The Five Types of Ceilidh

1 Feb

I was at a ceilidh in Ayrshire the other night (don’t worry, I’d had the necessary inoculations). It was a small, cozy affair and it set me to thinking about the various kinds of ceilidhs that occur. The following list is probably not complete, so feel free to chip in using the comments section.

(Before I go any further, though, I should probably explain for anyone who is not in touch with their Scottish side that a ceilidh is a social event where people do, or attempt to do, traditional Scottish dancing. Yes, folk dancing is alive and kicking in Scotland, although it doesn’t features handkerchiefs or bells, thankfully.)

1. The Family Ceilidh. We’ll start with this because it was the type I was at most recently. This is a ceilidh held by a small group, such as a church or club, in a small (often much too small) venue, involving small people, since this is the type of ceilidh that kids attend with their parents.

What a family ceilidh is like depends very much on the group it’s composed of, and on whether you’re part of that group. At my own church a small, intimate ceilidh seems warm and friendly, and the children adorable. At an alien church or group it can feel a bit like wandering into a locals’ pub, where everyone knows you’re not from round here, and the children are worrying trip hazards. Norms of ceilidh etiquette also seem to vary considerably between groups; it will take me some time to get over the experience of being turned down by three men in a row for the last dance in Ayrshire!

Pros: If you’re local, you get a warm fuzzy, included feeling, and if you’re a kid there are patient people prepared to suffer backache in order to partner you in a dance.

Cons: If you’re not local you can feel a bit exposed and socially incompetent, although rumours of stonings are probably exaggerated.

2. The Beginners Ceilidh

This is probably the most common type. I’m using this term to refer to ceilidhs where a significant proportion of the dancers are newbies and the dances are not only called (i.e. instructions are given during the dances) but usually walked through for practice, too.

Beginners ceilidhs are necessary, because so many people want to try out a bit of Scottish culture, and you have to start somewhere, but there’s a sort of critical mass they can approach, where there too many people who don’t know what they’re doing in proportion to those who do, and what you get is not so much a dance as a musical game of blind man’s buff without blindfolds.

The Eightsome Reel, one of the trickier dances, is particularly susceptible to this numbers game. If at least 5 of the dancers are experienced (including at least one in each couple), you’ll probably be fine. Any fewer and the Grand Chain turns into the Grand Guddle.

Pros: Friendly, welcoming, good for learning the dances, good for meeting new people.

Cons: A bit slow and boring if you do know what you’re doing. Potentially messy, and often overcrowded. Potential for minor injury.

3. The Enthusiastic Ceilidh

This is a type of ceilidh I often went to at university. It’s the type where the vast majority of people are at least moderately experienced, and some have been dancing since they were able to walk. The age profile also tends to be youngish.

Dances at this type of ceilidh aren’t boring, mainly because the difficulty level is raised by an increase in speed, the addition of twiddly bits (extra turns, different holds), and occasionally by sheer recklessness. (I was once at a ceilidh where all the girls in my set decided to change to another set in the middle of the dance, without warning the men. Or the other set.)

Fun though enthusiastic ceilidhs are, they’re not great if you’re a beginner, or physically infirm, or afraid of injury. Bruises on your arms are the least you can expect.

Pros: The best fun you can have in a chilly hall (it won’t stay chilly for long) or ruined castle. Great exercise and mentally challenging too.

Cons: Beginners and older people can get left behind. Potential for serious injury.

4.The Professional Ceilidh

When I say professional, I don’t mean anyone is necessarily getting paid for it, but you’d think they were, the amount of care, attention and exactitude that goes into the enterprise.

These ceilidhs tend to be run by Celtic societies or Scottish Country Dancing clubs. The age range is often post-retirement or thereabouts, and a very dim view is taken of whooping, falling over and, I expect, swapping sets mid dance.

A professional ceilidh is where you should go if you want to see what the dances are supposed to look like, without beginners’ mistakes and enthusiasts’ messing about. It is likely the only place you will ever see The Duke of Perth danced right through without people getting confused and giving up halfway.

Even the steps are performed correctly, from the ‘setting’ to your partner (a sort of skip and kick) to the circle step to the skipping step to get from one place to another, when most people just walk. They can even polka properly!

There’s something to be said for professional ceilidhs. There’s a lot of knowledge preserved in those gently bobbing grey heads that might otherwise be lost, they are entirely free of irritating beginner’s mistakes, and it’s satisfying to sometimes reach the end of a dance just as the music ends, and know you’ve done it right. But they’re a little staid for my taste. Maybe I’ll appreciate them properly when I’m older, but for now I still like to spin too fast, whoop too loudly, and invade other sets during the Virginia Reel.

Pros: Accuracy – extreme accuracy. Almost no potential for injury.

Cons: Pretty dull, and a bit disapproving.

5. The Impromptu Ceilidh

The rarest of all types, but not mythical. There’s a magical combination of ingredients, including a group of Scots, suitable music, a late hour and, usually, a certain quantity of alcohol, that can result in people grabbing one another by the crook of the elbow and launching into some Scottish dancing.

These are probably the least correct of all ceilidhs; the sets are usually the wrong size, there often isn’t enough space, and no one’s announcing the dances so people can be doing a different dance from the rest of the group, and indeed from their partner. It can also very easily descend into maudlin singing of Caledonia or raucous chanting of Flower of Scotland as the night wears on. But there’s something wonderful about ceilidhs that just spring from thin air because you want to express your joy through dance and, since you come from a culture that has a national style of dance, you can.

No doubt there are other ways of categorising ceilidhs, and there may be some types I have not experienced  yet, but for the time being, these are the five different types of ceilidh I have attended. And I have the bruises to prove it.


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