Dancers scaled

Céilí dancing at a distance

Mary Doorty and Bill Lynch in Kilfenora, Co. Clare.

By Maura Mulligan

Edwina Guckian, the sean nós dance teacher from Leitrim, added to her virtual video collections during this lockdown. In May, she created a magical display of children dancing sean nós steps within two kilometers of their homes. Scenes where her young students danced included a bridge, the middle of a field with a newborn lamb and in the case of her students who moved to New York, a rock in Central Park.

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The popular Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy- aka-Willy Clancy Summer School like all the other music and dance schools in Ireland have canceled their programs this summer. Edwina like many others has a special grá for “Willie Week” and in particular, the music of the Tulla Céilí band.

“Although we can’t be there this year dancing with all our friends from around the world,” she wrote,” I thought it would be nice to celebrate the festival and all the mighty Céilíthe with a virtual Plain Set to the Tulla Céilí Band.”

This dance although called “Plain” isn’t plain at all. It’s a six-figure set from West Clare and is popular with set dancers everywhere. Edwina asked dancers who enjoy this set to tape themselves dancing the 2nd figure for her project.

I love being part of anything that connects me with other dancers so I said “yes” right away. Besides, it gave me something specific to focus on in these times when one day runs into the next.

When you dance in a set with a partner and three other couples, it’s easy enough to stay focused. If your mind wanders (as senior minds tend to do sometimes) and you start to “advance and retire” when it’s time to “dance at home” you simply use peripheral vision and adjust quickly. Besides, the others in the set usually pretend they don’t notice you’re going astray. But when you’re practicing “social distancing” and imagining seven others dancing with you, well, sin scéal eile (that’s another story).

Edwina made it easy by supplying the music of the Tulla Céilí Band for participants but I still had to figure out how to go about dancing on my own with seven imaginary others. Do I pretend to hold a partner’s hand or do I act as if I’m dancing solo? I look at myself in the mirror to gauge how daft I might look with my left hand on an imaginary right shoulder while dancing “around the house.” I turn my back to the mirror and “dance as if no one is watching.” That’s all well and good until they actually are watching I think. Anyway, I’m sure I won’t be the only one dancing alone in this virtual lockdown set. We dancers are missing a summer with old friends as well and new ones from other countries.

The next challenge was how to tape myself. In March, I taught a solo step to my céilí class online by propping the phone against the leg of a chair. In this case however, I couldn’t imagine four couples dancing with me in my living room space so this had to be an outdoor experience. If I look strange dancing by myself with seven imaginary people, the view of the New York skyline and the Hudson River on Boulevard East will be a good distraction.

Six dancers in the virtual céilí video.

Early in the morning before the joggers start their day would be best, I decide. I take a walk at 7 a.m. to check out the situation and find that they’re already running. I try an hour earlier the next day and decide that 6 a.m. would be the magic hour. I find a suitable spot with a view of the skyline and far enough from the noise of the traffic. Busts of two famous Cubans, Jorge Mas Canosa and Arnaldo Monzon are there to bid me “bienvenidas.” I have the music of the Tulla Céilí band on my phone. Maybe Munzon could hold my phone under his chin or on his shoulder? Then I realize that I can’t play the music and tape myself at the same time. I need two gadgets or better still, someone to help. Do I know a jogger?

The columnist making her contribution.

Paul Stanton, the young man from Cork who installed my air conditioner, runs every day. Besides, I reason, if he’s getting ready to reopen his company Darby Construction Services soon, he’ll probably be up early. Paul and his lovely wife Emma were delighted to do the taping.

As the videos appeared on the link sent by Edwina, I was glad to see I wasn’t the only one dancing alone. I also wasn’t the only participant from this side of the pond. Deputy Consul General Eimear Friel, masked along with her friend Catherine Norris, danced on in front of the Irish hunger memorial in Downtown Manhattan.

If you, like me, are missing the dancing and music in Ireland this summer, have a look at this virtual céilí video here. It exemplifies the tradition of the Wiilly Clancy School attracting students across the world to its classes. Dancers who participated currently live in Australia, Brittany, Halifax, N.S., Poland, Russia, Switzerland, the UK, the U.S. and all across Ireland and Northern Ireland. It opens with Mary Doorty and Bill Lynch in the lovely Kilfinora area of Clare with the Cliffs of Moher in the background.

Maura Mulligan is author of the memoir “Call of the Lark.”