(last updated Oct 25, 2007)

Like the GWCC T-Shirt: Set Dancing on the National Mall

By Paul O'Donnell

This year the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured the life and culture of the Mekong River, the state of Virginia, and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland presented displays for Bushmills (distillers), Harland & Wolff (shipbuilders), and Belleek (china). There were playing fields for soccer, rugby, and hurling. On various stages you could enjoy storytellers, informal sessions, and name band performances. The largest stage (Lagan Stage) was also the venue spotlighting traditional Northern Ireland dancing.

Centered on the 4th of July celebrations, the Festival ran from Jun 27-July 8. During the first half the dancing was from the Ulster-Scots tradition and in the capable hands of Lucy Mulholland and her band, Cuckoo's Nest. The second half focused on set dancing with Mary Fox from Belfast and her musicians, the All Set Ensemble. Mary was assisted by Patrick Mac Cionnaith whom she introduced as her first set dance instructor.

On July 4th Edie and I took the Metro downtown for the first set dance workshop, only to discover access to the Mall blocked by a parade. After we detoured around it and located a security checkpoint to finally access the Mall, we were at the far, opposite end from the Lagan Stage. At her first workshops Mary presented the first three figures of the Armagh Quadrilles and, since there was only one other couple of experienced dancers, Mary was happy to see us arrive in our Greater Washington Ceili Club T-shirts. Although four sets formed on the roomy dance floor there was also had a lot of turnover as people dropped in and out as they visited other parts of the Festival. The teaching pace was relaxed; a welcome aspect with the heat, humidity, and storm forecasts (the shade of the tent and the big fans also helped make it tolerable). Mary pulled dancers through the movements several times, gradually building up confidence in the many fledgling dancers. Clearly she was comfortable with the many younger dancers participating; likely a result of her experience with dance programs in the Belfast schools. By the end of the hour long session, those brave souls felt that same sense of accomplishment we've all experienced learning a new dance. After the workshop Edie and I lingered to hear Cathal McConnell and the group calling themselves Hidden Fermanagh. Fortunately though, we were already headed home before thunderstorms and tornado warnings came through to threaten disruption of the fireworks show.

I was back for more on the 5th, and some other GWCC dancers went to the Dance Party on Friday and Saturday evenings; again reporting a good turnout of interested dancers.

The final workshops were on Sunday July 8 and, while I missed the first, I was able to make the last one. Mary was continuing with the Fermanagh set and was teaching the 3rd figure (Steal the Ladies). Again, about four sets had assembled; however, I think that each set completely reset at least twice with all new dancers during the one hour session. I was solo this time and my second partner was a contra dancer who was keen to try the sets and paid close attention. Our opposite top couple had been with us from the start--until they were snatched to be the "experienced" couple in another set (even though they were first time dancers too). Impressively enough, this group of first-timers executed the complex ladies crossover movement as well as I have seen in some of our regular dance classes. Good work Mary and Patrick! The workshop ended with high-fives among the dancers, friends and family--the heat temporarily forgotten. Following the dancing was the great music of Craobh Rua who are well-known in the Washington, DC area from many previous visits. They benefited mightily from the heavy rains which helped to swell their audience to the tent's capacity. As the weather started to break I headed out skipping from tent to tent. I picked up a cold Harp, an Indonesian meat skewer, and a free bag of fresh Virginia peanuts as I worked my way down the Mall through the rest of the Festival.

The normal tourist traffic in the nation's capital, plus the increase due to the 4th of July celebrations, produced good crowds at the Festival on both weekdays and weekend. The bold had great fun in their first, brief encounter with Irish set dancing and with any luck, maybe some of these dance seeds will germinate later after they have returned home. In this slow summer, the Festival dance sessions with Mary and Patrick were a great diversion. It was great to watch them work and lovely to talk with them afterwards-great ambassadors for Northern Ireland. Thanks for this summer respite.