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Step by step: Where to learn Irish dancing in Belgium
Living in a new country can often be the trigger for expats to realise how much they love their own culture and how they took it for granted when they were living at home. In Brussels, the city that has become the melting pot of the cultures of Europe, you don’t have to look far to find your country’s national food, theatre, music and dance somewhere at some time of the year.
The Irish Club of Brussels, and most of the Irish diaspora, hold their national identity close to their hearts and this is why every Thursday evening at 18.30 at 1 Rue Montoyer in the EU district, you can participate in one of Ireland’s most loved traditions, set dancing.
Set dancing is a traditional folk dance from Ireland that involves groups of four or eight dancers dancing one of the hundreds of sets danced throughout Ireland.
"The last time I counted there were four full books published of just the sets, each city, each town, each little village in Ireland has its own set and they’re still being written today," says Ronan Healy, "set caller" for the Irish Club of Brussels.
"What I like about set dancing is that it is not a dead dance that we’re trying to keep alive, we don’t get dressed up in costumes and dance for the tourists, it’s a worldwide phenomenon with the Irish diaspora and people from abroad who really love the joy of dancing."
Anne Kirwin, a member of the Irish Club of Brussels and one of the organisers of the set dancing activities in Brussels, says that while she loved set dancing and Irish music it wasn’t until she became an emigrant that she became interested in taking up set dancing.
"I’ve been living in Brussels since 1992 and I’ve been set dancing for the last 10 years. I love the music, I love the company, it’s a little bit of Ireland in Brussels and I think I just got the bug," she says.
Irish set dancing is not just for the Irish in Brussels. At a recent set-dancing workshop in the Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe, Kelly Ryan from Newfoundland in Canada said she liked set dancing "because the music and the accent is a little taste of home – it brings me back when I need a good fix".
Another work shop participant, Carine Pliez from Hainaut province, who also teaches set dancing in Belgium, says she likes set dancing because "it is a way to meet people, to get some entertainment, to do some sport, but really to meet people from all over the world".
You don’t have to have any experience to join the set dancing group in Brussels, but you won’t learn everything in one night - you need to attend regularly to learn an actual set. "About half the dancers are Irish and the other half are from elsewhere," says Healy. "It’s very much an after work social occasion on a Thursday evening and we have a drink afterwards in the bar."
To anyone interested in learning set dancing, Healy says: "You don’t have to be an expert dancer, it’s folk dancing, it’s for the people and of the people… it’s 1,2,3 and survive, that’s what I always say."
Meanwhile, Irish step dancing has been an integral part of Irish culture for centuries being a mix of styles from various cultures that visited Ireland or ruled Ireland over the decades. However, it was Riverdance, the interval act during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, that revived the interest in Irish step dancing, especially in Europe.
Outside of Ireland, Irish step dancing has always been popular among the Irish communities all over the world especially in the United States, the home of Michael Flatley and Gene Butler, the principal dancers of the Riverdance show, but since 1994, Irish step dancing has grown in popularity.
It was in 2000 that Belgian ballet dancer Nathan Baillieul became interested in Irish step dancing and began to train rigorously to perfect his talent. He was the first Belgian to take part in the World Championships in Irish Step Dancing 2011 in Dublin, and finishing in 21st place, taking the title of best European. Eventually, Baillieul became a qualified teacher of Irish dancing and opened the Eireann Dance Academy in Brussels and Antwerp.
The Eireann Dance Academy offers classes to children and teenagers from five to 16. "In Brussels, we have about 20 kids, maybe a bit more - both boys and girls - most are expats but we also have other nationalities," he says.
Ten-year-old Melina Polsen is half-Irish and half-Danish: "I been living in Brussels all my life and I do Irish dancing because it is great exercise, you make great friends along the way, you have incredible experiences which I will never forget and I love it so much."
Similarly, 13-year-old dance student Ella Walsh loves Irish dancing because she likes "the rhythm, the beat and the music of it" and she is happy that she gets a chance to do something that is part of her Irish heritage here in Belgium.
Dancers from the Eireann Dance Academy were also part of a group called Irish Fusion which reached the semi-finals of the show Belgium’s got Talent in 2015. "It was a brilliant experience, especially for the kids," says Bailleul. "You saw how much the kids improved, from being on stage in front of the big audience… and it’s a different style of dance really."
Champion Irish step dancers come from all over the world and 10-year-old Malachy Gardener, an American living in Brussels and a member of the Eireann Dance Academy, has recently qualified for the World Championships that will take place in Dublin in 2017. “It is going to be a big honour to compete in Ireland," she says. "I find dancing a very energetic sport, it really brings out who I am and I have a huge passion for it."
The Eireann Dance Academy holds classes every Wednesday in Dance Studio Calevoet, rue Edige Van Ophem, Uccle.