How to Put Together Celtic Songs for a Set Dance

by Morgan O'Connor
Set dancing is similar to square dancing.

Set dancing is similar to square dancing.

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Ireland traditionally offers three different forms of dancing: step, ceili and set dancing. Step dancing is typically a solo style done to impress the breathless audience. Ceili and set dancing, however, are social dances that you might find people doing in a pub. Set dances are divided into separate figures, between which the dancers take a few seconds to breathe, have a gulp of beer, and try to remember what comes next. The music for each figure must be exactly the right length and the correct type of music. With the rare exception, each individual figure of a dance is to a specific type of music. The figures in the dance are typically not all the same as each other, however.

Step 1

Determine the type of tune you need for the first figure in the dance. With typically three to seven figures per dance, you need to repeat this process several times, but focus only on the first figure for now. Your dance instructions should specify the type of music necessary. This is almost always either a jig, a reel or a hornpipe. That's right -- not all Irish tunes are jigs!

Step 2

Determine the number of bars of music needed for the figure in question. This will be a multiple of 8 (and is almost always a multiple of 32), but is typically in the hundreds. It might be, for example, 160, 192 or 256. Your instructions might not state the number of bars. Instead, they might state the number of "parts," which is the number of bars divided by 8. For example, 20 parts of music is 160 bars, while 256 bars of music is 32 parts.

Step 3

Add 8 bars (or 1 part) to the number you found. The dancers need 8 bars of music before they begin dancing. This gives them vital information about the tempo and rhythm of the music to which they are about to dance. Without this 8 bars, they would be jumping in blindly, hoping to start at the right time, and unsure of the correct speed at which to dance.

Step 4

Find a tune (often colloquially, but incorrectly, called a "song" -- tunes don't have words!) that is the same number of bars or parts as you determined you need for the figure. To make things more complex, the tune must also be the correct type of music: reel, jig or hornpipe. If you are using music specifically designed for set dancing, the number of parts or bars and the type of music will be clearly listed for each track. The number of parts may be 1 short or the number of bars may be 8 short; this is not a problem as long as the track information says the tune includes an "A for naught." This "A for naught" is how musicians and dancers refer to the 8 bars (or 1 part) the dancers need to prepare.

Step 5

Repeat this process for each figure in the dance. A typical set dance might have 3 reel figures, 1 jig figure and 1 hornpipe figure. This means you must find perfect music for each of these 5 figures individually. Do not use the same track for all three of the reel figures if you can possibly avoid it. This is a fast and easy way to bore the dancers.

Tips & Warnings

  • Many CDs specifically designed for set dancing include specific dances, which saves you a great deal of trouble. If, for example, the dancers wish to dance the Clare Lancers set, you simply play the designated music for the five figures of this dance in order with a few seconds in between.
  • If you put two or more tracks together to create music for a single figure of a set dance, make sure the tempo of the two tracks is the same. Your dancers won't be happy if the music abruptly shifts from very fast to very slow.

About the Author

Morgan O'Connor has been writing professionally since 2005. Her experience includes articles on various aspects of the health-insurance industry for health-care newsletters distributed to hospitals as well as articles on both international and domestic travel.

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