Thursday, February 6, 2020

Celtic Music: Playing for Irish Dancers

The Tunes

Ceili, or social dancing, uses mostly double jigs and reels, though polkas can be substituted for reels in some cases. A few dances use special tunes, and waltzes are often requested at a ceili.

Step dancing requires reels, hornpipes (slow and fast), single jigs, double jigs (slow and fast), slip jigs, and set dances.

For all tune categories except set dances, you should have multiple tunes arranged and practiced ahead of time so you can transition smoothly from one to the next, providing music for a long period­ as long as 10 minutes for some ceili dances or a "step about" with lots of dancers ­without stopping. Set dances are individual so there's no need to transition from one to another.

Number of Steps and Introduction

Most step-dance steps are 16 bars long (8 bars on each foot), so a typical two-part, 32-bar tune (A-B format) is enough for two steps. If a dancer plans to do six steps, that means you'll play a two-part tune three times (or play three two-part tunes once each, or some combination).

For both ceili dancers and step dancers, you should almost always play an 8-bar introduction (except on slip jigs) so the dancers can gauge the tempo and know when to start dancing. Usually you play an extra A part as the introduction. This way, the dancer can let 8 bars go by and the dance steps will still "sync" with the typical 16-bar phrases of the music. Slip jigs are an exception, since the length of the A part varies (often being 4 instead of 8 measures). Play slip jigs normally (without an extra A part), and the dancer will simply wait 8 bars and then start dancing.


Tempos for step dancing are precise; the range of acceptable tempos is very narrow for each dance, so it's important to start playing at the right tempo and maintain the tempo throughout. See the attached list of tempos.

Tempos for ceili dances typically range from 110 to 125 and don't need to be nearly as precise as tempos for step dancing. Experienced dancers usually like faster tempos, though the best tempo has to do more with the complexity of the steps in the dance and other factors, such as the dance floor, the temperature, and humidity (play slower when the dance surface is slippery, uneven, or hard­like concrete­or when the weather is hot and muggy).

Special Note About Hornpipes
Hornpipes are often written evenly with eighth notes, but they aren't played that way. Each combination of two eighth notes is swung so it's played as a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note. Sometimes you will find hornpipes written out as played.

Step Dancing

In general, younger and less-experienced dancers need faster tempos than older, more advanced dancers. The main reason is that more advanced dancers do more complex the steps and require more time to execute them. Although no expert has ever confirmed this for me, I suspect it also has to do with the fact that younger dancers, being smaller, take smaller steps. I have seen older and younger dancers both do the same steps, and the younger ones still need faster music than the older ones.

Adjust tempos, as needed. This chart will provide some ballpark figures to start with.

Music Type
Soft Shoe
(One step is usually 16 bars.)
Novice & Prizewinner
& Open
(Option = polkas for beginners only)
Light or Soft JigDouble Jigs120-122116-120112-116 (1)
Slip JigSlip Jigs120-122116-120112-116*
Single JigSingle Jigs120-122116-120112-116 (1)
Hard Shoe
Double, Treble, or Hard JigDouble Jigs (regu-lar or advanced)(Traditional) 92(Trad. or Adv.)
92 or 72-76
HornpipeHornpipes (regular or advanced)(Traditional)
76-82 (at two clicks/measure)
(Trad. or Adv.)
76-82 or 112-116
112-116* (at four clicks per measure)
Set Dances
(Hard Shoe)
Use music for the specified dance.Dancers set their own tempos on most set dances.
St. Patrick's DaySt. Patrick's Day9292 (1)92 (1)
BlackbirdBlackbird(1)70 minimum*70 minimum *
Job of JourneyworkJob of Journeywork(1)76 minimum*76 minimum*
Hurry the JugHurry the Jug(1)69 minimum*69 minimum*
Planxty DavisPlanxty Davis(1)40 minimum*40 minimum*
Planxty DruryPlanxty Drury(1)69 minimum*69 minimum*
* Tempo established by the Irish Dancing Commission and enforced during competition
(1) Not commonly danced in competition.