Traditional Irish Set Dancing
It is said that Irish Set Dancing can be traced back to the French cotillion, a contredanse claimed to have been developed from or inspired by English country dancing of the time. The quadrilles evolved from the cotillion and are believed to have been brought to most European countries by military personnel, diplomats and other travellers of the time, arriving in England, Scotland and Ireland around 1816.
From ‘set of quadrilles’ describing dances in square formation for four couples there came the shortened form of ‘sets’ when danced in Ireland. A full set comprises four couples, a half-set two couples, and each set has a varying number of parts known as figures. These figures can be danced to jigs, reels, polkas, slides and hornpipes, even occasionally to a fling – not forgetting the Waltz Cotillion danced to waltzes.
Most counties in Ireland have their ‘local’ sets often named for the village or townland where they were developed and many have their own version of the Lancers, which tends to confirm the arrival of the original Lancers with military personnel.
Many sets in Clare are danced to reels, with a jig or hornpipe figure included, whereas polkas and slides are more prevalent in Kerry and Cork. There is a variety of stepping and styles which are indicative of each locality and it is indeed lovely to see such variation, rather than generic versions. In Clare, the reels are danced in a smooth sliding, gliding manner whereas the reel steps in Connemara are far more lively. There is also a great difference between the very energetic North Kerry Set and the beautiful ‘slithering’ West Kerry Set.
Generally, sets begin with either a lead around or circle up, advance and retire, but other moves such as dance at home, around the house, ladies chain and swing are incorporated through the figures, remembering that the ladies chain can be danced in many different ways.