On Thursday we arrive at the festival grounds early and walk around, looking at vendors and food carts before heading to the dance pavilion. The dynamic here is different than at the weekly dance nights. Blurry confusion from the surrounding festival seeps into the open tent. Spectators watch from picnic tables around the dance floor. We’re still early, and for a while it’s just us, a couple out-of-towners, and a handful of the core Milwaukee group.
Some of us get up for the ceili dancing which precedes the set dances. We do Haymaker’s Jig and then a set dance I’ve never heard of before. I try to dance lead for a blond preteen girl. We mess up a lot but she’s laughing and loving it. She mirrors my spirit, a young dancer doing what she loves and who cares if she’s doing it wrong. Not her and not me.
It grows dark outside the tent and the sky above Lake Michigan is a stripe of blue beneath a cap of night. RiRa, the first band of the weekend, takes the stage. Sets form on the dance floor before anyone knows what the first dance will be. We walk onto the floor, joining the giddy assembly, and a set forms around us. We’re runners on a starting line, ready for the call to get ready. The set is Clare Plain. RiRa plays the opening notes, putting everyone on their marks—and we’re off.
We know this set and don’t need it called, calling it quietly to ourselves through the figures. It’s the first dance we learned, a whole year ago, and we’re dancing it now at the first set of the first night of Irish Fest.
We do great.
After a few more sets, just a few to open the weekend, everyone gathers at the tables to talk with old friends, getting reacquainted, meeting new ones. People come to us and shake hands and introduce themselves. They’re from Seattle and Toledo and Chicago and Ireland and Detroit. They are a gentle, polite kind of friendly, ready to dance, ready to sit and talk, ready to enjoy themselves. We talk until the floodlights dim around the tent. The sky is all black now, the lake invisible in the dark.
After the festival closes for the night we go to a friend’s house for a late potluck. We help set out food on the L-shaped patio: quiches, pulled pork tacos, quinoa salad, melons, pretzels. We pile meat on small tortillas and carry them dripping to folding chairs set along the patio.
More people come by and introduce themselves and we talk about beginners’ dancing and contra dancing and how we learned about set dancing.
Sometime after midnight, I’m getting cold and sleepy. Remembering that I have to drive home, I tap Jeremy’s arm and he’s ready too. Our host hugs us and walks us down the neat garden path around the side of the house, past soft glowing lamps in the foliage and flocks of plastic flamingos, to the gate where we say thank you and goodbye.
“Safe home,” he says. It’s a thing they say: safe home. I like it. It’s fitting to this group.
Safe home; tomorrow we dance.