I recently registered to take my Irish dance teaching examination. Without going too deeply into it, I will need to have 30 traditional group ceili dances memorized, word for word, figure by figure.
Which is exactly why I recently made connections at the Irish American Club of Maine. Not only does the club offer ceili workshops at State Street's Maine Irish Heritage Center, but they also host monthly Sunday ceilis in the upstairs of Portland's own Ri-Ra, with music provided by the appropriately named Portland Ceili Band.
Like most Irish music sessions, of which Portland boasts at least two each week, ceilis are generally both unrehearsed and unpredictable. As the traditional dances fall subject to participant-sensitive restructuring, the music is shaped entirely by the mood of the room. If the dancers get tired, the musicians stop playing. If overzealous participants spin their partners for eight bars too long, the band adjust accordingly. If there is an interest in dancing an unplanned number, the group will do a quick low-volume rehearsal to verify that they know the tune, and then strike it up accordingly.
While the band is sometimes as fluid as the dance lineup, this past week featured Sharon Pyne, Chris Hall, and Dave and Christine Colson. Audience participation is a common occurrence, on actual instruments like the spoons, and in spirited shouting, clapping, and stomping along in rhythm.
Mary and Brendan McVeigh, who serve as intermediaries between the dancers and musicians, organize the afternoons. While the Irish American Club's Web site encourages people to come and watch, I have never witnessed anyone come up with an excuse for not dancing (at least not that Brendan bothered to believe).
A friend recently asked the difference between Irish step-dancing, and attending an Irish ceili.
"Well," I answered. "Step dancing is more like Riverdance. And ceili dancing is more like . . . that scene in Titanic."
A cheesy comparison, for sure. But with the crowd sweating, the Guinness flowing, and hoots and hollers drawing curious diners up from the restaurant below, a traditional afternoon ceili can quickly turn into a rousing party complete with third-class shenanigans.
The Portland Ceili Band will play their next afternoon dance after the Saint Patrick's Day Parade, Sunday, March 14. As always, audience participation is encouraged.