Why Set Dances?

April 25, 2018

Let’s talk about why there’s even a third round at all, shall we?
Why have a third round that’s just another treble jig or hornpipe? Yes, you dance by yourself third round, but it’s really just dancing hardshoe like round two, right?

There are 40 Set dances to choose from, with a prescribed minimum soles they can be danced to. (Thankfully) They were gathered and codified by the commission to preserve and promote Irish Music as well as dancing. Set dances are a separate round from either Hard or Soft Championship rounds, and are always danced in hardshoe. 

Sets are not like the hard shoe round in the following ways:
1. Speed. 

 Depending on which set you’re dancing, increasing or decreasing the speed is a mark of prowess. But that doesn’t apply to all sets. Sprig of shillelagh at speed 66 is not nearly as respected as Planxty Hugh O’Donnell at speed 66.

2. Length. 

 As alluded to above, The length of set says a lot about you as a dancer. Many people take this to mean, the longer the set, the better, to show endurance and stamina. While this is true, there are many more opportunities to showcase abilities with shorter sets, especially if you’re packing them with athletically challenging movement and intense rhythmic sequences. Having the opportunity to experience both is important. 
3. Musicality. 

 The sets each have a distinct character, and this is the best part. When you dance the hard shoe round in any given competition, you don’t get to choose what music you dance to. The musician does. They play whatever tune suits them, or play the same. one. over. and. over. The music could perfectly complement your teachers steps, or not.

 In sets: There are special rhythms, melodic themes and don’t forget the evocative names in set dances. Who hasn’t seen a jockey to the fair or Kilkenny races that has iconic Horse leg movements? Aren’t there special sequences at the beginning of a blackthorn stick that you don’t see at the beginning of any other set? Have you ever seen an expertly choreographed set where the music and the choreography belong together? If they tried that choreography to a different set, it would look and feel awkward. It takes a beautiful blending of the understanding of music and the dancers abilities to create a set. 
4. Variety

All of these elements combine to make each set a distinctly different experience, for if the student, the teacher, the adjudicator, and the audience. To simply keep the choreography and change the music shows a level of immaturity in the teacher, that they don’t understand the real value of the Set Dances as a showpiece of both their choreography and dancer’s ability. This is what bothers me about the trend of everyone doing the same set. Can I tell you how sick I am of the Vanishing Lake and Planxty Hugh O’Donnell after watching worlds this year? I understand if a teacher or student was captivated by one of these pieces of music, but I highly doubt everyone was. Most jumped on the bandwagon of what was fashionable. 
 I hope this insight helped you, And if you’re a teacher, I don’t mean to insult. I just invite you to explore the Challenge of creating something special, not something everyone else has. Thanks. 

Guest Post: A Mother’a View

February 10, 2017

I ran across this post and found it heart-rending and well-worded.


“I watch my beautiful dedicated daughter who gets up before school to do her dancing drills, I watch her after study on non dancing nights at 9 or 10 o clock practice and practice and stretch and exercise. I watch her give up friends get togethers and parties to not miss dancing class. I watch her telling her friends how dancing is a sport and the best sport. I watch her prepare for feis making sure there is not a hair out of place and her make up is perfect. I watch her dance so strong and confident around the stage. I watch her as she comes down from the stage feeling happy about how she danced. I watch her wait with excitement for results or recall.
I watch how her face falls when she is near the bottom again or doesn’t hear her number in the recall and my heart breaks. I watch other dancers get the glory. I watch as the tears fall and she asks what am i doing wrong.
I watch as she examines the results carefully and tries to get some consolation from a high mark. I watch as she looks out the car window on way home saying nothing. I watch as her confidence is eroded a little bit more and i wish with all my heart that things could be different for her.
I wish we were from a well known big school, I wish i was in the dancing circle so she would be well known to all the judges. I wish she was watched when she danced with a top dancer on stage. I wish she could be one of the dancers who sometimes has an ally on the panel who would give her a high mark which would pull her up. I wish the judges would look at her fab timing and rthymn and posture. I wish all was fair. I wish dancing teachers wouldnt put up on their pages – hard work pays off- because it doesn’t or Work hard and the results will follow – because they don’t.
I wish she would pursue a different path but she is passionate about irish dancing. I wish all the very best for my beautiful talented daughter and i will watch as she prepares for the next feis.”



I read this article and felt as if I had written it!

A Letter From Your Dance Teacher by Keesha Beckford

Reader Question:

April 29, 2013

My daughters 4 and 6 dance for a local school. The two sisters who run it treat the parents horribly. They have a “drop and go” rule, which they enforce very strictly. You are not even allowed to sit in the changing area !! (there is no viewing area). I do not feel comfortable even leaving my 6 year old there because they are so covert. To whom can I complain? They are the only school in my area. Does any licensing board oversea Irish dance teachers? I do not think in this day and age one should get yelled at for staying nearby a child’s lesson – not to mention watch for a little to see where they are in the learning curve. Advice??

Dear Reader:

Dear Suzy,

I’m sorry to hear that you have been struggling with your teacher’s methods. Parent Observation in classes is an issue that I struggle with as far as my opinion.

One side suggests that keeping parents out of the classroom is beneficial. Believe it or not, your child’s behaviour changes when you are there! Some kids are better behaved because they know a parent is there and the expectation is present. Some kids become more distractable- Mummy is there to hang out with, ask for sweets or complain to. Some parents are also very distracting- they may set up a regular chat-fest in the room, making it impossible to speak over. Some teachers feel they are not able to teach naturally when under a parental microscope.

The other side of the coin shows that there is a certain atmosphere of distrust and secrecy set up when a teacher teaches behind closed doors. While I am sure the governing bodies of most dance organizations would prefer that classes are safe for children, there are not any rules set forth regarding observation of classes. Therefore, complaining to governing boards might not do much good. I personally feel that if a child is small, say aged 4-8, there should be visual access to the child in their class. There should be an observation window or the door should be open. In our tradition there is enough history of mental and physical abuse that I feel this is paramount.

Please talk to your teachers. Explain that you would like to be able to help your child by taking notes, keeping them behaving, and helping them feel safe. It is common practice for most dance and gymnastics studios to have a “parent observation week” where the parent is welcomed into the classroom. Perhaps a combination of this and an open door would help you and other parents feel there is an atmosphere of trust.

I’m sorry that there are no other schools as transfer options. While I am generally against transfers as a whole, I believe emotional abuse such as yelling at children in a non-encouraging way is grounds for a change of school. It is far, far too prevalent in the Irish Dance world. And if they are yelling at you, you had better believe they are yelling at your child.

I welcome more thoughts on the subject, and would appreciate replies. Let’s get a discussion going!

It has been so fun watching you two find friendship in my classes.  You both walked into your first Irish dance class, and met each other.  Your personalities matched you together perfectly.  Soon you were one inseparable unit.  Practicing steps together at your homes, making silly t-shirts commemorating your mutual wierdness, making everyone in class smile with your inside jokes.  You helped each other through learning the tough steps, surviving your first feis together, facing the little challenges along the way.


You’ve both come a long way, zipping through the beginner levels and working quickly through the novice and prizewinner bottlenecks.  Here is where the tough part starts.  

For being so alike, you’re actually very different dancewise.  One a natural dancer with beautiful legs, the other a hard worker who won’t quit till it’s right.  You’re watching each other intently, figuring out why the other is so much better at (fill in the blank here).  Little bits of jealousy start to flit back and forth.  Secretiveness when needing help on a movement.  Tracking each other’s placements as much as your own. I worry.  The lightness leaves your friendship in the heat of the classes.  More short comments and sitting across the room from each other.


Please don’t give up on each other.  Yes, one will probably progress faster in hardshoe, the other in softshoe.   One may even qualify for Preliminary, leaving her best friend to struggle in Prizewinner just a bit longer… just a year, or two.  It will all even out.


Your friendship can’t be based on dancing equality.  You’re both working hard, both giving it all you’ve got.  Let your mutual drive be your friendship protector.  Help each other, support each other.  Laugh off the differences, especially in competitive level.  Don’t let the competition break what is so special to all of us.


Friendship is more important. Without it, the joy will leave.  Fight for it. Please.

Break the Cycle

March 15, 2012

After recent Major competitions I have had a little time to ponder an anomaly I had never noticed before. I have talked to a lot of my peers, as well as some older dancers who have set their sights on becoming a registered teacher. I guess I have one of those faces, because the back-stories come freely as we talk about where Irish Dance is now.

So many sad tales. So much betrayal, conniving, abandonment, ambition, indecision, frustration and greed, all mixed in with the friends made, the new paths taken, the goals adjusted and the battles won. It seems like no one has a straightforward tale. Has anyone started with one teacher and progressed all the way through untouched or untainted by drama? Has anyone been accepted by their own as they announced their plans to teach? All the stories I heard involved transferring with all its dark baggage, leaving the school of your genesis by choice or by force, Abandoning your teacher or being abandoned by the same. I myself have a twisted tale. Don’t you?

But I can see behind all these woeful origins, I see hope sparking. The reasons you have survived are bright and beautiful, full of hope and energy to become something great. Your ambition is not to become just like “them”, it’s to be better, stronger, smarter, or perhaps more kind or honor tradition more. To prove that there is a better way.

I have heard that often children who were abused grow up to abuse. Girls who hated being nagged by their mother hear her tones in their voices later on. We do this because it’s somewhat pre-programmed. We can break out of the cycle, if we before make a clear decision of what we will do instead. Replace the problem with a solution, and then work. Don’t give in.

I see that this new generation will be the ones to revolutionize our little quirky world. If we can resist getting sucked into the quicksand. Let’s keep our minds and our hearts open. We are stronger together than pulling each other apart. It doesn’t have to be this way. Take the stories that formed you, often turbulent like the potter’s wheel, to form and shape something new, something that will be stronger. Let’s not react. Let’s act.

A New Day

March 10, 2012

You trickle in, softshoes in hand, and sit on the ground to loosen the laces and slide your feet in. I turn on some music and a couple of you can’t wait until after the warmup. You just have to dance. You start running the new section of your reel and asking me questions. Yes, yes, I danced in the aisles at the market too.

Another student arrives and several huddle together to hear each other’s news. I love that you’re friends, but I hide it under a stern admonishment that we need to get to work. Another girl bounds in to give me a hug. It makes me feel excited to start the day. We’re partners in a goal, and it’s thrilling for all of us to see the improvement.

Okay, time to focus. The drill music goes on and everyone begins to move together, slow at first, lazily stretching tight muscles and sore joints, then increasing in spring as the blood flows. I worked that muscle hard last week, and we both enjoy exchanging tales of how sore we are from that drill last time. Finally, your faces begin to shine and it’s time to dance.

Let’s get to work.

… Lost it’s Luster

February 7, 2012

I came across this post and I thought it was so fantastic that it bore repeating. See below for the link to his blog, and please give him any comments you desire.

Nearly a decade ago, when I was a grad student at John Carroll University, I supplemented my meager graduate stipend by playing the accordion at Irish dancing competitions all over the country. Indeed, I made a rather comfortable living off of Irish music – I was able to travel the nation, eat in great restaurants, hang out with people who shared a common interest, play the music I loved, and support the music and culture that was so dear to my heart.

One morning, a person from a feis called my parents’ home, looking for me. I had left the house and my mother gave the caller my work number. The administrative assistant answered the call and took the message, promising that I would return the call when I arrived at the office.

Not long after the message was taken, I stepped in and began to check my mail. Out of the blue, I heard, “You know, Ryan, you’ve got a lot of nerve.” Puzzled, I looked up from the mail and said, “Pardon me?” She continued, “I know you do some strange things, but someone from your fetish just called looking for you.” It was amidst great laughter that I had to correct her, stressing that it was someone from the feis, or Irish dancing competition, and not some clandestine fetish.

Over the last decade, I have played at countless numbers of feiseanna. As a teacher, it is often difficult to give away an entire weekend for playing, so I have played far fewer than I might have liked. I miss being “on the circuit” and spending time with people I care about doing something I still enjoy. At least, something I think I enjoy.

In recent years, the atmosphere of Irish dancing has changed a lot. When I was a kid – and I know nostalgia plays a role in this interpretation – Irish dancing seemed to be a lot more fun. People from different dance schools got together and had fun with one another. Kids competed, to be sure, but they also enjoyed each other. As a young musician, I was always struck with how much fun the judges and musicians were – they seemed really to love what they were doing.

In the post-Riverdance years, Irish dancing became more and more professionalized. This, certainly increased the caliber of dancing. Yet it also has changed the culture of dancing. Teachers, many who depend on their dancing schools as the main source of income, work very hard to ensure good results for their dancers. Parents, who expect a lot for their investments, are only too willing to transfer dancers multiple times from school-to-school in search of the teacher who will make the child a star. The kids, for their part, get so caught up in doing their three dances for a competition that they totally fail to see the cultural and historical background of what they are doing.

Yesterday, I watched two young teachers spend the day glowering at people associated with other schools. People from other schools then proceeded to speak ill of those teachers. On public message boards, dancers who had transferred are poked fun at.

This animosity sets up an impossible situation. If the kids do well, then the reason has to be politics, or back-room dealings, or the fact that these kids were good beforehand. If the kids do poorly, other adults actually are glad that they didn’t do well. The culture of Irish dancing, which once encouraged the best of people, seems more apt to bring out the worst in an increasing number of people.

My good friend Anne Hall, a wonderful judge and dancing teacher, always say, “Dancers come and go. Your colleagues are forever.” Long after prizes are awarded, long after the trophy has tarnished and the first-place sash has been put into storage, years after a school’s best dancer has retired, the teachers are still there. I simply don’t understand why it is that so much energy goes into being jerks over kids when, in all honesty, they will eventually quit and the teachers will still be there, except now they have hurt feelings and bad blood. No dancer, in my estimation, is worth the cost of a friendship.

I look back on my past with Irish dancing and I cannot recount the number of wonderful ways it has impacted my life. This being said, I have serious reservations about seeing my niece and nephew as Irish dancers. I don’t know that either of them will gain a more profound understanding of their cultural heritage or gain a sense of what role they will play in the preservation and propagation of their tradition. With the games and politics that seem to be increasing, I don’t want them to think – at least not at a young age – that their success or failure in Irish dancing rests not on talent and determination but, rather, on political connections and intrigue. I want them to love Irish dancing and music because it is fun and because it brings out the best of them. I do not want them affiliated if it is only to be pawns in the small-minded games of immature adults.

To my colleagues in Irish dancing: please remember that, after your champion’s shoes are put away and the dress sold, after you teach your last lead-around and treble, after you have closed up class for the last time, that you certainly will be remembered by a small number for the world medalists and national champions you trained. Yet, you will be remembered by countless more – the novice dancers who struggled to get third, the leggers who never made it into Preliminary Championships but came to your class because they loved to dance, the kids who gladly danced teams but never did much in the solos – whose lives you have touched by your passion for your craft. You will be remembered for who you loved. Choose to put medals over people, trophies over hearts, honors over honesty…you will be remembered for what you loved. In the short-term, it may make great business sense. In the long term, I simply don’t think it either sustainable or wise.

Please don’t read this as an indictment or a judgment. I’m simply a musician – certainly not the best or most talented of them – and I do my best to sit back and play the music. My livelihood does not rest on playing feiseanna, so I feel at greater liberty to speak freely. My words, though, do come from a place of deep concern and love and while they might not reach many, I hope that those they do reach take but a moment to consider their approach to this culture we love so dearly and ask how their actions help, or hinder, its flourishing.


“Has Irish Dancing Lost it’s Luster?”

Bittersweet Reminder

September 23, 2011

You represent second chances. From your name to your style to your mom’s overwhelming friendliness, all of it is familiar now. You see, I had a student like you once. It started out wonderful, but I feel like I made the mistake of depending too much on it all. Too much on their talents, too much on their time, and too much on the generosity of their family. As their life changed, and dance faded for them, I held on with a tenacity borne of investment. I saw that it didn’t hold joy for them anymore, but I was unwilling to let go. I was sure it was my fault. “If only I had…” became my inner secret. If I had done something better, they would have loved this more. If I had been more lenient, they wouldn’t have burned out. If I had handled situations as they came, they’d still be here.

We parted on friendly terms… at least, as friendly as likely never seeing someone you love again can be. I’ve done this a lot, students growing up and growing apart, but I don’t think I can ever get used to goodbye.

Then you walked in my door. I have to keep reminding myself that everyone is different, but I still have a surreptitious fear that you’re the same, that I will love you more than is prudent. That we will invest hundreds of hours again, only to end on retirement, transfer or all-out disaster. Why am I mourning something that has just started?

Then we get to those second chances. Every student that has walked in my door has taught me something. From the simplest thing like a way to phrase your first introduction to turning out your feet, to how to handle a family that decides that a transfer is like an ugly divorce. You should not represent a future personal tragedy, but an opportunity for growth. What will you teach me? Even as I write this thought, my heart lifts a bit. There are happy times. There are beautiful moments. There are hours of introspection about how you build my life up. They will be things that cannot be tainted by that inevitable goodbye.

Please forgive me. Old wounds can still tingle, like when a soldier feels pain in a leg that was amputated a long time ago. The instinct to protect myself may make me a little hesitant to throw myself into getting close to you. I may take your mom’s generous offers with a little more business-like aplomb instead of friendly candor. You’ll still get all I can give as I teach you technique and steps and we will still have a lot of fun, because that’s what I do. But I come to you with a little less heart. They took some with them when they left, you see.

But I’m still left wondering, where do I find a line where I can still love you like I want to without breaking my heart when you’re done dancing?

I will treat students in my class with respect. Yelling at students does not improve them, and I do not become a better person by doing so. I will not ignore students in my classes, nor will I only give feedback to a cherished few. All are here to learn and do their best.

I will take each individual student and decide what is best for them, aside from the rest. I will make unique decisions on steps, class placement, costuming and invitations for special opportunities for each dancer based on their strengths, attitude and work ethic.

I will run a business as effectively as possible. I will strive to give notices ahead of time and in an easily accessible way. I will be present in my classes, both physically and mentally. I will not be distracted by chatting or story-time during dancing class. I will keep my tuition rates at a reasonably stable scale unless changes in my overhead occur. I will return calls and messages on my own time, but I will return them.

I will maintain professionalism with my students. They are not my drinking buddies, confidantes in my personal life, or replacements for friends my own age. At the same time, students are not “customers”, they are protoges, mentees and children who need a warm and accepting adult teaching them.

I will protect my students inasmuch as is possible from political backlash, rumor mills, backstage parents, bullies, and their own insecurities.

I will treat the parents of my students with respect. I will listen to their concerns and follow-up with action. I will strive to bring the desires of the parent, the dancer, and myself into concert for the benefit of all.

I will keep my thoughts of discontent about other dancers, teachers, adjudicators to myself. Sharing them with my students will only encourage rivalry and discontent.

I will treat all students who transfer from me with respect. I will not require my remaining students to treat them like pariahs, nor will I try to intimidate them by occupying the front row center seat at all their future competitions.

I will not gossip. I will not use intimidation to get what I want. I will not rumor-monger or dig a pit for my neighbor.

I will treat nearby schools and teachers with respect. I will speak highly of them if asked, recommend them if it seems they are a better fit for an interested dancer, and strive to maintain friendly relations with them, no matter what their behavior is returned as. My students will not learn hate from me.

I will keep current on steps and styles in the sport. I will do all in my power to ensure that the school has effective choreography and safe teaching methods through constant improvement of myself and my staff.

I will be honest in all my business. Dancers from my school will dance in the appropriate age category. Teams will dance in the proper rotation. Feiseanna organized by my school will not alter results or hire a “fixed” panel of judges.

I will not encourage adjudicators by any means available to me to place my dancers higher than any other, save they should dance in a way that merits the placement. I will not bribe, blackmail, or “buddy” to become the best.

I will dress appropriately at Irish Dance functions, from feiseanna to meetings to receptions. I understand that not only my reputation as a person, but the tenor of my entire school is affected by my personal appearance and behavior.

I will behave in a professional manner at all Irish Dance functions. I will not yell at students, coach them from the aisles, tell them they are terrible dancers, become inebriated, or make comments aloud about other dancers at the event, nor will I argue at meetings.

I will strive to promote Irish Dance in the best light possible to the public.