- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

Oh, the days of the Kerry dancing
Oh, the ring of the piper's tune
Ah, for one of those hours of gladness
Gone, alas, like our youth, too soon.
Traditional Irish song

Getting your feet wet in the Irish social dancing scene between Washington and Baltimore is more fun than just watching "Riverdance." A peek at the dance card around town offers plenty of proof the Irish kind, with a kick you can feel clear down to your toes.
So celebrate St. Patrick's Day, Saturday, the traditional way. That is, by jumping in with both feet. Pack a few bottles of your favorite stout in a cooler, round up the family and set your shoes down the emerald path.
Saturday night, the Blackthorn Ceili Dancers will kick out the jams according to custom. One of the oldest Irish dance outfits in the metro area, they're even giving away a shillelagh, or traditional blackthorn stick, as a door prize.
The dance features live music by some of Washington's finest Irish musicians. Jesse Winch, of Celtic Thunder fame, beats the bodhran, an Irish hand drum. Veteran session fiddler Philippe Varlet leads the Blackthorn Ceili Band, including flutist Rob Greenway and accordion player John Timony, in more than just foot-stompin' jigs and reels. They season the brew with graceful waltzes, hopscotching polkas, stutter-stepping mazurkas and more.
Whether sitting back and sipping a stout or letting your feet coax you into a set, just hearing the music might be enough. But newcomers needn't worry about jumping in, even if they're not Irish. What once was the province of Irish hearths has gone to the heart of the world, judging by the mixed crowd at the Greater Washington Ceili Club dance a few weeks ago in College Park, Md.
There, at one of the many tables in the Cherry Hill Park Conference Center, lanky Aussie Tony Graham sat with his wife, Mary Tan who though predominantly Filipina, has more than a drop of Chinese and Spanish blood in her veins and cradled their first child, 10-month-old Mark, in his arms. Here six years, the two met at a Scottish dance class in Tokyo, where Mr. Graham had moved a decade ago and where he began the first Irish social dancing classes ever offered in the Japanese capital.
The Graham family is moving again, to another capital, Dublin, the hub of an ever-expanding wheel of dance turning to the Celtic tread. And among the well-wishers saying goodbye was Marilyn Moore, a slim, trim grandmother of two with short dark hair.
Ms. Moore grew up in New Mexico and had never even heard of Irish dancing until 11 years ago, when she got a flier in the mail for ceili dance classes.
New Mexico not being particularly a bastion of Irish traditional culture, Ms. Moore didn't know a ceili (pronounced KAY-lee) from a cactus until that flier came. But soon she was taking classes every week.
"I'm not a big one for hanging around cocktail parties. I'd rather be doing something," Ms. Moore said.
The classes paid off in more than one way. Not only did she meet her husband, Jim Owens, at a Rockville, Md., ceili about eight years ago, but she has become a sought-after caller and Irish dance instructor in her own right. Amazingly, she had not done any dancing for 20 years before she took it up.
"If I can do that, anybody can," she says as she stands in line for the potluck smorgasbord during the first of two intermissions at the four-hour shindig.

Ceili is Irish for "a gathering of friends." And ceilis, which in Irish tradition were held at country crossroads or at someone's home, are as much social events as dances. So the dinner break and a long table laden with platters of homemade meat, cheese and pasta dishes along with huge bowls of salad is one of their more important ingredients at least at dances thrown by the Greater Washington Ceili Club.
At College Park the ritual is always the same. The musicians, being the most indispensable of the participants, are given the first go. Then the dancers, never flagging at joining another line, sample the rest.
Ceilis go back several centuries in Ireland and Scotland. The Irish variety features mainly two types of social dances, "set" and "ceili." Neither of these is of the hot-foot, high-kicking variety now familiar from "Riverdance" and "Lord of the Dance." Those shows rely on an exaggerated version of the traditional Irish solo performance turn called "step" dance.
The set dance is perhaps the more popular of the social dances and is still the more common in Ireland. Derived from French quadrilles of the early 19th century, set (a corruption of the French "suite") dances almost always feature groups of four couples who dance a "set" of as many as seven "figures," with a short break between each figure. The most common American equivalent is the square dance.
Each nook and cranny of Ireland developed its own version of the set dance, usually by varying one that was already done somewhere else. Because the dances evolved in relative isolation, they have distinct stylistic differences and they often bear the name of the originating town, region or county.
Set dancers, for example, generally move in a smooth, gliding fashion with feet flat to the floor, but those executing the figures of a dance from some parts of County Clare have to learn a kind of foot percussion, or "battering," that is akin to that of step dance.
Popular sets include the North Kerry, East Galway, Cashel and Sliabh Luachra, this last named for the border area between counties Cork and Kerry. One well-known set, the Lancers, has variants named for such diverse counties as Clare, Mayo, Waterford and Armagh. In his short story "The Dead," James Joyce described a generalized Lancers as it was done at a Dublin Christmas party 100 years ago. John Huston's film version of the Joyce work shows the dance done in period costume.
About 100 set dances are currently known, with new ones discovered as modern-day dance collectors scour the remote regions of Ireland to turn them up. People write them from scratch, too.
Ceili dances may be round dances, line dances of paired couples like contra dances or progressive line dances. Anyone familiar with the Virginia reel will know what a ceili dance is like. More high-stepping than set dances (and in that sense akin to "step" dance), they feature swift, sideways traveling movements, a turned-out foot and steps that bring dancers almost to their toes.
Some consider ceili dances to be more authentically Irish, but that may be open to question. Round dances, for instance, came to Ireland in the 12th century, but it was probably the invading Normans who brought them. Types of what is today called ceili dance were known in the 17th century, but very few were passed down through a tumultuous history of foreign occupation and cultural suppression. Many of the ceili dances done today were composed in the 20th century to reconstruct what was remembered of those 17th century models.

The feel is Irish, then, but just as you don't have to be Irish to do Irish dancing, you don't need much of a reason, either. The dancing goes on nearly every night of the week in our area. Some people show up for it nearly that much.
Take Tom Scullen of Silver Spring, Md. He takes dance classes two nights a week and with his wife, Lynn, attends a ceili every weekend. With their two children away at college, they took up Irish dancing 2 and 1/2 years ago.
"We love it. We're crazy," says the jaunty Mr. Scullen, who also rehearses every Saturday morning at J. Patrick's pub in Baltimore with the Irish dance performance group Tir Na nOg, which is Irish for "Land of the Young," a realm beneath the hills in ancient Irish myth.
Mr. Scullen is very clear about his preference for set dancing.
"We pay attention to the geometry and sequencing of set dancing," he says. "Ceilis are fun, but I like the sets better, because they are more geometric."
Five ceilis are held regularly every month in the Washington-Baltimore region, spaced roughly about a week apart. Each has its own characteristic mix of ceili and set dances, with the emphasis falling on one kind or another. For example, at the Greater Washington Ceili Club, set dances are done almost exclusively. The Blackthorn Ceili Dancers, on the other hand, shift the balance toward ceili dances.
The amount of calling and teaching done at each dance varies from almost none, as at the above two ceilis, to virtually everything. When dances are not called, dancers are expected to know the steps, but newcomers are always given a helping hand by others in a set.
"This is a community that welcomes newcomers and really wants to share what we enjoy with other people," says Edie O'Donnell, who with her husband, Paul, took up Irish dancing about 20 years ago.
The couple first saw it at a festival and said, "'Oh, that looks like fun. We could both do that,'" Mrs. O'Donnell says. Mr. O'Donnell is now president of the Greater Washington Ceili Club and maintains a popular Web site on Irish dancing (https://members.aol.com/pfod/irishdance).
They had tried a little polka and square dancing before seeing the Irish variety, says the Washington-born Mrs. O'Donnell. "But once you've done this," she says, "I don't think there's any other dancing that quite compares with it."
Her advice to newcomers:
"Take some classes, come to some ceilis, wear leather-soled shoes don't come in sneakers."
Wearing comfortable shoes that slide is important, because the dancing is aerobic and calls for continuous footwork. Dancers do everything from a low shuffle to a high-impact battering step, depending on their stamina.

Perhaps the most beginner-friendly ceili of all is the one hosted at the John C. Wood Municipal Center in Fairfax by the local chapter of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the Dublin-based international organization for the preservation of Irish culture. The dances are all called, with lots of teaching, and most are ceilis. Every second Saturday of the month, the Bogwanderers Ceili Band ignites a crowded floorful of dancers.
At a recent dance, well over 100 people of all ages and shapes went through their paces while Ms. Moore called each figure. Among them was Ann Marie Breheny, a sturdy brunette whose parents were born in Ireland. She grew up in New Jersey, came to Washington 14 years ago to attend college and stayed.
It was at a friend's wedding three years ago that she became acquainted with ceili dancing. A search of the Internet turned up Mr. O'Donnell's Web site, which led her to a class. Now she teaches her own class at the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park.
"Very quickly, this became a large group of friends," Ms. Breheny about the people she met in classes and at ceilis. "People are very interested in socializing … And it's a great way to stay in shape."
Ms. Breheny, who brims with encouragement and enthusiasm, says that learning to dance the Irish way is "really easy."
"You don't have to have any prior knowledge. Usually after the first night you come, you can leave doing an entire dance. People are intimidated when they walk in the door, but it looks more complicated than it is."
Watching people kick up their heels in the Wood Center, it didn't look complicated at all. It looked like "party" out on the floor. Young children danced with adults. Older people danced. Teen-agers danced, and so did young adults; one couple was getting married in a few days.
Everyone was smiling, just as in the song about Irish eyes.
They were doing a dance called the "Waves of Tory" in long lines. One couple would raise its joined hands and another would dive under. Then that couple would raise its hands and the other couple would dive under them. This would happen all up and down the line, more or less simultaneously. There was stomping and cheering and laughing.
You had to smile.


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