As notes make a tune, dancers create a community

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After a hiatus of a dozen years, I find myself once again holding a microphone and encouraging a collection of people to experience Irish ceili dancing. Retired couples with their grandchildren, college students, and schoolteachers with a free Saturday afternoon line up behind me. Their eyes reflect anxiety about their folk dancing capabilities, but they are eager to try. I'm sure a few of them have visions of "Riverdance" drifting in their minds.

"Step, step together, step," I drone as I demonstrate what ceili dancers call "threes."

The students bump into each other and laugh as we move sideways with the traveling step known as "sevens." They struggle to remember when to lead with their left foot, and when to lead with their right. Or which foot steps in back? Soon their limbs begin to limber up as they concentrate.

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"This is not a competition," I remind them, "but a place for cooperation. Pretend you are dancing in my kitchen."

Most of the students have never tried Irish folk dancing, so I help place them in contra lines. They shuffle their feet and examine their positions as inactive or active couples.

"Hands four from the top," I call, and encourage the top four to hold hands. "This dance is called 'The Siege at Carrick.' "

People who have not met before smile at each other, and they joke about their struggles with the footwork. Slowly I lead everyone through the figures and remind them which type of traveling step to use for each section of the dance. The band plays a few riffs as they search for the correct jig that will match the mood of the dance.

"Listen to the rhythm," I say as the musicians play once through the "A" part of the tune.

A few of the older dancers sway while the younger set bounces on the balls of their feet. When the band lights into the first measure of the jig, the dancers jerk forward. Determination and trepidation furrow their faces as they try to marry the movement of their feet to the rest of their bodies.

We stop, patch up a problem, and start over. I move between the couples, counting the beats and gently guiding a few lost souls back into the flow of the figures. We repeat the dance until most of the dancers have mastered the movements. Faintly, the sound of their feet has added a drumbeat that flows beneath the sound of fiddles, tin whistle, and accordion. For me, this is one of the hidden pleasures of Irish dancing: when the dancers' feet mimic the voice of the bohran and enter into the percussion of the band.

During a quick break, the students pull off sweaters and reach for water bottles. Two burly young men who look as though they belong on a football field ask me to review the ceili swing.

"Shake left hands," I tell them, and stick out my paw. "Relax. Pivot on the ball of your right foot, lean back, and pretend you are a child swinging a friend on the playground." Smiling at their girlfriends, the stiffness leaves the men's shoulders as they feel the magic of centrifugal force.

This gathering of folk moves into "The Siege of Ennis" with refreshed enthusiasm. By now they know which of them needs more assistance, and they watch over each other. Their feet have found the pulse of the reel. Confidence seeps into their expressions as they glide back and forth with "sevens" and reach out to their opposites for a long swing.

Once again, traditional dance had transformed a collection of strangers into an afternoon community. Instead of sounding like sporadic notes spilled from a flute or fiddle warming up, they had become a tune, united by experience and cooperation. I watch the blur of bodies and listen to the drumming of their feet as it mingles with the music kept alive at the crossroads of cultures.

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