Dance Music w/o Dancing

Dance Music w/o Dancing

I’m a new whistle player, appreciating ITM for its emphasis on ear training (I’ve always played other instruments with sheet music), natural ornamentation, and because I have friends in the local trad community.

I’m also bumping into people (podcasts, articles) adamant almost to the point of hostility at the thought of veering off the strictly historical path of tune selection and performance style. If it wasn’t done for years, just don’t do it.

So help an Irish/Scottish interloper understand, and I’m sincere about this. Isn’t nearly all of this dance music, and isn’t it almost never played for dancers? How traditional is a music-only session? Is it the era we’re in? Please help me calibrate. Thanks.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

I could be wrong, but I think most of the recordings on here are mostly for listening purposes rather than dancing. The exception would be the albums where everything is in very strict tempo, like Jimmy Shand’s later music or albums from Sean oBrien where each track has the same tempo throughout, for example "slip jigt 113" so people can dance to them. I’m happy to be corrected about this though.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

Playing (mostly) dance tunes in a social group not for dancing grew in the 2nd half of last century. Recordings not really configured for dancing then also began to get popular.

Posted by .

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

"How traditional is a music-only session?"…. Sessions are not about dancing, but that is not to say that
the traditional tunes played can’t be danced to. But yes… that’s a very good question really…. exactly how traditional are our music only sessions?

Posted by .

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

before the ‘Great Plague’ we variously had Americana, French/Breton and Irish sessions - at the Americana people would do the Cajun waltz, 2 step or Appalachian clogging according to the music being played, at the French sessions the bouree, mazurka or an dro, at the Irish it was very rare for anyone to dance. I always felt the tunes were played better when fulfilling their original function, as dance music. That’s why generally speaking I prefer playing at a ceili rather than a session - but hell, I’ll take whatever’s going, the way things are now……………

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

Players love playing.
In my experience of playing for English step-clog - at any sort of gathering the musicians will be fulfilling their role of playing for dancing, often solo, and according to the needs of the dancers.
But given a break or a chance, the musicians will be playing together purely for the enjoyment of playing.

Posted by .

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

It is certainly the case that almost all the tunes discussed on this site except for slow airs and marches were originally composed for dancing.* As mentioned above, there are some "strict tempo" commercial recordings used for dancing, but these are fairly rare. In the days before the Plague most dances in Scotland and even more in Ireland were danced to live bands (and I hope that will be the case if ever life returns to normal). Of course, often the music is probably played more to be listened to in concerts and sessions, but I think that if you have some experience for having played for dancers it makes you a better musician.

The influence of dancing can also be seen in the fact that we tend to play tunes in sets of reels, jigs or whatever, rather than mixing them up or playing them singly. There is some discussion on this in another current thread: History of sets/groupings

*And even these can get repurposed, e.g. slow airs made into waltzes and marches played for barn dances.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

Further to Christy Taylor’s comments on dancing above, it might work for people to do couple dances or solo step dancing or clogging at a session (as described for Americana sessions), but the way that most session venues are constructed it would be difficult to have even one set of eight dancers for a quadrille, which is probably the most common form of Irish social dancing.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

Is this a recording of traditional music https://thesession.org/recordings/281 ? It’s one that, on this forum at least, is often regarded as an early recorded example of pub session playing by traditional musicians.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

"*And even these can get repurposed, e.g. slow airs made into waltzes and marches played for barn dances."

It goes much deeper than that, I think. Many jig, reel, hornpipe, polka and slide melodies are related to song melodies and slow airs (and to each other). But then, isn’t that just how music evolves, whether ‘traditional’ or ‘composed’? Melodies (or fragments thereof) float around and – sometimes very deliberately, sometimes unconsciously – get recycled, squeezed into a new rhythm (or a rhythm where there was none before), sung or played at a different tempo, shifted into a different mode, have words composed or abandoned, become popular songs, get incorporated into classical works…

As you can see, I do not take an isolationist stance where Irish Traditional Music is concerned.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

> I’m also bumping into people (podcasts, articles) adamant almost to the point of hostility at the thought of veering off the strictly historical path of tune selection and performance style. If it wasn’t done for years, just don’t do it.

Many traditional musicians identify to some extent as guardians or custodians of the tradition that they carry, which carried to excess can lead to the ‘no true way but mine’ attitude occasionally encountered.

Posted by .

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

I suspect that the gramophone record industry had a large part to play in divorcing the dance music from the dancing. Whilst the records of James Morrison, Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran et al. were no doubt sometimes used to dance to, when no musician was available, it was suddenly possible to listen to a tune, played to an excellent standard, in the privacy of your own home, whether or not there were 4 people present ready to dance a set. Also to be borne in mind is the very practical consideration that an old-fashioned gramophone (or even a ‘modern’ 1970s record player) did not handle extraneous vibration very well, so enthusiastic battering on all but the sturdiest of stone floors would almost certainly have made the needle jump. Thus came a shift in the perception of traditional music from primarily* a functional device for accompanying dance to something that could be listened closely to and appreciated for its skill and spirit.

*From my sparsely fragmented reading of historic accounts, I believe that particular dance musicians was already appreciated for the finesse of their playing long before this, but it was perhaps more the exception than the rule to hear such a musician playing solely for the purposes of listening.

Incidentally, it has been referenced on here a few times before but I STRONGLY recommend purchasing a copy of this book http://www.musicinabreezeofwind.com/index.php for an insight into the history of Irish Traditional Music and Dance.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

"people (podcasts, articles) adamant almost to the point of hostility at the thought of veering off the strictly historical path of tune selection and performance style. If it wasn’t done for years, just don’t do it."

I think it would help to know more about the specific objections. Are we talking about an insistence on typical dance tempos? Or keeping the same dance rhythm for all tunes in a set? Avoiding too much singing? Excluding "outside" instruments like cajón? Or maybe insisting on excluding anything that isn’t purely Irish in a session?

Personally, I’ve enjoyed both the more rigidly codified sessions and looser, more relaxed one with regard to all of the above. Well, except for singing, other than the solo Sean-nó variety which is nice to hear once in a while. Singers with guitars often like to turn sessions into singing circles where the instrumentalists have nothing to do but sit on their hands for each "performance."

I mention this because the OP asked "How traditional is a music-only session?" and I’m wondering if that’s in regard to singing, a somewhat fraught topic where every session is different in how welcome that is. In some sessions it’s very welcome, others not so much.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

Most of the people I play with in sessions also play for ceilidhs, mostly for weddings, private parties etc. So there’s definitely an ongoing connection between playing for fun in a pub and playing for dancers - grouping of suitable tunes into sets (eg several 48-bar jigs together), general selection of repertoire, etc.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

All traditions are "invented:" they involve decisions about inclusion and exclusion. Ireland has/had all sort of musical practices. For example in Francis O’Neill’s childhood brass bands were extremely popular—there were 33 in Cork and one in Bantry when he was a boy. These were Irish people playing music in Ireland but O’Neill omits them almost entirely. There were minstrel shows in Cork. There were ballad sellers and song-sheet pluggers in any town of any size, selling old melodies repurposed as political statements of the moment. When he talks about crosssroads dances he remembers only traditional instrumental dance tunes, but he had a contemporary who also wrote a memoir of those dances and he recalled semi-commercial, topical politcal songs being sung and played.

There would be social musical practice and lots of individual musical practice, in people’s homes, sometimes at parties but also to while away the evening. I mean would somebody not play a few tunes simply because there were no dancers present? When he describes Irish music in Chicago, it seems to be people taking turns playing solo, or sometimes two people togther, not a "session" as expected today. He often but not always links it to dance, but in the early 20th century he complained that audiences were more interested in dance as an athletic accomplishment than they were in music.

Posted by .

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

‘Playing the tunes’ and ‘playing the tunes for dancing’ are two different, though obvs, overlapped things.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

A session without dancing gives you a bit more leeway in how you interpret the tunes… But in the end, almost everything we play is a dance tune, and even if nobody is physically dancing, the music begs to be played with lift and drive, and then people are dancing in their minds. Just look around a room in a session, and even people that are deep in conversation and ignoring the music will be tapping their feet… And the musicians themselves are dancing with each other in a different way. Almost every session I’m at will end up with someone dancing at least a bit, whether it be punters who are just moved by the music, an Irish dancer showing off, or maybe most often, small children who just can’t help it (and are encouraged by everyone around them…)

As far as the great debate between preserving the tradition and pushing the boundaries, I believe that the push and pull is part of what keeps the tradition alive and thriving. This tradition is not a history piece that needs to be preserved in a museum, becoming a stagnant thing. The tradition is for sharing music, playing it, composing it, dancing to it… The tradition is very much alive, and has always been influenced by the people playing it, technology, and societal and political forces at the time. But if pushed too far, it would no longer be recognizable as Irish traditional music. There are fringe players or groups that do sometimes push it past recognizable, and that’s OK too, as long as the majority of the people in the tradition recognize it as such. It’s a tug of war in some ways, but that’s part of what makes it a vibrant ongoing tradition.

So I wouldn’t necessarily take the historical purists much more seriously than the celtic rock bands at all the "Irish" festivals. All of those people are free to treat the music how they like, and you just have to decide where your place in the tug of war is…

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

Well maybe, but what about the reverse?

Most Irish dance schools use recordings, not live music. Perhaps dancers spoiled with perfect performance are not motivated by session playing?

When it comes up on the radio, do you march to military music ? That would be one for Monty Python’s silly moments!

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

"back in 1987 for the two (or maybe it was three) ceilis they offered that week the band consisted of Johnny O’Leary and a guy playing the snare drum. And you know, from a dancer’s perspective that was more than enough. In fact, it was brilliant. Johnny O’Leary was a master at playing for dancers, which really is the heart and soul of what Irish traditional music is all about."
https://thesession.org/discussions/2899#comment57321

Posted by .

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

My take is that there are definite rules that are all broken all the time. I simply try not to let this bother me. I don’t love bodrhan at a session. I’d rather there be no guitar or piano unless it’s me (piano because it’s fun for me and people pretend to enjoy it). I’d rather have the space without drum or accompaniment in a session. I love playing with more experienced players. I don’t like too many songs at a session. If there are too many beginner paced tunes I tend to get bored. Too many modern tunes is annoying for me. The more Fiddler’s the better as far as I’m concerned - other instruments not so much. Most of all, I get annoyed with what I call trad Nazis even though I know I occasionally behave like one. I love playing with great players - especially the quiet open players that simply command respect and lead.
All of what I think only has relevance to my own personal experience. If you only do one thing than try to find your own personal joy in the music and companionship and the rest will take care of itself. If you display normal common sense respect than you can’t break any important rules as far as I’m concerned. I would tell you to follow the example of the players you come across that you naturally respect and take their example.
Trad music, for the most part, has roots in dance. It’s evolved into something so much bigger and I would never try to pretend I explain what trad music is or what it should be outside of my own personal local aesthetic. Over time you will develop your own unique version of what the music is about and it will never stop evolving - hopefully.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

"… I’ve enjoyed both the more rigidly codified sessions and looser, more relaxed ones …"

Ditto. I completely get purism in traditional music – if we love a thing, we don’t it wanted diluted with things we don’t much care for. I have no objection to the odd song in a session (Sean Nós is great, but so can be Irish nostalgia, comic songs or even Springsteen or The Beatles if done in a way that is sensitive to the general ethos of the session), but too many of them interrupts the flow of tunes. But I also find the ‘invisible ramparts’ that can surround some sessions stifling and intimidating; sometimes I find a more relaxed ‘anything goes’ session more comfortable, if frustrating for the sparsity of tunes and the lack of a ‘critical mass’ of tune players. The ideal trad session for me is one where anything could happen but mostly doesn’t. (In case it is not clear what I mean by this, I refer to a session where anyone would, in principle, be welcome to do a ‘turn’, whatever the style of music (or poetry etc.), but there is a tacit understanding among all present that the primary purpose is for playing Irish Traditional Dance Music, and those that do not play it [and might contribute an occasional song, recitation, some non-Irish music…] are there primarily to listen.)

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

Much, probably most, Western instrumental music (and some vocal music) used to be dance music that moved into a more listener-based (for lack of a better term) artistic development: much classical music, jazz, rock and roll, hip hop…the list goes on.To me, the difference with ITM is that it’s A) happening relatively slowly, and B) we’re in the middle of it. There’s living memory of young dancers giving Andy McGann about his tempos, meanwhile dance schools are using hokey tracks (not all; I’m generalizing, of course). Embrace whichever direction your journey takes you.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

"Much, probably most, Western instrumental music (and some vocal music) used to be dance music that moved into a more listener-based (for lack of a better term) artistic development"
I don’t know if that’s true. I think much, probably most, western (ie of European origin) music has long lived a dual life of serving both dance and listening purposes. I think it’d be hard to argue that either came first, really. Certainly both the dance and the music as we know it has evolved drastically since the 1600s…

Posted by .

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

Most pub-style sessions would not cut the mustard to accompany dancers. Simply not ‘good enough’ - loose timing, phrasing and off tempo; the ensemble is more proximate than together. Céilí band level of playing is uncommon. Just because its a dance tune doesn’t mean it’s danceable.

The locations where the music is played and the dance activities have gone their separate paths since the 70s (much earlier?). The dance halls and Céilí are a thing of the past. Young folk have new pursuits and the Siege of Ennis or a hornpipe it ain’t. For the small minority who dedicate to learning Irish dancing - the standard is probably better than ever but the days when all the lads and lassies could dance passable jigs, reels or polkas is long gone.

ITM has transcended its intimate bond with the dancing to become something different. It still has the dance roots. Try listening without a foot or a hand beating it out in time. The appeal of the melodies and pulse and the accessibility of the repertoire to a wide range of musical skill levels has brought it somewhere different to where it started. It’s a living, breathing and evolving tradition.

Here’s REAL dance music played without the dancers. But if the dancers were there they’d love it!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRFihYltgXs

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTR6obF_NHw


If my name was Donald Rumsfeld - I might differentiate between known tunes, dance tunes, undanceable tunes of dance origin and unknown dance tunes. The latter class being commonly played at sessions 🙂

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

Paddy Fahys music IMHO is more for listening to,especially the reels which tend to be played at a slower pace.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

My own take carries a load of cynicism with it, still, it’s within my experience in a very general way. I once asked how many of us actually play for dancers. Of the many, many of members here only a handful responded at all, though most of them said they did play for dancers. I have too, a couple of times over 10 years. (I do play for contras but an Irish jig just isn’t played with the same lift.) So it seems to me that "for the dancers" is mostly a generic justification for about anything. Seems to me that we all have our own take on trad, but only a few have the iron grip of the superhero "Tradman, Defender of My Way the Only True Way". To be fair just about every human endeavor suffers from the same phenomenon so don’t take it too seriously. Respect the tradition for sure, respect the thoughts of others, and equally respect your own ideas.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

I’ve played Irish Trad for about 20 years now and have occasionally played when dancers dance.
This has always been ad hoc. Not an actual dance. We just played what we normally do in a session and I suppose the hoofers adapted.
The major experience I have with playing trad music for trad dancers is in the Morris sphere.
The two differences between playing at a dance out for a side and playing the same tunes in a pub at an English sesh, as we often do, are these:
1. we play much faster than anyone would ever dance!
2. we stick to a AA BB (or AA BB CC etc) form. Many of the dances have complex formulas as regards the music fitting the dance but for ‘tunes only sessions’ this is ignored. I believe that also happens in the Irish discipline at times- ‘set dances’(?).

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

I began playing for a monthly set dancing class in January 2020 (which was unfortunately cut down in its prime by the pandemic), along with a concertina/accordion player. It felt a bit like a coming-of-age as a trad musician. Perhaps in past times, when dancing was the main focus, the training period would not have been as long, but nowadays, most of us learn by emulating our favourite ‘listening’ artists and/or sitting in on sessions, not by attending dances. This is, it should be said, an Irish set dancing class for complete beginners taught by two Londoners in the middle of Wales, not a ceili full of lifelong dancers in the West of Ireland – I am under no illusion that either of us is anywhere close the standard required for a competition-level Irish ceili band. In fact, part of the reason for enlisting live musicians for the class was that the recordings (made specifically for set dancing) were too fast for teaching purposes, so we get to play at a more comfortable pace for all of us. But rock-solid rhythm (or as close to it as we can achieve) is of the essence.

I had to do some swotting up on the sets and figures to come up with tune selections with the required numbers of measures (no doubt experienced ceili musicians do this without thinking about it). One interesting thing that I noticed is that the number of measures in a figure often do not correspond to the tunes as they are ‘normally’ played – the tunes have to be ‘shoehorned’ into the structure of he dance by dropping or adding repeats of parts. This is obviously not the case for the *set dances* (The Blackbird, The Drunken Gauger etc. – as opposed to set dancing [What could be more confusing?]), where the tunes are specifically made to fit the dance; it is presumably also not the case for stepdancing (either Sean-Nós or modern), where the dancer follows the structure of the tune. This would seem to highlight the fact that set dancing was imported (or developed out of imported dances) and married to a pre-existing dance music tradition.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

I played for step dancers in a small band (3 or 4 players) for many years. Very hard and specific work but great fun. The band was fronted by a piano accordion player who played for feiseanna for many years. He seemingly effortlessly nailed all the tempos requested by the dancers. All I had to do is lock to his playing. On the rare occasion when he was out and I had to deal with maintaining the very specific tempos requested, it was quite the challenge. These days if I’m playing for dancers, it’s more often for contras, which has its own challenges.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

Is there really anyone who supposes that a group of musicians getting together to play for their own pleasure and entertainment is some new (and therefore bad) development in ITM?

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

You kids and your "pleasure" and your "entertainment"…

When I was a kid, after grade school we had to walk ten miles uphill in the snow both ways to get a pint.

You know what’s entertaining? Having Old Pat poke you in the eye with his bow for playing an F-sharp instead of a shaded F-natural in that Fahey jig. Or having someone crack your flute in half over their knee because you bumped the table and spilled their beer. Or when some random stranger dumps a steaming bowl of potato leek soup over your head to help you warm up because it was -20 degrees C outside and you asked them to close the pub door to keep the draft out. We took it and we liked it!

"Pleasure" and "entertainment". Ha! Next you’ll be expecting "self-fulfillment" or "maximizing your potential as a human being". 🙂

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

Thanks for the interesting comments. Tempo increasing beyond what people would dance to seems clear. Tunes starting as songs or aires and floating into dance tunes, and vice versa. The recording industry turning it all into a spectator sport, but also making it more convenient and more repeatable for dance-specific performance. Everything traditional was first composed. All tradition was once innovation, and likely fought about at some point. And naturally musicians always play more together privately for practice or there would be no public playing. The typical modern drop-in session is more to exercise the players, and maybe lubricate a public gathering, not always to serve a ceili dance. And overall that tradition is always pulling against innovation and always has been, and both interests are always being served no matter if you like it, or notice it.

Very interesting and very much appreciated.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

I’d highly recommend Helen Brennan’s book ‘The Story of Irish Dance’ for anyone interested in the history of Ireland’s dance traditions.

Posted by .

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

I think that the issue whether the music is played for dancing (or not) has affected the style. In Scotland since the 1950s the typical dance band has had two accordions, a fiddle, keyboard and drums. In most bands the fiddlers tend to avoid droning strings (probably because since this interferes with the quite complex chords played by the accordions), and much of the other typical ornamentation simply can’t be heard. In Ireland the ceili bands seem to have a greater variety of instruments, but even so the trend is similar: in the two videos posted above it is noticeable that the dominant sounds come from the accordion(s), banjo and keyboards, even though each band has several fiddlers and flute players.

So it seems that in dance bands in both traditions the dominant instruments are those that play fixed notes. Bands playing for listening only seem to give far greater prominence to instruments which have the capacity for greater ornamentation (fiddle, pipes, flute, whistle etc). So even though they are mostly playing tunes that were originally intended as dance music, I would stick my neck out and say that their sound is probably more authentic than that of the modern dance bands!

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

Since we played in a performance focus and not a Session, our experience with dances during a tune were limited. We did have a separate "Wedding" set we kept up for when we hired to perform at Wedding parties. It was mostly all instrumentals and we worked up a few "American" tunes into the mix. A few Irish and Scottish ballads for the slow dances.
As I’ve mentioned prior, my experience at "Sessions" was very limited, so I know very little about the protocols and such.

Re: Dance Music w/o Dancing

Short on time to read all the comments today so if I’m repeating someone’s thought forgive me…

I played for many years with a button box player who previously (in the 1950’s-1970’s) had played regularly—I’d say almost exclusively—for set dancing. When we played with him most often it was without dancers. Over the years I got the sense he chose the sets of tunes we played based mainly on what he most enjoyed playing himself and tunes he judged fit well together musically.

But occasionally we’d play for "the sets"…set dancing groups. In those situations there were always certain tunes the dancers expected and in certain combinations. Our leader being well steeped in all of that led the way and we followed…as best we were able!

Alas, we did it so infrequently from the 1980’s onward when we met and began playing together that I never became very competent in the protocols of the various sets. There is some great information about all of this in a fine book edited by Terry Moylan "Johnny O’Leary of Sliabh Luachra; Dance Music from the Cork-Kerry Border". In Appendix E from p. 224-228 Moylan documents a series of "standard" sets—most from Dan O’Connell’s pub in Knocknagree. (Our leader was a contemporary and friend of Johnny, grew up in Sliabh Luachra and frequented O’Connell’s whenever he was home in Ireland so these sets are likely some we played with him for dancers.)

For what it’s worth at Dan O’Connell’s most evenings started with a session in the front room. Musicians gathered and played and a few sang or recited a bit entertaining the gathering crowd. At some point the musicians adjourned from the front and reconvened in the much more open back room where the dancers had space to move about. The remainder of the music for the evening was largely given over to the dancing…except when the dancers wanted a break at which time a singer might share a song or the musicians might play a set of favorites or there would be a round of jokes, tall tales or recited poetry.

So I’d say it’s clear that "traditional Irish music" was—and has likely long been—for both listening and dancing. It was home grown entertainment—the only kind available up until the early 20th century developments of technology largely superseded those practices.

It’s sad, in my view, when folks become insistent there’s but one way for a thing to be done. That this or that change in course isn’t "true to tradition". If one is intent on historical re-enactment that’s one thing. If one is intent on enjoying playing music then I say all doors should stay open.