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Looking back at set dancing memories

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The passing of one of the architects of the Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy and its long-time director Muiris O’Rochain last week unleashed a flood of great memories and connections that are the lifeblood of the world of traditional Irish music and dance.

Willie Week had a profound influence on my life because Muiris and company there in Miltown Malbay decided with great wisdom in its 10th year in 1982 that a summer school in West Clare should and could expand its mission by opening up set dancing classes to revive the great quadrille dance tradition that had ebbed in rural communities with the diminution of the house dance customs.

Cork dancing master Joe O’Donovan took on the challenge that first year to teach basic sets like the North Kerry and Sliabh Luachra while also recruiting some great local tutors in the Clare sets in keeping with the Banner County theme underlying in the school. 

By the time I visited the Willie Clancy Summer School in 1984 and 1985, they were also aided and abetted by the Brooks Academy dancing wing of the Na Piobairi Uilleann or Piper’s Club, a committed and resourceful group of folks living and working around Dublin who created dancing manuals and cassette tapes that allowed neophytes like me to teach the country sets back in our own localities.
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With the renewed interest in traditional music well under way for a couple of decades, the time was ripe for the set dancing to take off and so it did in the 1980s and 1990s. 

And one of the primary sparkplugs was a rambunctious dance teacher named Connie Ryan from Clonoulty, Co. Tipperary who moved up to Dublin and immersed himself in the music and dance there in the 1960s.

In the 1980s operating in a parallel universe to Willie Week and the Brooks Academy, Ryan stepped up his focus on the quadrilles with a barnstorming brigade called the Slievenamon Set Dancing Club that traveled around Ireland learning sets in different counties from primary sources in the older generation who held fast to the tradition of the house dances. 

Ryan’s merry band of musicians and dancers even made two historic trips to the Northeast U.S. in 1988 with 57 members in tow, and 1991 with 46 participants accelerating the transmission of the dance form over here.

With these traveling parties he was able not only to instruct in great detail but also vividly demonstrated with full sets of eight how much fun there was in the dancing.

Rascal that he was, Ryan more than any of the dancing masters who emerged in the revival used sexual innuendos -- and at times politically incorrect language-- in his methodical tutelage that was as liberating as Riverdance was to Irish step dancing.

It also gave insight into how the Catholic Church restricted the house dances back in the 1930s through the Dance Hall Act of 1935, hoping to curtail innocent boys and girls from disappearing down a dark boreen or into a hayshed after a few figures in a country kitchen.  The sets helped break through the innate shyness of the country life, and many a match owed itself to being taken up in the arms of another on a flag floor.

Connie Ryan’s exuberance and emphasis on the social nature of set dancing made him very popular wherever he went and left a lasting impression on people well after he left us at age 57 in 1997 after a battle with cancer.  

His principal legacy in the U.S. was his annual forays to Cape May, New Jersey every fall from 1988 to 1996 to lead a weekend workshop for the most ardent set dancers on the East Coast from Maine to Florida which still takes place this month but in recent years has moved to Rehoboth Beach in Delaware (http://www.gwcc-online.org/other.htm#capemay). 

From Ryan’s stable of set dancers came many great teachers, including a few who have become very popular dancing masters in their own right in Pat Murphy and Padraig McEneany, who assumed the Cape May instructor’s mantle in 1998 and is now in his 13th year as the visiting dancing master.

McEneany is a native of Co. Armagh who studied Irish stepdancing into his mid-teens along with his sisters in Newry, and his first exposure to the world of set dancing came through the Scoriacht competitions popular at that time. 

Eventually he met his wife Roisin who played a key role in the Slievenamon Set Dancing Club who made both trips to America as part of Ryan’s set dancers, bringing along fiancé Padraig on the second journey in 1991 visiting New York, Boston and the Greater Washington Ceili Club’s Irish Music Festival in Maryland at Glen Echo Park. 

The club under the direction of Diana Jensen created the Cape May Weekend in 1987 with Joe and Siobhan O’Donovan as the first instructors before yielding to Ryan in 1988 and McEneany a decade later.

McEneany’s ability and attention to detail made him a ready candidate to fill in for the ailing Ryan, who missed 1994 when he was first diagnosed with cancer.  Ryan along with Betty McCoy who partnered with Ryan on many of his dancing capers saw the potential in McEneany in asking him to go out and fill a large pair of shoes.

McEneany’s experienced another baptism of fire in New York when he was exposed to a phalanx of 500 dancers in Tarrytown at workshops and ceilithe organized for a Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Convention weekend. 

Coming through with flying colors, he was asked back in subsequent years to teach at conventions in New Jersey (twice) and San Antonio Texas this past March.

Like his mentor Ryan, McEneany embraces technology to ease the burdens of traveling around to workshops using an iPod to carry his music and notes for the classes. He enjoys calling and working with top class musicians who love to play and share exhilarating tunes for dancers.

Padraig and Roisin have taught all over Ireland and host a regular Tuesday night class at O’Shea’s Merchant Pub and Hotel on Merchant’s Quay alongside the Liffey. In addition they have taught internationally across Europe and even in Dubai at a World Fleadh as well as coast to coast in the U.S. over the years.

They have also produced two lively instructional set dancing DVDS entitled Faoi Do Chois 1 & 2 which is Irish for On Your Feet that also features lovely music for the sets by the Triskell Ceili Band. More information on them is available at www.faoidochois.ie.
They will be leading two set dancing workshops over the next two weekends in Delaware and Connecticut.  The first is the Cape May Dance Weekend (also known as the Connie Ryan Memorial Weekend) in Rehoboth, Delaware from Friday-Sunday October 28-30 at the Atlantic Sands Hotel and Conference Center with three set dance workshops on tap Saturday and Sunday.

Music for the Friday and Saturday night ceilithe provided by the Cape May Ceili Band consisting of Felix and Brendan Dolan, John Whelan, Bernadette Fee and Jimmy Kelly who also perform in a Saturday afternoon concert. For further details contact phone 301-802-2631 or email gwccdances@gmail.com for last minute info.

The second is the CCE Northeast Region’s 60th anniversary Irish music and dance weekend in Fairfield, Connecticut over the weekend of November 4-6 at Sacred Heart University.  Set dancing workshops are scheduled for Saturday morning (10 a.m. to noon) and afternoon from 1:30-3:30 pm.

The latter event is part of a special weekend organized by the Milford Branch of CCE, whose chairman is boxplayer John Whelan, from Friday into Sunday, with many special events revolving around the regional annual general meeting of the Northeast.

There is an opening ceili on Friday night from 8 p.m. to midnight featuring Rose Flanagan, John Whelan and Brendan and Felix Dolan. On Saturday there are music workshops with Brian Conway, Brendan Dolan, Bridget Fitzgerald, Damien Connolly, Damaris Woods, Anna Colliton, Flynn Cohen, Regina Delaney, Jerry O’Sullivan, Jeanne Freeman, Loretta Egan Murphy and Christel Rice in the morning (10-12) and the afternoon (1:30-3:30).

Many of the tutors will be featured in a special evening concert from 7:30 to 10 pm after a special ceremony officially changing the name of the CCE Milford Branch to the P.V. O’Donnell Branch CCE in memory of the late Donegal fiddler from Buncrana who died recently.

In addition there will be an induction into the Northeast Hall of Fame that includes musicians John Whelan, Pat Stratton and Brendan Bulger that evening. 

All of these events will take place at Sacred Heart University (5151 Park Avenue) in Fairfield who are the co-sponsor of the weekend through the Center for Irish Culture based at the school. For more information on the weekend itself visit www.pvodonnellcce.org or call 203-430-5403.

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