at break time, or at the end of class.
Anyone who wishes to be included can then assemble for a group photo, which means that people are only photographed with their knowledge and consent.
Other than that, it is not allowed to take photos, or make audio or video recordings, during class.
I won't be available every week, can I come along on just the days I'm available?
Yes, certainly, come along whenever you can - while we'd love to see you every week, we'll be delighted to see you whenever you are available.
I'm not available for the next class, can I join later?
Yes, certainly, join us at any time.
What time should I be there at?
It's a good idea to get there a few minutes before class, but you are welcome to join us at any time before class finishes. Similarly,
if you need to leave early, that's not a problem. Also, if you can manage to get along in time for the Sean Nós section of the class, you have the option of having a go at that too.
What's this about a Session?
For anyone attending the class who plays an instrument, or is learning to play, or would like to learn to play, we have a 10-minute Learner's Session at break time.
What is the cost?
Admission is 10 Euro in total, pay in class.
Do you have a mailing list to keep people informed about any updates?
Yes, you can join our mailing list here:
Is the class suitable for beginners?
Yes, certainly, we welcome beginners at all classes, no experience of set dancing, or any other form of dance, is expected or required.
Why not come along and give it a try - I think you will enjoy it, but, if you decide it's not for you, there's no obligation whatsoever to stay, or to come back.
But, I've never done any dancing before, I have two left feet, will I be able to join in?
Absolutely. Some people put off starting set dancing, because they think they have 'two left feet'.
This is a great pity, because set dancing is easy to learn and is really great fun.
Apart from people with limited mobility and people who get very dizzy when they turn, even slowly, the class is suitable for everyone.
In any case, if you come along and give it a try, you'll figure out very quickly whether it suits you.
If you decide it's not for you, there's absolutely no obligation to stay, or return.
It's a great fun way to put in a few hours and very good exercise into the bargain - I hope you'll come along and give it a try.
But, I can't find anyone to join me and I'd be uncomfortable walking in on my own, do others go along on their own?
Yes, the majority of people attending come along on their own. If you ask any of them, they are likely to tell you that they too were uncomfortable walking in
to the first class, but that they were made welcome immediately and that they are now very glad they overcame their reservations and made the move to come along.
In the unlikely event that you come along and decide it's not for you, there is always the option of turning around and walking back out again and this too
would be perfectly fine with us - we're a relaxed easy-going bunch of people. If you decide to join us, that's great, but if you prefer to be somewhere else,
that's fine too.
So, there is absolutely nothing to lose and a whole new world of dance, fun, exercise and new life-long friends to gain.
Go on, take that first step and come along to give it a try, you won't regret it!
OK, I'd like to give it a try, can I start now, or should I wait?
Start now, definitely! Pick a day and venue that suits you and come along to the next class.
New people join us all the time and the class is structured to cater for both new and experienced dancers at each class.
If you are interested enough to have read this far, then you obviously have an interest in what we do.
Don't stop now, "strike while the iron is hot", come along to the next class and give it a try, there's nothing to lose and a whole new world
to be discovered and enjoyed!
Do I need special shoes?
The short answer is no, you don't need any special shoes. Shoes with leather soles are easiest to dance in, but people dance in every type of
footwear and you definitely do not need special shoes to get started. However, wet shoes can be a bit "sticky" on the floor, so some people set aside a
pair of shoes to change into before dancing, so that the soles of the shoes are kept dry - any ordinary pair of comfortable shoes will do for
this purpose. You don't need to buy special shoes, but, if you do decide to invest, please note that, for this class, shoes should not be "noisy", i.e. they
should not have any metalwork, or other special material, added to increase the sound. Other
set dance teachers may have different styles of dance and some may recommend metalwork on the toes/heels to increase the sound, but this type of shoe is
not suitable for the "close to the floor" style of set dancing which is taught in this class.
In any case, there is no need to rush out and buy shoes now.
After you've been dancing for a while, you can chat to other dancers about what shoes they wear
and where they get them and you will then be able to make an informed choice.
Are the sets called?
This is a long and detailed answer to a simple question, but it's a topic on which I have strong views and, if you're willing to take a few moments, I
want to share these views with you.
The sets are NOT called at my classes, because:
Calling is not a good way to learn.
I greatly dislike being shouted at while I'm dancing and I don't want to inflict calling on anyone else.
Instead, My method of teaching is:
I explain the movements of each figure, before the music starts.
Then, we all have a go at dancing that figure
We repeat this process of explaining the figure and then dancing it, as many times as necessary, until most people have got the hang of it.
After we've danced all the figures, one-by-one, we then go back to the start, and dance the whole set - I still give a summary of each figure before we dance it.
Initial progress with this method can be slower than calling, but, in the long run, it's a far, far better method of learning, than having someone shout/roar at you
while you are dancing.
I learned this method of teaching from my good friend and mentor, Larry Lynch, from San Francisco - Larry probably isn't aware that he was my mentor, but
I learned a lot from him at his great workshops in Spanish Point, which ran, up until a few years ago, during the Willy Clancy Summer School.
I saw clear proof that calling is a poor way to learn some time ago, when I was at a festival with a group of people who had learned from callers
and had been dancing to a caller, week after week, for 20 years or more. A group of musicians were playing in a session and someone proposed dancing a set.
We made up a set and I was shocked to discover that not one of them could remember even one figure of ANY set, without a caller roaring out the movements!
Anyone attending my classes, for any length of time, would have no problem suggesting a set, e.g. The Ballyvourney Jig, and dancing it straight through,
on their own, without any calling.
Calling is mainly a Dublin thing! - I've never been able to figure
out why sets are called at ceilis in Dublin, whereas, with very few exceptions, sets are not called down the country
I strongly believe that calling is not an effective way to teach set dancing. Dancers who get used to calling typically hesitate before the next
movement, awaiting instructions from the caller, even when they know what to do.
Dancing to the beat of the music, with no interruptions from a caller, is much more free-flowing and enjoyable, even if the dancers are not sure of the
movements. I would far rather "go astray" in a set, than have someone "shouting orders" at me.
I can't think of anything I dislike more than dancing a set with someone calling (often roaring!) out instructions to the dancers!
It creates the impression that there's only "one right way" to dance, whereas, if you dance with country people, who have danced all their lives, you
will see that variety is cherished and that the idea of their being only "one right way" is alien to them!
Apart from the fact that calling is an ineffective way to teach dancing, it's an insult to musicians, to invite them in to play for the dancers.
and then start shouting over the music, as soon as they start to play.
I remember being at a Scoil Éigse evening session at The Fleadh many years ago, where Paddy Ryan was leading a group of young musicians to play for dancers,
having taught a fiddle class earlier that day.
When the caller started to shout, Paddy stopped the music and said something along the lines of:
"For God's sake, why don't you teach your dancers to dance, so they don't need to be shouted at - you don't hear me shouting
out the notes to the musicians!"
I agree 100% with Paddy Ryan's sentiments. Unfortunately, I'm in the minority around Dublin, most Dublin ceilis are called.
Down the country, it's very rare to have a caller at a ceili - I mostly dance down the country!
I greatly enjoy coming across the "annual community ceili" in a village community hall. Many of the dancers won't have danced since
since the previous year's event, so they can be "a bit rusty" on the figures of the sets, but that doesn't stop anyone from dancing.
No one takes it upon themselves to shout at them, or do a "policeman on point duty impersonation". They just dance in their own way and have fun. If
things go astray, they just laugh it off and carry on - this is what set dancing is all about!
This type of situation can be ruined by a "busybody", from outside the community,
who takes it upon himself (and it usually is a he) to "teach them how to do it properly" by shouting instructions at them,
or "directing traffic", as they dance - this makes them feel that they're dancing the "wrong way" and this can completely change the mindset of the dancers
from: This is great. I'm out for a night's craic and having great fun! to,
for example: I'm "wrong again", I'm no good at anything. Back in school, I was constantly in trouble with the teacher over being "wrong"
I know I'm repeating myself here, but being shouted at while dancing is not a productive way to learn:
- If the dancers have chosen to dance their own variation, then that's their choice and they should be left to dance their way.
- If they have misunderstood the instruction and have gone astray, then they should also be left alone - shouting at them will only put them further astray.
The coordination involved in learning dance movements is very similar to the process of learning to walk.
If, when we were babies, our parents had scolded us and shouted at us every time we fell over, then we might never have gained the confidence to learn
to walk without falling over at all!
Here are a couple of stories from my youth, which, on the surface, bear no relationship at all to set dancing, but which come to my mind when I come
across annoying behaviour at ceilis.
I was brought up, as one of six children, on a small farm in the countryside.
In our area, the Volkswagen Beetle was the car of choice. They were useful for carrying a square bale of hay under the front bonnet -
the engine was in the back. My father drove one, as did most of our neighbours. One neighbour, Mikey, left his Beetle permanently in second gear,
he probably wasn't even aware that other gears existed! His method of driving was to put his foot on the clutch, start the engine, and then slowly release
the clutch to "take off", at a very slow speed. He continued in this way, until he reached his destination, at which point, he put his foot back on the
clutch and turned off the engine. This method of driving worked for him, and it brought him the short distances he had to travel.
The roar of the engine could be heard in the distance, long before his car actually appeared, and everyone knew who was coming.
No one ever complained to Mikey about his pottering along in 2nd gear
No one ever told him that he was driving the "wrong" way, or tried to get him to drive the "right" way
No one beeped the horn, or flashed the lights, or tried to overtake him on the narrow country roads.
Local drivers just slowed down to his speed and pottered along behind him, leaving him to drive in his own way.
The relevance of this story is that people have different ways of doing things and the people in our area showed respect for a neighbour,
by allowing him to drive in his own way. They wouldn't dream of forcing their opinion on him by telling him that his way of driving
was "wrong" and that their way was was "right".
Similarly, dancers should be left alone to dance in their own way - no one else should take it upon themselves to shout at them, gesticulate at them,
or tell them they are dancing the "wrong" way.
I came to Dublin in 1968, at the age of 15.
At that time, there were no traffic lights on O'Connell Bridge. Instead, a policeman, wearing long white gloves,
stood in the middle of the road, on point duty, directing traffic.
When I see people waving and gesticulating at other dancers, I am reminded of that policeman on point duty on O'Connell Bridge, all those years ago - all that's
missing is the white gloves!
Doing a policeman on point duty impersonation is just as bad as shouting at dancers - it's much better to just leave
people to dance in their own way - even if they just stand still and do nothing at all, that's fine too - I might sometimes nod at a couple who
are oblivious to the fact that it's their turn to dance. I occasionally get a return nod, but no movement, and that's fine too, but, most times, a nod
is sufficient to remind someone, whose mind has momentarily drifted away, that it's their turn to dance - there's no need for anyone to shout out, or flail their
In class, I explain the movements multiple times and most dancers get the hang of it after a while.
Anything I have to say is said before the music starts.
Once the music has started, I say nothing, regardless of what variations are danced and I ask everyone else in the class to
do the same, i.e. I ask everyone to stay quiet and avoid "policeman on point duty impersonations", while the music is playing.
Also, I strongly recommend that you don't allow anyone else push you about, or shout out instructions at you, or gesticulate to you,
while you are dancing - you will learn much better if you figure out the movements for yourself and you
definitely will get the hang of it, if you are left alone.
It's no problem at all if it takes multiple repetitions to get the hang of it, that's what I'm there for.
I don't know why people (mainly men) feel the need to call out to, or gesticulate at, other dancers.
Some might say that they are trying to help, but they would be of much more help if they left dancers alone and let them figure things out for themselves.
Perhaps it's due to some underlying insecurity, which causes them to want to demonstrate to others that they
know, or think they know, what to do.
In any case, I find that people who call out to others, and/or "direct traffic", in a set,
generally stop it if you give them a clear indication that you don't want to be shouted at, or waved at, e.g. I usually say "we're fine, leave us be",
as I'm passing such people.
If you ask someone to stop shouting, or waving, at you and they continue to do it, whether in class or at a ceili, then move to different set, or, if it's
your partner that's doing it, then find a new partner!
- at a ceili, it would be best to "suffer on" until the end of the set, but in class, feel free to make a move at any time.
The vast majority of people in my classes leave people to dance their own way.
In any case, while I have (or think I have) some influence over what happens in class, I have no influence at all over how people behave when you go to a public ceili.
If, like me, you don't like being shouted at, or gesticulated at, while dancing, then you'll need to deal with this yourself at ceilis, e.g by
saying: "we're fine, leave us be", or similar. It doesn't matter if you then go on to "make a hames of it", it's none of
anyone else's business how you dance! - you have the floor and it's your choice how you use it!,
In class, we repeat each figure as many times as is necessary, until most people have understood "the intent".
If I feel that an intervention is appropriate at any stage during class, I'll look after that. Everyone else should dance when it's their own turn,
leave others to dance in their own way and, if necessary, "slow down to Mikey's pace".
Remember that our motto is: If you're having fun, you're doing it right!.
What should I wear?
Whatever you are comfortable in. Bear in mind that set dancing can be energetic at times and you are likely to warm up during the class.
If you sweat a lot, then it's a good idea to bring a change of clothes, to change into at break time, or at the end of the night's dancing.
This is especially so, if you go to a ceili and intend to dance every set.
Do I need to bring a change of clothes?
No, there's no need to bring a change of clothes to class.
However, most men bring a change of clothes to a ceili. For example, I arrive in Miltown Malbay every year, with 36 changes of clothes! I attend 18 ceilis
in The Armada every year, at which I dance every set, and I always change at break time, so I get through 36 shirts.
It's the only time of the year when I take up more wardrobe space in the camper than Maureen!
Can I try out set dancing first, before making a commitment?
Yes, absolutely. There is in fact no commitment needed at all, if you decide it's not for you,
there's absolutely no obligation whatsoever to stay or return.
Will there be people of my age there?
Yes, people of all ages attend.
Are there health benefits to dancing?
First of all, dancing is really great fun and that's why we do it! But, as an added bonus, there is lots of evidence that dancing is good for your physcial and
mental health. For example, I recently saw a TV documentary about a study that was done in Germany, where one group of people did weekly exercise in the gym
for six months, while another group went dancing every week for six months. Both groups were medically checked before and after participating in the study
and it was found that the dancing group had greater health benefits than the gym group. Also, the majority of the dancing group kept on dancing after the study
finished, while most of the gym group gave up.
So, come along and give it a try, it's great fun and good for your health too!
I've been dancing for years and I know all the steps and sets, is the class suitable for me?
The best way to decide whether the class suits you would be to come along for one night and try out the class, after that you'll know whether our
class suits you or not.
Do I need to register or book in advance?
You don't need to register, or book in advance, but it's a good idea to join our mailing list, so that you get informed by email
of any schedule changes. In any case, just turn up at any of the classes and you will very quickly feel at home.
Can I just come and along and just watch: I don't want to dance, but I'd like to come along to just to sit watch - can I come along and watch?
No. Sorry, but our rule is that anyone who attends the class will dance. This is a class environment, where people are learning to dance,
and some people can be self-conscious about being watched by othera, who are not dancing.
However, there are plenty of public ceili events, where people who aren't dancing
can sit and watch. If you do an online search "ceili Dublin", or whatever town or city you are in, you should find ceilis listed, where you can sit and watch.
Can I get more information before making a decision?
Well, there isn't really any more information! The aim of this website is to give you all the information you would need in order to make a decision about
But, if you have read everything on this website, including:
and you still do not have enough information to make a decision on whether or not to come along, then it seems that we have forgotten something.
In this case, please click here to contact us and we will get back to you by email as soon as possible.
Please do not telephone the venue, as venue staff have no details about the set dancing classes.
If you don't have access to email, then come along to any of my classes, and I will do my best to answer your questions face-to-face.
As of now, we've added everything we can think of and the website is up to date as of today, 21st February 2020.
What is set dancing? - the longer version
Quick summary: set dancing is primarily a means to meet socially and have a bit of fun, while at the same time getting a good workout!
Set dancing is part of our Irish folk dance tradition, which has been danced in Ireland for generations, going back to the days of the house dances,
where the neighbours gathered in small groups to dance half-sets in the kitchen, or in bigger groups for barn dances, "joins" and American wakes.
With the advent of the bungalow and the television, house dances and joins became a thing of the past and set dancing faded into the background for a
generation or so. Luckily, the revival of set dancing came along, just in time to save the dances and set dancing is now more popular than ever throughout Ireland.
Many young people, who never heard of house dances, joins, or American wakes, have now taken up set dancing and the tradition and dances are now safe and
sound in the hands of a new generation.
A set typically consists of 4 couples, facing each other in a square. In the past, it was common for just two couples to dance in a half-set, which required
less space, for example in a small country kitchen.
Typically, a set consists of between three and six figures, with a short break between each figure. The majority of today's popular sets originated in counties
along the West Coast of Ireland, including Clare, Cork, Kerry and Galway. This is probably because the sets were still being danced in these counties long after they had died out elsewhere and so,
when the revival came along,
the sets which were still being danced were then "exported" to the other parts of the country, where the knowledge of the local sets had been lost.
We all owe a great debt of gratitude to the people along the West Coast and those other parts of Ireland where set dancing was kept alive.
Without them, these dances could well have been lost, but, because they kept them going for us, our dance tradition is now alive and well and probably stronger than ever.
In addition, since the revival started, sets from other parts of the country have been re-discovered and new sets have been created. The tradition lives on and is
going from strength to strength!
Tips/comments about set dancing "etiquette":
The following comments are intended for people attending my classes, but feel free to ignore them. These are suggestions for behaviour when dancing
with others, whether in class, or at a ceili - these are just suggestions, how each dancer actually behaves is, of course, totally up to himself/herself.
In past times, before the invention of television, smart phones and the internet, sets were danced in country kitchens at the end of a day's work,
as a social activity.
There was no need for a word like "etiquette" in those days. It would be roughly the same group of neighbours and friends who got together each time to dance and
they would all know, and be accepting of, the individual styles of each dancer.
It would be rare to dance in a set with people you never met before and unheard of for anyone to take it upon themselves to shout instructions at anyone
else while the dance was in progress.
Nowadays, things are different. We meet up to dance in large halls and stand in to form sets with people we never met before, which is a great way of meeting
new people, but has the downside that you have no idea how they are going to behave, until after the dance has already started.
Tips and Rules:
- Some people behave like in the old days. They dance when it's their turn and leave others to dance their own way.
- Others behave as if they're at a football match. They stand on the sidelines and, if they spot even the slightest
bit of hesitation in the dancers, they shout instructions at the dancers and have even been known to step in to "help out"!
There aren't really any "rules" in set dancing, but the following tips are intended to make set dancing as enjoyable as possible for everyone:
Have fun: the most important "rule" of set dancing is to have fun!
Swing carefully: this one is actually important. Some people get dizzy when they swing, so, if you are swinging with someone new, start out slowly and
only increase the speed if you feel that the other person wants to swing faster. The same applies to swings of four and eight.
Respect your partner: Don't push or shove your partner and don't throw in unexpected movements,
such as twirls and turns which are not part of the set.
Start a swing slowly and only increase the speed if you feel that your partner wants to swing faster.
Always ask before you "double", for example in "The Clare Lancers", and only double if your partner agrees.
After you've been dancing for a while, you may notice that different people have different styles of dancing.
If can sometimes be interesting and polite to try to figure out your partner's style of dance and to have a go at fitting in with that style.
Respect the other dancers in the set:
Leave enough space for others to dance and don't invade the space while they are dancing.
Stand and watch while others are dancing and don't shout at them. Even if they do go astray, leave them alone and let them dance it their way.
Remember our motto "if you're having fun, you're doing it right" and this applies to the other dancers too. If they've gone astray, let them
have "better fun", as they get back on track. Shouting at them while they dance just creates confusion, disrupts their fun and creates the impression that
there's a "right way".
Remember that there is no such thing as being "wrong" in set dancing, just variations! If the dancers who have gone astray make eye contact and indicate
they would like some guidance on what to do next, a nod of the head will usually suffice to give the requested hint, without the need to for anyone to
say anything at all.
Respect the dance:
Dance the sets as they were handed down from past generations, or, in the case of a new set, as it was described by the author.
Don't mess with the sets by adding twirls, turns, arches, swings, or other movements that were not in the original set.
If you have an urge to do something different, then consider creating your own new set from scratch and making it popular, like others have
done, for example The Merchant Set is new, but has become very popular.
Respect the music and the musicians:
Don't talk while the music is playing. Apart from being basic good manners, this has the added advantage that you are much more likely to be able
to "hear the beat" of the music and dance in time to it, if you listen attentively.
Respect the neighbouring sets:
Take just enough space on the floor for your set and avoid drifting into neighbouring sets.
A set should be just wide enough for two opposite couples to dance a "house inside" around each other.
Any more space is being greedy and any less is difficult to dance in.
Respect the privacy of the people in the hall:
Don't photograph or film anyone without their permission.
It has recently become common practice to photograph and film dancers on the floor, without obtaining, or even asking, their permission.
The legality of this practice is questionable, especially when children are involved.
To make matters worse, some people then proceed to post these photographs and/or videos online, once again without obtaining, or even seeking, the
permission of the people in the photographs / videos. At best, this amounts to very bad manners and at worst, it may even be illegal. The fact that
some well-known people behave in this way does not, in my opinion, make it acceptable behaviour!