When Anne Marie McLaughlin and her friends are in motion, they often look like tea cups spinning on an amusement park ride.
Albany Set Dancers
They whirl around the dance floor at the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Albany, four couples twirling arms and stepping in circles to the penny whistle, accordion and fiddle.
This is Irish set dancing. For McLaughlin and about 30 others, it’s a lively way to socialize, celebrate Irish heritage and just have fun.
“This very old style of country dance came into Ireland hundreds of years ago,” said Scotia resident McLaughlin, 58, who grew up in Ireland’s County Donegal. “It is still being danced at many places throughout the world today.”
One of those places is Albany, where set enthusiasts meet every Tuesday night at the Hibernian headquarters on Ontario Street to learn the assorted turns, advances and changeovers. Many already know the colorfully named moves: the “bird in the bush” reel, the “britches full of stitches” polka, the “battering ram” jig and the “star above the garter” slide.
The dance is truly old-style.
Pat Murphy, who wrote the 1995 book “Toss the Feathers,” a must-have instructional manual for set dancers, said the movement can be traced to the French cotillion of the 1700s. The dances were first mentioned in Ireland, Murphy wrote, during the 1770s.
“Set dancing is actually squares,” said Ron Bruschi of Albany, who teaches the group each Tuesday night at the Hibernians’ hall. “You dance in a square, four couples in a square. . . . Each county of Ireland has certain kinds of dances, and there are hundreds of different sets. We dance about 30 of them in the Northeast.”
‘You can’t hardly get in’
It’s nothing like step dancing, the energetic Irish dance.
“It’s a different style,” Bruschi said. “Your feet are flat on the floor. You don’t wear costumes — you just wear your normal clothes. It’s very big in Ireland. You go to a dance in Ireland, there are 400 people at them. You can’t hardly get in.”
Irish set dances can remind some people of American square dancing, without the country twang. At the dancers’ “ceili” (pronounced “kaylee”) get-togethers, Bruschi uses a microphone-equipped headset to call different steps and patterns and also dance himself.
“For a long time in Ireland, it was danced in people’s homes,” Bruschi said. “They would take out all the furniture and dance in the home. So a lot of the terms are based on the house.”
If the call is “dance at home,”’ couples dance in place. “Face the hall” is the request for couples to line up behind each other.
There are plenty of moves to learn. Sometimes, men will place hands on partners’ shoulders or around their waists and lead in circular motions. Other times, two couples in a set will pause while the other two couples in the set will dance toward each other. The dancing couples will acknowledge each other with small kicking motions, then dance away from each other — an advance and retire. Then the other two couples will dance the same routines, and spell their partner couples for a minute or two.
“In one single dance,” McLaughlin said, “the music might change five different times. You may begin a dance with a reel, and then the dance might go into a jig, and then it might go into a polka. Then it might go back to a reel or even end with a march. So in one dance, you have a variety of different tempos and different music in one dance.”
McLaughlin, who came to America in 1977, remembers dancing from her youth in Ireland. She also knows about problems early Irish set dancers had to endure.
“In Ireland maybe 100 years ago, this style of dancing that we’re doing now was discouraged by the Catholic church,” she said. “They thought it was an occasional sin almost to dance these wild, abandoning-type steps. It was very free and wild and the church frowned upon this set dancing. The Gaelic League formed in 1929 and formed a different kind of dance called the ‘ceili’ dance. And that was encouraged greatly. So the old style of dancing fell into decline and that other style became very prominent.”
Part of the problem was temptation. And libation.
Murphy’s “Toss the Feathers” quoted a 1929 article from The Irish Times: “The clergy, judges and police were all in agreement concerning the baneful effect of drink and low dance halls. Further restrictions on the sale of drink, strict supervision of dance halls, the banning of all-night dances would abolish many inducements to sexual vice.”
Irish priests were already casting wary eyes at house dancers. Then politicians had their say. The Public Dance Halls Act of 1935 required licenses for all public dances. The state also wanted to know the ages of participating dancers, suitability of premises and the hours of the event. If a couple hosted a house dance without a license, and were discovered, the fine was 10 pounds.
Set dancers sang small and laid low. But they didn’t have to meet in secret for long. Murphy said the founding of “Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann” in 1951 — the Dublin-based organization committed to preservation and practice of traditional Irish arts — led to a revival in both music and dance.
The Albany group is glad the troubles have ended.
“I love it,” said Jo-Ellen Unger, 60, of Saratoga Springs of her favorite steps. “The people are so wonderful; the people in our group are just so welcoming. And the dancing itself is challenging and aerobic. The music is just outrageously good. You can’t sit still when you hear the music.”
Unger will sometimes arrive home from work on a Tuesday and ponder getting dressed for dance instruction and driving 25 miles to Albany. She usually does.
“I know when I get there, I’m going to have such a good time,” she said. “It’s worth it.”
Fun for all ages
People can dance young, or even if they’ve got a few years on their dance shoes.
“I guess it was born in me,” said Roberta Mansfield, 82, of Dover Plains in Dutchess County. “My parents danced, and I danced. When you hear the music, it just makes your feet move.”
Bill Sage, 62, of Latham, watched spins and turns from a table at a recent ceili. The sets were all full; he and his wife, Mary Ellen, would have to wait until three more couples were ready to dance, and form another four-couple set.
“I love the exercise — it keeps your mind young,” he said.
Sage said he never used to get his Irish up on dance floors. Never had the interest.
“But this I really took a liking to,” he said, adding set dancing is not hard to learn. “You catch on quick. If I can catch on, anybody can. Maybe a month or two worth of lessons and then it’s not a problem at all.”
Bruschi said people all over the world share Sage’s enthusiasm.
“It’s become an international dance now,” he said. “There are dances masters in Ireland who travel the world now, all through Europe. There’s a big contingent in Japan; you go to Ireland, you go to one of the big festivals, you see lots of Japanese people. So it’s caught on like the tango did; the tango started in Argentina, it’s a big thing now in Finland.”
One of those traveling dance masters, Patrick O’Dea of County Roscommon in central Ireland, visited the group’s “ceili” earlier this month. He had just come from Gainesville, Fla., and would soon be on the road to Grand Rapids, Mich.
“It’s a very social thing,” said O’Dea, 30. “And it’s a very easy thing to get into. It was intended to be participatory, something everybody could do.”
Never enough men
McLaughlin said the Albany group will visit other set dancing brothers and sisters. A contingent always goes to the Catskill Irish Arts Week in East Durham in mid-July and to the Connie Ryan Autumn Weekend in Cape May, N.J., in October.
“I’ll tell you one sad thing about this whole aspect of dancing,” McLaughlin said. “There are never enough men. In most dance cultures, there are never enough men, and we have an abundance of women.”
She can’t even get any of her family members to try the South Galway set, Connemara set or Claddagh set.
“I can’t get any of them to dance or play the music,” she said. “They like ska.”