I've been calling ceilidhs for events semi-regularly now for the past 4 years. I'm a big fan of calling ceilidhs, especially with a band with a great set of tunes. At it's best there's a good collection of dancers, the room is full of people smiling and laughing and I'm feel like I'm doing barely any work.

Other times, it can go a bit wrong. Nobody wants to dance, I've spent most of my patter trying to deal with the fact that nobody wants to dance and I start to feel incredibly guilty that I'm getting paid to stand and watch a ceilidh band play some tunes1. So here's a couple of things that I've spotted as part of doing this that should make sure that'll make it a success.

Venue Setup

How you've organised your venue will make or break your ceilidh, but probably not in the way you think. Up to a point, I can deal with a small dance floor. Obviously, my life is made a lot easier if you've considered where people are going to be dancing and made sure there's room but I've called dances in quite small places quite successfully.

No, the thing that's killed a lot of ceilidhs is that the ceilidh isn't set up as the main feature for the event. If your ceilidh is off in a small side room2 then the lifeblood of the ceilidh dancing - the dancers - aren't going to be there. For most events (especially birthdays) they aren't going to come across to hear the music.

It can also be detrimental to not have the ceilidh as the main focal point for the room. If the dancing is off to the side, then most people will just sit on their side and just watch the dancing. It's fine for some people to do that, but if everyone does it's quite difficult to get it going!

Setting expectations

There's a notable difference for me between wedding gigs and birthday gigs3. I've rarely had issues getting dancers at weddings but I can sometimes struggle for birthdays which I think revolves around how the event is set up in the attendees' heads.

Weddings have invitations that can be all sorts of glossy and talk about what's happening in the evening. I've not actually seen any invites for a wedding ceilidh I've called but they'll probably mention that there's going to be a barn dance or ceilidh or at least some warning that dancing is going to happen. For birthday parties, it's probably not mentioned as much.

There's also a phrase that sets a couple of alarm bells ringing in my head when I speak to the organiser on the night, which is "I've never done a ceilidh before, and neither has anyone else here". In which case, who decided to have a ceilidh and why!? Normally people will at least have been to a ceilidh at a wedding and wanted one for a party because they enjoyed it4!

Getting dancers

This is a strange one, but all it takes for the ceilidh to get started is for 2 couples to dance. After that, there's usually enough momentum for more people to join. As long as there's always a couple of dancers then momentum and a strange sense of social pressure means that we'll get a full set in no time.

Of course, this doesn't always happen naturally because people are nervous or don't really want to be first. In which case, if you're the organiser it really helps if you can get people to dance as well. Behind the microphone, I can't do anything. As the person who (in theory) knows everyone there you can drum people up quite quickly.

Most of what I'll be trying to do is keep enough people swapping in and out of the dancing so people can have the chance to cool down and have a quick drink - that's what most of my patter will be doing in between dances. If it seems like everyone is exhausted, I'll ask the band to do a tune set but I try to avoid that if possible because it means I'm not working when I should be!

Band perspective

Remember that ceilidh bands and callers got into this because we enjoy doing what we do and we especially enjoy a ceilidh that goes well. Hopefully these are helpful ways to make sure if you want a ceilidh it'll go well. And if you ever need a caller, drop me a line.

  1. That's not always a bad thing. A lot of the bands I've worked with are really good fun to watch. Looking for a band for an event? I can recommend The Discussion Topic, The Outlandish Knights and pretty much all iterations of The Ship Band ↩︎

  2. Most importantly, if it's separate from the bar which has seating in it ↩︎

  3. It's probably that people want the chance to unwind after being "switched on" all day for the bride and groom. ↩︎

  4. There's a crucial difference between that and "Not everyone's done a ceilidh before". The first means that nobody have any idea what's going to happen or why. The second means that at least people are aware of what's about to happen which is much easier to work with. ↩︎