On Location: Yer man with the twinkling feet is no sissy, to be sure

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The Independent Culture
SUDDENLY IN the Nineties it became chic to be Irish. Not real Irish but fake, cuddly Irish. Now pubs are painted yellow and re-opened as "O'Doherty's", with a hurling-stick in the window, so you expect to find potatoes around the floor and a Blarney stone by the fruit machine. And adverts for English/Irish beer give the impression that if you sit in any bar in Dublin, within minutes a horse will gallop past the window. There's the cuddly Corrs, with their soap-advert complexions and Smarties- advert songs. And Dublin is a favourite destination for posh stag nights. Businessmen probably open their board meetings now by saying "The last fiscal period here at GPC Holdings, has been excellent craic. Now yer man will report on sales in the Midlands area, so he will."

But nothing has been as fake cuddly Irish as the appalling Riverdance. So I was delighted to learn that the class I'd arrived at was adamant it practised set-dancing, distinct from Riverdance dancing. The Michael Flatley stuff, they told me, has its origins in the Catholic Church, who insisted that dancers' hands should remain still and straight. Otherwise they might wander into forbidden areas, and before you know it, there's another soul destined for an eternity of boiling lava.

God must shake his head in disbelief at the Catholic Church, thinking: "You idiots. That's what I gave you those bits FOR." Though hands-by-your- side was probably a compromise. I expect the priests' original plan was for your partner to be in a separate room, while you were handcuffed to a piano.

I was also surprised that half of the class was Irish, the teacher especially so. He was at his most Irish as he announced each dance. "This is a round- the-house-home-tops-exchange-partner-twirl-half-house side-step-reverse- half-home", he'd recite. All at breakneck speed in a rural Irish accent, sounding like that brilliant bloke they used to have on C4, commentating on horse-racing.

Halfway through the instructions, as the words blurred into one, I wondered whether he'd mixed them up with something from the Olympics, and would finish with "back-flip-semi-twist-two-kilometre-coxless pairs".

I got in position, the tape of violins and whistles began, and there was a terrifying 20-second pause where you just bob up and down, which must be similar to the moments before leaping from a plane on a parachute jump. "Just follow me," said my partner, but how can you follow someone when you're supposed to be doing it at the same time? So I went right instead of left, half-housed when it was tops-at-home, kicked everyone's ankles, felt like a giggling idiot on The Generation Game and looked like Corporal Jones.

"It's simple," said Catherine. "It's just one-two-three." But one-two- three can be simple or difficult, depending on what you're doing. I bet the Pharaohs used to say "Just one-two-three and there's your pyramid."

But no matter how hopeless you were, the set-dancing class would be wonderfully, generously patient. Folk-dancing of any sort, it seems, makes no sense unless it's extremely amicable. Because it's hard to be resentful with a group who've all held hands in the middle, while galloping round in a star shape.

Set-dancing is an Irish version of the folk-dancing which developed in most Western rural communities, and depends on a collective effort. In a society which relies on a small number of people helping each other, it would make no sense for its weekly entertainment to involve everyone dancing separately. So it's completely unpretentious. Unlike disco or Riverdance dancing, there's nothing to be gained in trying to look flash, as it only works as a group effort. If someone did a breakdance spin on their head, they'd ruin the whole thing, as that bit was supposed to be a skip into the middle. It also means that, even as a beginner, when you accidentally get something right you feel like yelling "yeehaaah".

Each of the dances is named after the area of Ireland it originated from; Connemara, Mayo, Sligo and so on. Which adds to the rural charm, especially when taking place above a pub in London. What would be the London equivalent? Maybe a fighting class, with a teacher announcing: "Today we're going to start with a Peckham," and the students sighing, "Ah, punch in the stomach, half-circle left, kick in the nuts, one-two-three".

Another major difference from disco dancing is, because it relies on remembering which bit comes next, it's impossible to do it drunk. At first I was a little dismayed when I offered to buy John a drink and he asked for a Lucozade. It puzzled me why I was the only one drinking Guinness - until we hurtled round during a Crossmaglen, in a high speed ring-a- ring-o'-roses that didn't contain the relief of falling down, and the Guinness swirled around inside me, only kept in by centrifugal force.

But English people of my generation do have one psychological hurdle to cross in order to appreciate this pastime; the memory of country dancing at school. At one point during the session, I suffered a traumatic flashback when there weren't enough dancers to complete the Donegal, so I ended up on my own without a partner. Suddenly all I could see was dozens of nine-year-olds in plimsolls chortling, while a teacher clapped her hands and bellowed "Come along girls, surely SOMEONE doesn't mind dancing with Mark". But the fears were unfounded. Partly because of its collective nature, and partly as a result of its origins, set-dancing attracts the most unpretentious, charitable and affable of followers.

So there was no need to worry about one of my mates seeing me through the window, and telling all the hard kids that Steely was a sissy. Especially as amongst the post-women, office workers and teachers were several builders. I'll never feel quite the same again when I walk past a building-site, now I know that the hairy-armed hulk slinging bags of concrete down a ladder might, in a couple of hours, be going one-two-three hop, twirl, one-two-three skip.