Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Tue 29th Jan, 2008

Dancing With A Will

Staring at my beer at 8PM on Monday night, it seemed like a crazy idea. Get eight people (preferably four men and four women) to do some Irish Set Dancing (a traditional social dance form with little connection to Dance Dance Revolution or other computer games) in a pub I barely knew on the first night of Linux Conference Australia? No-one from the group who'd signed up was there, the pub was full of Uni students drinking and socialising in their own groups, and I was this complete unknown who'd lugged a small but heavy guitar amp (generously lent by Andrew Naughton) down there. At least the pub owner had been keen, but it looked like I'd bitten off more than I could chew.

When most of the people in the group that had signed up arrived, it looked even worse; they were keen, but I knew that trying to convince two older guys to dance with eachother (meaning no offence to them) was going to be a hard sell, no matter how keen they were about the dancing idea. Reluctantly but with the boldness of the lunatic I plugged the mike and music player in, stood up and started giving some instructions. My quick 'one two' test of the mike received a few friendly but off-putting heckles from the guys at one table. But Rob and Jen were willing and learning, and with nothing to lose I called out "any of you people willing to get up and learn some dancing?"

John, the owner of Naughton's Hotel, gets the credit for what happened next. He knew the students - they'd been coming down to the pub for a while, it seems - and called out to them, "come on, you lot, get up an dance!" Soon one couple got up, then another, and then a fourth, and in astonishment I was teaching a complete set the basic steps and the first bits of the South Galway Reel Set. I started them on a nice slow hornpipe and they got into it, and I swear I have never seen a group of people who've never seen set dancing or even done much traditional social dancing before do it so well! All eight of them were really great, getting around a house in just the right time and still laughing and carrying on.

They responded enthusiastically to suggestions that we do it again at the regular speed, and I taught the first two figures easily. They had a break and I was afraid of losing them again, but they all came back eventually and we did the last three figures. There were a few flailing feet and the 'stomp the ground' action associated with mocking hillbillies, but they were still all having a great time and the rest of their peers were applauding and cheering on. And they were all dancing really well (given the above caveats) - keeping in time and not going too fast or slow. They grasped the geometry of the set quickly and were still laughing away and having a great time. The set finished with a massive cheer and everyone (including me) sat down tired but happy.

And you could have knocked me over with a feather when one of the other guys that had been watching on came over and said "'scuse me, sir, but would you have the music for the Heel And Toe Polka?" Well, anyone that keen cannot be denied, and for the first time in my entire existence I can honestly say that I was sorry I didn't have the Heel And Toe Polka on my music player. I rustled up something that was a reasonable approximation of it and grabbed a partner and soon five couples were polka-ing up and down in the available space. It was, in a word, awesome.

I'd love to do it again on Friday Night. All I have to do is get some of the women around at LCA - especially the organisers - to find some partners and I'm pretty sure we can get another set done. I'll check with the organisers though to make sure that this is both a sanctioned activity and isn't going to get too much in the way. But after that experience on Monday night I am more convinced than ever that Irish Set Dancing needs to move beyond the older people that currently do it and be shared with the young and enthusiastic. How can anyone not enjoy teaching such a excited, able group of people?

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