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Roscommon Lancers - Irish set

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Roscommon Lancers - Irish set

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Chris J. Brady writes: How about the Roscommon Lancers - with an embellished 'rant' step termed 'battering' in Ireland. Wonderful stuff. There are nine figures (aka square dances) in the Roscommon Lancers and with no caller in sight. There's no need for a caller when everyone knows the set and there are no wishes to change any of the movements.

Whilst some dances of less commonly known Irish sets are 'called' now-a-days in the old days - early 1800s / 1900s the dances were not called. Folks only knew the dances from their locality - they didn't need a caller. They only danced THEIR sets. There were variations of the sets from one locality to the next - and preserving these is a challenge today, sadly the styles are starting to homogenise. The need for a prompt caller today is that so many dancers try to learn so many different sets in so many subtlety different regional styles.

Now-a-days battering to all and everything in Riverdance-style with metal taps on the shoes - seems to be the norm - even in quiet unbattered sets like the Clare Lancers.

It has been said that the Irish set dancing at Camden Irish Centre in London is more traditional than that in Ireland itself - the main supporters and promoters are English 'refugees' from English country dancing at Cecil Sharp House!

The sets are derived from the formal quadrilles of the mid-1800s that were danced during the season at Dublin Castle. They were taken out to the villages and towns by itinerant dancing masters where they were enjoyed both at the big houses - local dancers and musicians being recruited for a big social event (ref: The Irish RM by Somerville & Ross), and at the cross-roads of roads and tracks connecting various communities (hence cross roads dancing). In the villages they matured by the folk process into their different regional / parish variations which have - luckily - existed right up to this time in most areas.

It is often opined that during the 'occupation' that the British forbade the Irish to make music and dance. But the reverse is actually true - both flourished right up to the 1930s. It was the Catholic Church that attempted to control all of this apparent fornication with the devil. There are parallels with the 'ban' on dancing and music making in Appalachian - hence the evolution of the running sets? But the Irish - in usual rebellious fashion - carried on without the local priest's ken.

Sadly what nearly killed the music and dancing was the new Irish Government in the 1930s legislating that all such entertainment could only take place in specially and expensively licenced village halls. And then the sets were deemed to be English / British and that only newly composed 'Irish' dances such as what are now termed 'ceili' dances could be performed. The garda (police) were frequently used to break up dances and music making in private houses and at cross-roads. Again all of this was countered by the rebellious nature of the Irish who were adept at hiding their merry making from the authorities. And so the sets survived - just - to be collected and enjoyed by thousands today.

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There are parallels with the Irish Sets and the English sets - that is the 'folk' / community dances derived from the more formal quadrilles.

The rant step is merely a stylised stationary polka step. There are many versions - with and without shuffles. There are many English and Scottish sets and steps - mostly all forgotten, and never danced now-a-days.

The Roscomon Lancers' set and step(s) are a remarkable complete survival of a traditional Irish set.

You might have found my text on the web about stepping in Dorset 4-hand reel. There are local steps to that NOT the N.E. 'rant' step that is now ubiquitously used for stepping in English ceilidhs.

So the travelling dancing masters have a lot to answer for, and I believe that there is more similarities between Irish and English (and Scottish) community dances than people will admit to.

Sadly in England and Scotland (and Wales) the various revivalist dance societies (EFDSS, RSCDS, WFDS) homogenised their respective styles and largely removed all stepping.

The Irish kept their regional styles of dancing the sets and steps - which are perpetuated today. Well up to a point. Unfortunately as in the case of the Clare Lancers - a silent set - the youngsters wearing taps and with the exuberance akin to MUC dancers in the US - now batter to all and sundry.

But one important factor in the revival of the Irish sets is the inter-Parish dance competitions. These too kept the dances alive. Some local dances were changed in order to add embellishments in order to better impress the judges. These are all now deemed to be part of the tradition.

But I'm reminded of James Kean - one of our sadly long gone informants - from Labasheeda. He told us a story of the time when the Labasheeda community entered a set dance competition may be in Ennis or Limerick. They practiced up one of their traditional sets maybe this was the Paris Set or the Labasheeda Set. Anyway they performed this with the traditional battering, and were promptly disqalified for not doing the dance according to prescribed way. James was never involved with competitions again.

I think that many sets that are even now being collected from living memory (half-living memory in some cases) from the old folks may be competition sets from way back (1920s?).

Indeed I think that the Roscommon Set may be just such a competition set. The nine figures are a remarkable survival in completeness. The details of the figures has survived along with the stepping. here is no sign of any folk process of half-remembered details    

Compare this with the Clare Caledonians which in square or circular form hardly resembles the quadrille of the same name.

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2010

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