Almost 200 people packed Salem’s VFW Hall in early March, just a few days before St. Patrick’s Day. They ranged from young children to retirees and wore everything from t-shirts and jeans to twirling skirts and kilts.
At the front of the room, a band called Story Road energized the crowd with Celtic music. At first, people watched the concert from their seats — although they weren’t exactly sitting still. Children bobbed up and down, some adults stomped in rhythm to the music, while others, impatient to start dancing, drew dainty dance steps on the floor in front of their chairs.
Soon they got their turn. The moment the concert ended, everyone grabbed a chair and pushed it to the edge of the room. They joined hands, dancers got in line and the music began again. It was time for the céilí (pronounced KAY-lee).
This Irish tradition in Salem is only seven years old, but it dates back centuries in Ireland. A connection to that long history — and the tradition of music and dance as manifestations of Irish identity — are part of what makes the céilís so popular.
That, and they’re just plain fun.
“I love the music,” said Salem resident Ginny Beilstein, a frequent céilí participant. “How can you not have happy feet?”
Identity through Dance
“As soon as I opened the store in Salem, people would stop in and ask if I knew where they could find an Irish dance class for adults,” said the owner, Susan Spencer, who has Irish ancestry and now leads tours to Ireland. “I didn’t know of any, so I rented a hall, found a teacher and put out the word. Nine people showed up for the first class.”
Interest in the dance lessons and céilís grew quickly. The organization and planning were soon too much work for one person, so a small group of volunteers organized Céilí of the Valley. The nonprofit hosts the céilís once a month, classes every Tuesday night, and occasional demonstrations around the Willamette Valley.
“Our mission is to introduce people to the Irish culture through music and dance,” said Ann McBride, an active member of the organization and host of the Celtic Music Hour on KMUZ 88.5 FM. “The céilís are wonderful for families, and children are always welcome. Several children come fairly regularly, as well as people in their 60s and older.”
Dances have been integral to Irish culture since before there was a written history, said Elisa Chandler, who teaches the Tuesday classes. Many of the dances were passed down orally for generations.
In the late 17th century, the English passed laws suppressing Irish cultural activities, including music and speaking the Irish language. Traditional music and dance, like céilís, had to be practiced in secret. After these laws were repealed in the early 19th century, céilís became popular as a way to establish a separate Irish identity.
Céilí dances are done in formations — lines or circles, for example. Some formations may have only two or three people, while others can include everyone in the room.
“The Bonfire Dance and Fairy Reel are two that fall into the second category and which are popular with our group,” Chandler said.
Another type of dance found at the local céilís is “set dancing,” similar to French quadrilles or American square dancing.
Many of the céilí dances originated in specific regions of Ireland — giving them geographic-oriented names like Antrim Square or Clare Lancers.
Gaining New Fans
In addition to dancing at the March céilí, participants had the opportunity to glimpse and hear some traditional Irish instruments played by Story Road.
Besides a fiddle, guitar and vocalist, the band featured a bodhrán (pronounced BOW-ran), a hand-held Irish drum; and an uilleann (pronounced IL-an) pipe, a traditional Irish bagpipe that is sometimes called an “elbow pipe” because it is squeezed under the arm rather than blown.
Among the dancers was Carl Beilstein, who admitted he was reluctant to attend his first céilí several years ago.
“I had to have my arm twisted the first time,” he said, “but we were looking for something to help our son, who has some disabilities, be more active. I fell in love with the music and the motion. … And another plus: I wasn’t dancing with myself like I had for most of my life.”
He had so much fun that he volunteered with Céilí of the Valley and now serves as its president. He has also choreographed two dances for the group.
“When I’m dancing and enjoying the tunes, I am in heaven,” he said.
Many of the dancers, like area resident Shelly Garrett, are also attracted to the céilís as a way to connect with their own heritage — which makes sense considering the events’ long and storied history.
“I love my Irish heritage,” Garrett said, “and the céilís make my heart happy.”
Want to attend a céilí?
Céilí of the Valley hosts céilís on the second Friday of every month at Salem’s VFW Hall, 630 Hood St. NE. The cost is $10 for general admission, $8 for members and $5 for students, with a $30 maximum per family.
Dance classes are held at the VFW Hall on Tuesdays, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Cost is $5 per class. A schedule and information about membership are on the organization’s website: www.ceiliofthevalley.org.
Melaney Moisan has lived in Salem for more than 30 years. She can only be sure of one Irish connection in her past: she played Sweet Molly Malone in her third-grade May Day pageant.
Diane Beals is a professional photographer who ran a portrait studio downtown before deciding to take her photography skills onto the streets, documenting people’s everyday lives.