The day after my first Irish dance class in September, I woke up to jelly legs. As it turns out, a lifetime of Indian Bharatanatyam and classical modern dance hadn’t prepared me for the calf strength needed to be constantly jumping on the balls of my feet. Traditional Irish stepdance—an art form that predominantly emphasizes movements of the leg—felt at first like a continuous exercise in tripping over my own two feet, but with classes at only €2 an hour with the UCD dance society, my jelly legs kept dragging me back to class week after week determined to master the steps and shuffles and skips and hops.
I began the year with individual and partner set dances—dances with set standardized choreography. Over the weeks I learned what an Irish dance shuffle was and how to hop on my toes and that skips usually happened in counts of threes. And just as my confidence in the dance style was beginning to grow, I took my first Céilí class.
Céilí, for the unfamiliar, is an Irish folk dance consisting of a larger group of participants in a social setting dancing together to traditional and often live music. While many of the steps of Céilí dances shared similarities with the individual Irish stepdances of weeks past, adding partners and group members quickly added a new dimension of chaos altogether. Hands grabbed the air searching for a partner, neighbors crashed into each other, and people froze as choreography escaped their brains.
And yet it was the most fun I had all year.
I am no stranger to social dances. An inevitable part of any Texas middle school education is lessons on southern square dancing, and an equally inevitable part of growing up South Asian is being invited to annual garba dances for the Hindu Navaratri festival every autumn. While garba holds some notable differences in execution—participants dance in concentric circles around a central lamp or statue—I was charmed by the similarities between Céilí and my Texas square dancing classes from childhood. Both dance forms involve partners interacting in larger sets of four or more and several standard dance fragments, with many similar fragments across both styles (peep the moments I pass under arm arches like the square dance Rip n Snort.) But while American square dancing usually utilizes a caller to announce the next steps for participants, Céilí usually uses set choreography for the whole dance.
Over the months I have grown to embrace the chaos of Céilí classes—the crashing and bumping and running to catch up to a partner and stumbling through the gent role choreography because I happen to be the tallest person in the class. In many ways, Céilí class parallels the process of learning to live in Ireland this year—figuring things out as I go but enjoying myself along the way.