Opinion – Irish Music Session Dance Etiquette

20090728 Ireland - Dingle music reservation

You’re an Irish dancer and you’ve run across a music session in which the players have got some serious craic going on.  The music is making your feet move on their own and you can’t stand it anymore.  You’ve got to get up and dance.  You jump up, perhaps even pull some fellow dancers along and begin dancing.

But stop.  Before you head over to join the musicians, consider the following.

How well do you know the session? Is this a regular session or a special event? Are dancers welcome or is this intended for musicians only?  It would be ideal if dancers were welcomed at all sessions and events, but that’s not always the case.

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If this is your first time at the session, take some time between sets to say hi and talk to the leader.  If you’re not sure who the lead is, ask one of the musicians when they’re on a break.  See how they feel about dancers getting up and joining in. If they welcome dancing see if they have any requests for you.  They may welcome you to the middle of their set or prefer that you dance off to the side. They also they may be happy to play specific tunes just for you.

If you can’t get over to talk to the lead but can catch their eye, it can frequently be enough to show them your shoes while putting on a questioning face.  If they give you the “ok,” lace up those shoes and get out there!

Once you’ve determined that dancing is welcome at the session, keep the following in mind.

A session is not about one person playing the loudest.  It’s a group of people making music together. You’re playing an instrument too and what you play should fit with the other players.

How does your dancing fit into the tune that’s being played?  Not just the rhythm or melody but also the volume.  Unless you’re in soft shoes, your instrument is going to be heard. Think about the space. What’s the floor like?  How large is the room?  Will the environment amplify or will it muffle your steps?

With all these things in mind, you may need to play more quietly than you’re used to, in order not to drown out the other players.

Unless you planned it with the session leader in advance, this is their party.  They might let you in – or not – either way, don’t act like a party crasher.

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Unfortunately for many dancers, music is the thing that happens in the background which keeps time so they know when to move their feet.  This is fine at a ceili, though you’re really missing out if you only think of the music as a pretty metronome, but a session is collaborative.  It’s a group of people working together to make something bigger than themselves.  Just as a music session doesn’t work if one musician dominates with their drumming, strumming, or whistling, the session also doesn’t work when a dancer begins to dominate.  If you’re wearing taps or hard tips, you’re basically another drummer.  Does your drumming fit with the music being played and are you playing with the rest of the musicians or are you playing over them?

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What’s the etiquette for dancing at paid performances given by your favorite group?  Keep an eye out for our next article. Comments and questions are welcomed below.

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