Dancers

Dancers

This is only an issue of curiosity. Many notions about Irish Trad invoke "the dancers". How many of you actually play for dancers? What kind of dancers ie. competitive dancers in curly wigs, sean nos, ceili? Where, when, and how often does this happen? Is it real or is "for the dancers" more of a yardstick? Is it possible that "the dancers" is a kind of all-purpose argument, a subtext for "do it my way"? These are just questions about your experience. In my area most of the dancing is Contra, and not very skilled at that, with Scandi, and English Country/Scottish tied for 2nd. The dance schools generally avoid live musicians. Hopefully your experience is greater and more frequent than mine and I’d just like to know about it. Thanks.

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In the city I have lived for 30+ years (Chico, California) I came here and met people involved in Contra dance,
local musicians who had house sessions which I never attended but I know probably everyone who may have been there, at least one step dancer who I think learnt it in the early 80’s in the Bay area, and a friend who handed me my first tin whistle. He was introduced to traditional music through learning to play highland pipes
at a young, impressionable age.

I have played a few Contras. Mainly though I began playing a regular session about 20 years ago. One of the musicians brought his daughter (I think she was 9 (?) at the time. She was a few years into competition step dance and went to international fleadhs (if that is what they are called). I did play for her and other local step dancers in various music and dance events over a few years. But also small gatherings, potlucks and art gallery and museum openings. All of which was great experience playing for an advanced stepdancer. But my favourite was always in the middle of the sessions we played at a friend’s house when we all took a break to go in the kitchen and talk a minute. She was usually there and though she was not even a teenager she had travelled and fit right in with the old folks. I remember her being so natural talking about a slip jig or something else about dance and just showing us exactly what she was talking about. We were very fortunate to have her there.

As for dance schools and if they dance with musicians playing? In Chico the answer is yes. The first step dancer I met teaches Irish dance and while I’m sure they use recordings I have never actually been there when they do. Why would they if a musician is ready to play and knows what to do?

Oh, and ceilis. Yes I have played ceilis. Sorry I missed that but I do think of the music I play as dance music and there are so many different forms of dance I don’t know why I wouldn’t want to play music with dancers whenever the opportunity arises.

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I love playing for dancing. Step dancing, set dancing, sean nos dancing, informal dancing. When it’s done right, there is a synergy between the musicians and the dancers, and you can feed off the energy… I do occasionally get to play for step dance schools. They usually prefer canned music because that’s what they practice to. But it can be fun when they allow live music. And there are occasionally dancers that come to one of my sessions, and the punters love it! But playing for set dancing can be fun too! I was at a set dancing festival in Killarney about 11-12 years ago, and the sets had finished about midnight, but still at 4AM there were sets being danced in the halls of the hotel where we were having a session. Just loads of fun!

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Never played set dances. I don’t know if they exist much in the States.

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"They usually prefer canned music because that’s what they practice to."
How is that a preference, Reverend? I often practice with recordings. You use what is available.

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Good post, Ross. Though people do say, "After all, it’s dance music," I doubt that many people are able to play reels at 115-130 bpm while maintaining consistent rhythm and lift. Nowadays most of my playing is in sessions, where the pace is generally more relaxed and the whole enterprise is more fun. Playing for dancers is a lot more work than playing in a friendly session.

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I started off playing for contra dances, where Irish tunes are just part of the repertoire. When I picked up fiddle, I migrated toward playing more Irish music, and because my son took competitive step-dancing, I had opportunities to play for informal ceilis with dance families, and along with the feis musicians at competitions. Not many opportunities to play for set dancing in Arizona.

I love playing for dancing for the reasons Reverend mentioned, but playing for competition step dancers (curly wigs, crazy dresses etc) is demanding and less fun because the tempos are rigidly set for each dance and for the official feis musician, it can be an incredibly exhausting day- sometimes 10 hours.

But I think it was helpful to have started playing dance music for dancers….

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I’m not yet good enough to play for dances, but I aspire to, and in the meantime I’ve taken up calling for contra dances. Whenever I play a tune, even if it’s not strictly speaking a dance tune, my brain starts trying to fit a dance to it. "Oh, this would be a good place for a do si do", and "This B part is just a screaming for a balance and petronella". Imagining the choreography helps me find the rhythms. I’d be a much worse player if I weren’t also a dancer.

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"Never played set dances. I don’t know if they exist much in the States."

There’s quite a bit of set dancing in the States - http://sets.ie/ (check out the North America listings). We’re spoiled for it here in Milwaukee: weekly classes, monthly set dance ceili, a full weekend in February, and classes and set dance ceili the full week of Milwaukee Irish Fest in August (all with live music). Amazingly fun to play music for these dances.

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I play for dancers almost as often as I play in sessions during some seasons; mostly ceilis, set dances and a bit of competition-style. I was a dancer before I started playing Irish seriously (I started out learning set dances on whistle to improve my lilting for teaching) and my hornpipes still retain a lot of my dance style.

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I’d love to play for dancers one day. I’d like to combine my local session and a few of my fellow cloggers. I think someone at my local also plays for a ceilis up the road which I only just remembered now, that I was going to go and learn.. I must check it out this week!
I’ll throw in this clogging video I found recently for your enjoyment.
https://youtu.be/s9rJ2na9Umg

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I ‘ve played for dancing ever since I started playing seriously- ceili, Cajun, old-timey clogging and flatfooting, Breton an-dro, French bourees - I think I play best when the tunes are actually fulfilling their original purpose, to be danced to! I ‘ve found that whenever the local ‘School of Irish Dancing’ turn up at a Ceilidh to do a display [yes, curly wigs, ‘celtic’ embroidery dresses etc] their instructor brings a cd of ‘Riverdancey’ music for them, they seem to have no conception of dancing to trad reels, jigs, hornpipes……………..

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I play for dancers once or twice a week albeit Border Morris!

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I’ve been playing for ceili dancing for a few years now (with practiced dancers as well as open workshops at festivals and weddings and such), as well as for step dancing and a little sean nos every now and then, and some breton balfolk too, though that’s a different cup of tea. Ceili dancing is what I’ve done most, so here’s my two cents regarding that.

First of all, you’ve got to know all your tunes well enough to be able to play them without thinking about it. You need to keep a watchful eye on the dancers and especially on your caller at all times and if you need to concentrate to be able to play your tunes, that’s going to be really difficult. Especially during open workshops, it will take a few "false starts" before everyone has their feet sorted out. The caller (= dance instructor) will (usually) stop the dance after a few bars, set things right, and start over. Stopping when they tell you to, even if it’s halfway through a tune, is vital.

Next, you’ve got to be able to suppress the "itchy fingers between sets". The caller explains the steps to the dancers and the random notes, phrases and chords people tend to play without thinking about it before they start a set ,makes life really difficult for the caller. I feel like an absolute hypocrite writing this because I make this mistake *a lot* but at least I know it’s wrong. Takes one to know one, I guess.

A steady beat is both sacred and sacriligeous. On the one hand, the music needs to be steady and flowing - any hiccups in your playing will need to be compensated by the dancers, tiring them out really quickly. The more flowing and groovy your tunes are, the easier and more fun things become for them. BUT… Many’s the time you will start off a set too fast or too slowly. Although competition step dancers will trip over their own feet as soon as the music is off by one or two bets per minute, the rhythm for ceili dancers is much more fluid, and depends on the skill level of the dancers, the time of day, how much they’ve had to drink and whether or not it’s a full moon. A good caller will notice this after the first few steps and gesture for you to either speed up or slow down. Being able to do this while playing without tripping over your fellow musicians can be tricky, but it’s a good skill to have.

Lastly, although it may seem that the dancers really only need a bass drum to keep their steps, and that the melody instruments are really there purely for decorative purposes, this is definitely not the case. True, your intricate rolls and variations might get lost in the noise, but the general "energy" of your music is what keeps the dancers going. If you suddenly invert your chords from D major to B minor and take your melody down a notch, their steps will become smaller and they can catch their breath. Slowly build up the tension as you near the end of the B-part and they’ll start to smile. A growing crescendo and, provided you’ve got 20/20 sight, you’ll see the goosebumps on their arms. Launch into the tune one last time with everything you’ve got and they’ll literally jump into the dance, even though they’ve been going at it for two hours and would probably fall over if they had the room.

The music and dance together are two different expressions of the same idea, shared by everyone in the room without having ever said a word about it. If you do it right, everyone will instinctively know what’s happening now, what’s happening next and how to express their own part in that whole. For me, that’s about the closest thing there is to actual magic.

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I’ve been playing for dancers for over fifty years, although mostly not ITM. It doesn’t really matter what genre, playing for good dancers is wonderful. Most of my dance band experiences have been for swing, country, and rock, but I also spent years playing for ballroom dancing and in a Tango band, with a few contra dances thrown in.

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I play regularly for cotswold morris, border morris, rapper sword and English ceilidh if any of that counts

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I seem to play 2-4 Contra dances a year, and I got to play for a ceilidh a few years ago (but we had to travel to get there). I only play Irish, but it seems to work out fine for the contras. I really like playing for dancers, and I wish there were more Irish dancers/dances in my area. I would love to play for set dances. We do have a Morris dance group locally, and I’m debating…

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Cheers, jksiazek! That website from Bill Lynch feels like a dance bulletin board on steroids.
It’s a lot of bells & whistles.

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I play in 2 Scottish ceilidh bands. Strict tempo is the thing, but who decides it? In the one band we have a snare drummer, so it’s "follow the drummer" in principle. In the other we don’t have any percussion, so the "rhythm section" includes guitar, accordion basses, keyboard and cello. Agree with a lot of what Tijn says.
We have written down guides for tempo, e.g 115 crotchets per min, but these may have to be modified to suit the competence/experience of the dancers. Many of our players are also session players, where they do tend to gallop along at faster speeds than dance tempo to the same tunes in sessions, and this wild enthusiasm has to be held in firm check! And apropos another of AB’s threads, which I have so far resisted contributing to, sheet music! Both bands use it, but you are in a better position to watch and evaluate the dancers if you take your eyes off it!

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I never play better than with good dancers - sets or individuals. If you play with lift they dance better and you respond and play better. It is dance music and the sniff test of how it’s being played is to checks out the feet and bodies around you. If they resemble carcasses , start again.

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Agree Copperplate, it is hugely rewarding to play for accomplished dancers who know what they are doing and there is a positive feedback between dancers and band. Don’t think we’ve had any carcasses yet, though!
But there are other rewards in playing for novice dancers who may not have the fancy footwork, but with a good caller (and some degree of attention on their part - not always a given criterion at all ceilidhs) can "get" a dance fairly quickly and clomp their way through it, and tell us they’ve had a fab night at the end of it.

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I have played for social (set and ceili dancing) many times. It is fun and a good work out. I really enjoy opportunities to play for sean nos dancers, too.

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I love playing for dancers! Sometimes it’s exhausting (last night we played a 3-hour ceili program with no intermission, and curses my shoulder is sore) but it’s fantastic feeling the energy the dancers and musicians provide each other.

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Interesting discussion based on a feis going on in Morgantown, PA today. I’ve played a lot of both sessions and contra dances, but not competition style dancing. It was quite a spectical with multiple dancers competing simultaneously. I noticed a lot of the tunes were set dances. Is there a repertoire posted for these events?

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Learning Irish step-dancing gave me another perspective on playing tunes and brought opportunities to play for dancers in a variety of settings. To me, playing for dancers and learning to dance all form parts of the whole, and I enjoy it. I’ve played for competition and traditional-style dancers, Irish, Scottish, etc. As previously mentioned, the challenges in playing for competition-trained Irish dancers include staying within the tempos for each kind of dance (and level of dancer) and being loud enough (they tend to be used to recordings played in class—often a lot of accordion and sometimes percussion). It’s important to keep a very steady tempo. Although I don’t compete in dance anymore, I still dance more traditional steps in my living room and play the occasional dance.

@fidlfad—there are a handful of set dances that are common repertoire amongst competition Irish dancers at the lower and middle levels, and the jig ‘Saint Patrick’s Day’ is usually the first one taught. Other common set dances include ‘The Blackbird’, ‘The Job of Journeywork’, ‘The Garden of Daisies’, and ‘The Three Sea Captains’. The set dance is danced to the tune of the same name, and at a specific tempo (or range of tempos). There are many more set dances, some newly composed, that are danced at the higher levels. For the other categories of dances—reel, treble reel, treble jig, light jig, single jig, slip jig, hornpipe, etc., a certain tempo (or range of tempos) applies, but any suitable tune of that type can be played. It’s quite a different world from sessions and contra dances …