Iselin Céilí and Set-Dancing Club

About Irish Set Dancing


Irish céilí and set dancing are a lot of fun and a good aerobic workout. The background information in the following paragraphs might make it sound like it's all too difficult to bother with unless you are some kind of dance fanatic, but when you get it right in a lively dance with a good band, it's worth every minute you put into it.

Briefly, there are 3 well-known types of Irish dancing: Step, Set, and Céilí (pronounced KAY-lee). Step dancing is the kind you see in Riverdance, and Céilí dancing (in the context that Americans tend to use the term) refers to a style of dancing that sometimes resembles line dancing. The word "céilí" also refers to a bunch of people getting together and dancing to Irish music, in addition to referring to a style of dancing.

Set dancing starts with a "set", which is four couples in a circle or square, so it resembles American square dancing. The set dance itself (or, more commonly, just the "set") is usually composed of 4 to 6 figures, which are separate movements danced to individual pieces of music, ordinarily with short breaks in between the figures. The movements in a figure are in a specific sequence and are danced in order. A set performed with all the figures will usually take about 15 to 25 minutes to complete.

Céilí dancing, depending upon the particular dance, may be nearly as structured as set dancing, but is often a little more informal, with fewer figures and less complexity.

What Are You Getting Into?

If you can walk, you can learn how to have a good time doing this, but it does take some time and effort. Although Irish dancing does provide a good aerobic workout, the hardest part is, for most people, not the physical stuff, like steps; it's remembering what to do in all the figures of a set dance, and what to do next in a céilí dance. The way to learn the figures, sets, and dances is to have a teacher who knows the sets and can "call" them while the music is going and you are dancing. But unlike in square dancing and contra dancing, at a céilí the sets are usually not called out loud for everyone by one person with a microphone, although this does occur on occasion. Instead, people in the set (or céilí dance) help each other out, with the more experienced (or better organized) dancers taking the lead. After that, the next most challenging task is probably learning the common movements done with your partner, such as housing and swinging, but practice and a good teacher will take care of this. Regarding footwork, the basic steps are, honestly, not hard to learn.


When learning Irish dancing, particularly set dancing, it helps a lot to have people dancing in the set who have danced the set before and can "pull through" the beginners. This might sound awkward and, to the beginner, embarrassing, but this is really the way we all learn (it's also a great way to meet other folks and laugh a lot!). Everyone who has ever learned Irish set dancing or céilí dancing has been patiently "pulled through" by others who already knew what they were doing. Learning can also be helped by studying written instructions, either from photocopied handouts or books, and they do help a lot, but the only real way to learn is to get together with other people and dance!

See Set Dancing In Action

Click on each video to see an example of Irish set dancing. Be sure to have your sound turned on.
Many more similar videos are available on
Youtube and other video sites.

top of page

©2003- R. J. Dunlavey
All Rights Reserved.