Céilí: Celebrating Old Country Style

A “céilí” or “céilidh” is an Irish or Scottish social dance. Avin Honecker Sherman, fitness and dance instructor, explains, “It tends to refer to a dance like we refer to a square dance, with formations. Some dances tend to be in long lines. Many dances are influenced by Irish dancing. It’s like a barn dance.” 

In Rochester, céilí dances are held twice a year, around St. Patrick’s Day and during Irish Fest on Labor Day weekend. Put on your dancing shoes because there will be a pre-St. Patrick’s Day céilí hosted by Irish Fest on Friday, March 10 at the Bleu Duck Kitchen in downtown Rochester.


In céilí dances, a group of people dances together, and each dance is led by a caller. Sherman, who is often a caller for céilí dances in the area, says, “A caller teaches you and tells you what to do. With céilí dancing, you can walk this dance or do an Irish step. You can count 1-2-3, and you hop. It’s similar in different dance styles.”

Sherman has been céilí dancing for about 10 years, American clog dancing, which has some Irish influence, for many years and has been Irish dancing for about 20 years. Sherman also teaches a variety of fitness classes at the Rochester Area Family Y and several types of dance classes in southeast Minnesota, including Irish dancing, ballet, jazz, tap and Maypole dancing. 

Beth Ely, an Irish Fest board member, describing a céilí, says, “It’s like an Irish square dance, with a caller. Groups of people are in lines. A person calls it out, and the band plays. It’s simple and you count, like 1-2-3. Sometimes the nature of the dance is progressive, so you do the dance over and over. It keeps you busy, and there’s a little variety.” 

Ely works at Mayo Clinic in IT, and she is also a yoga instructor at Anytime Fitness in Byron. Ely first tried Irish dancing about four
years ago by watching Irish dancing DVDs from the library. She has been involved with Irish Fest for about six years and has attended many céilí dances.

Laura McBride Ehling says, “I call it social dancing. You can be told what to do. You don’t have to go with a partner, and you keep getting mixed up with everyone. You dance with all different partners and all different ages. It’s very intergenerational.” 

Ehling is an elementary school librarian who first tried céilí dancing about six years ago at Irish Fest. She’s also brought her three children to some céilí dances. She has volunteered at Irish Fest in Rochester every year with her family since it began.


Sherman notes, “(Céilí is) lots of fun. You have a good time and laugh, even if you don’t know the steps. Céilís are repetitive, so you can practice.”

“It’s fun, and it makes you laugh. All ages like it,” says Ely. “It’s just fun, and it gets people up and talking and moving.” Ely has attended many céilí dances with her three children. At the first céilí she brought them to, Ely tells how different people asked each of them to dance and took them out on the floor. “Someone asked one to dance and then the others. At the end, they didn’t want to go home. All three I couldn’t get off the (dance) floor!” 

About céilí dancing, Ehling explains, “I feel like it’s something every ‘body’ could do. Anyone can do it, everyone is welcome and the young and the old can do it together. It caters to all abilities.” Ehling adds, “Sometimes the stepping is kind of fast but as long as you land on the beat, it’s fine.” 

And it is good for your health. “Dance is one of the best things for your brain. It keeps you young. You have to remember the steps,” explains Sherman. Ehling agrees, “It’s good for your body and mind.”

At céilís, Ely says, “You see lots of smiles and people letting down their guard in a different way. It’s about being together and hearing the live music by the bands that play traditional Irish (Gaelic) music. It keeps tradition alive.”

Ehling describes the social part of a céilí dance, saying, “You get to dance with other people. You dance and leave. I like that, the social aspect. It’s a safe environment.” She says, “It’s a really wonderful way for strangers to make connections. It’s a way to show the love and fellowship that we can share through dance.”


The next céilí dance will be a pre-St. Patrick’s Day céilí hosted by Irish Fest. It will be on Friday, March 10 at 6 p.m. at the Bleu Duck Kitchen, located at 14 4th Street SW in Rochester, Minnesota. The RavensFire Band will be playing traditional Irish music. Stew and soda bread will be available at the event. Tickets are $20 for a single ticket or $50 for a family.

Irish Fest, held each year over Labor Day weekend in Rochester, also offers a céilí dance, along with many other activities. To find out about upcoming Irish Fest events, or to learn more about how to volunteer or support Irish Fest, check out the Irish Fest Facebook page or visit irishfestmn.org.

Also, the Celtic Junction in St. Paul, an arts and cultural center, occasionally has céilí dances, as well as concerts, dance classes and other Irish and Scottish activities. Learn more at thecelticjunction.com.

Alison Rentschler is a writer and editor living in Rochester.