Arts & Culture August 14, 2015

The Ceili: lead with your right foot, leave with friends

Blog by Stephen Cushing

Inside a cheerful neighbourhood church hall, the air is heavy and the sound of laughter, Irish flute, fiddle and bodhrán is electric. You hear an energetic caller singing step-by-step instructions to paired-off dancers spanning the length of the hall. You hold hands with a smiling stranger and do your best to follow the caller’s instructions.

Spin, step, clap!

It’s Saturday night and you’re at a traditional ceili in Halifax!

A cèilidh or ceili (pronounced Kay-lee) is the best time you will have at a church hall (it’s good craic!). The Gaelic social event takes many forms, but typically involves traditional music and dance hailing from Ireland or Scotland.

Set dances are named after rural life, folklore or historic battles (such as the Siege of Ennis) and are typically performed by couples of six to eight. What starts as a human train wreck ultimately morphs into an orderly series of arm raises, twirls and side-to-side movements.

Another form of dance commonly found at ceilis is step dancing. Differing slightly from the common ceili set dances, step dancing is more ornate, fast-footed and for the highly skilled. This style was made popular by shows like Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Many ceilis include step dancing performances by local dance schools.

You should know a few things before you go to your first ceili:

  • A full night of ceili dancing will cost you $5-$10 (normally as a community fundraiser).
  • Ceili crowds are some of the most welcoming people you’ll meet and they’ll be happy to teach you the steps.
  • Remember: there are no cultural or dance prerequisites, only the willingness to learn!

For ceili event listings, check the An Cuman Irish Association of Nova Scotia website, The Coast Events page and the Province of Nova Scotia’s Festival and Events webpage.

Photos taken by Stephen Cushing and Feis Nova Scotia.