Playing for Set Dances

Musicians that want to play for Irish set dances need to be aware of a few specific issues that are particular to the form. These guidelines for Wild Musette’s set dances are meant to help musicians provide accompaniment for a successful dance. Before we talk about the guidelines, let’s review what a set dance is.

About Irish Set Dancing

An Irish set dance consists of four to six figures. Each figure typically lasts 88-256 bars of music and will include a sequence of movements for each couple. Between each figure the music will stop for about one minute while dancers catch their breath. During this time the dancers do not switch partners or move about the floor. The musicians decide when to start the next figure, usually after looking over the floor to make sure everyone is ready.

Set dances are not called. Rather, dancers learn the figures ahead of time. The band will announce the name of the set to be danced and give the dancers a few minutes to find partners and form sets on the floor. This rule does not hold true for workshops or beginner dances which are, necessarily, called. In this situation the caller will instruct the band on what and when to play.

Guidelines for Musicians

Set dances are not sessions. While it is true that there are some pubs in which an unaffiliated musician can join in to provide dance accompaniment, most set dances feature organized bands that have rehearsed specific timings. Often these bands have been chosen by their reputation and popularity in the community. They may be doing it for fun, but they are often doing it for pay as well. Don’t join in unless you are specifically invited.

Tempos vary from fast to very fast. For teaching purposes set dance music may run around 112-116bpm. For actual dances expect tempos in the 120-130bpm range. This is not a slow jam! Dancers expect to move quickly. Play hornpipes a bit slower to accentuate their flowy nature.

Don’t be graceful. Because set dance tempos are so high it is often not possible to include all of the standard rolls, cuts, and trills that typically adorn Irish traditional music. This causes some grumpy traditionalists to sneer at musicians playing set dance music, but don’t be taken in by this attitude. The dancers want rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. Save your grace notes for the pub after the dance.

Play it straight. Set dancers are after a driving energy and a clear, strong beat. Now is not the time for improvisation. But do seek to build energy throughout the figure.

Eight for nothing. Set dancers expect a full eight measures (generally a full A part) of music to establish the beat. This is analogous to playing “potatoes” in New England contra dance music, though much longer. So if the dance figure requires 96 bars of music, play 104 bars.

Arrange yourself. Each figure in a set dance has a predetermined number of beats. You must play exactly this number of beats (plus an eight for nothing intro) so that the music ends exactly when the dance ends. Set dances do not conform to a uniform AABB structure, however they should always be in multiples of 8 bars, so adding or dropping A/B parts is all you will have to do. Look up the structure of the dance and add or drop A or B parts as you see fit to make the music match the dance.

Everything changes. You can play a single tune for an entire figure if it is a short figure. Most bands try to fit in two or three tunes per figure.

Mistakes happen. If you get to the end of your music and the dancers are still dancing, keep playing! It is a bigger sin to end the music early than to have extra music after the dancing stops. If you have extra music, quickly make a big finish of it and pretend it was your plan all along. Smile! It’s only a dance!