Ceilidhs, an introduction

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The true origins of the ceilidh are not clear…

… other than they were first known to have taken place in both Ireland and Scotland. We do however know that the word comes from the Irish céle meaning “companion”, later becoming both céilidhe and ceilidh. Interestingly, a ceilidh did not originally involve dancing, but was more of an occasion where people would share stories, recite poems and sing songs together as part of a social gathering.

In more recent times the dancing has become the main focal point as the dancers are the centre of attention rather than the musicians on stage. There is of course no compulsion to dance and that is the beauty of the event in that the music is never too loud providing entertainment for all allowing people to sit and chat, as in those early days, or dance if they so wish.

The typical Ceilidh band usually has four or five members playing fiddle, guitar and drums and then some include accordions and flute depending on where they are playing and the requirements of the audience. To assist with the dancing routines there will nearly always be a ‘caller’. They will instruct the dancers on the dance routine both before and during the tune, and the success of ceilidh dances will depend greatly on the experience and knowledge held by these callers, together with their working relationship with the musicians. Good callers will ensure an organised dance takes place with all participants, on the stage and on the dance floor, enjoying the entertainment alike.

Ceilidh dances can be lively affairs …

… with dancers usually dancing as couples in a ring, or as a set with four couples facing one another in a square shape. Typically, couples exchange places and personnel as the music, and dance instructions dictate. In Scotland the latter often takes the form of progressive changes as the lady moves on to the next gentleman in the ring, where the next segment of the dance is performed.

It is not uncommon for a Ceilidh band to play for several hours during an evening with several breaks, allowing both the musicians and dancers to enjoy the whole social event. In fact modern day ceilidhs sometimes take place in conjunction with a disco if, for example it is for a wedding reception. That way entertainment is provided for a varied audience, for both young and old, as children are very welcome to join in, but they must be old enough to know left from right and not mind meeting other people in the dances. It can be dangerous for very small children to be allowed to run around during dances or to be carried by a dancer. If there are a lot of children the caller will organise a special dance for them.

So, what time should the ceilidh start and finish? If it is a wedding celebration there needs to be a break after the wedding breakfast to allow the band to set up their equipment and for the guests to mingle. Eight o’clock is popular although quite often the speeches tend to overrun. We are very happy to perform for the couples first dance together with a ‘smoochie tune’ or if you prefer bring along your own CD.

If you want to have a break for a buffet during the evening, depending on the number of guests, allow around an hour, and don’t forget that musicians are always hungry! By eleven or eleven thirty most people will be tired after a long day and the Bride and Groom will have left for their honeymoon. If there is a disco, now is the time!

Whilst such privately organised ceilidhs are quite common, public ones are often found being held on a regular weekly or monthly basis, where they are particularly popular.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.ceilidh.org.uk/an-introduction-to-ceilidhs/