A PEI tradition: a night at the ceilidh

We’d been at the ceilidh for about 10 minutes when I leaned forward and whispered in Beloved’s ear: “Okay, so maybe not ALL my ideas are good ones.”

A ceilidh, pronounced “kay-lee”, is part dance, part social gathering, part kitchen party, and PEI takes its ceilidhs seriously. On any given night during the tourist season, you can choose from up to seven or eight different ceilidhs on different parts the Island. Being part Scottish myself, and loving east coast music, attending a ceilidh was high on my list of things I wanted to do during our time on PEI.

I was expecting an evening of sing-along Irish folk music, maybe a little Stan Rogers, a sea shanty or two, some fiddle music and a grand call of “Sociable!” In other words, what we’d come to love at a night out at a pub like the Heart and Crown. Maybe there are ceilidhs like that on the Island, but the one we stumbled into was an entirely different kettle of lobster.

While I’d understood them to be family affairs, I asked anyway at the table set up at the entrance whether kids were welcome. The lovely white-haired ladies at the table clucked and cooed over the boys and said there would be no charge for Simon nor Lucas, but they did charge the adult’s admission fee of $4 for tall Tristan. We entered the darkened hall and I had my first inkling that maybe this wasn’t the show for tourists that I had anticipated. We had arrived just as the musicians were getting ready to play, and the hall was full enough that we had trouble finding folding chairs enough for all of us. I could spot maybe two other obvious tourist families (the hoodies and shorts were a dead giveaway), and the rest of the hall appeared to be filled with locals, not a one of them younger than 65. As we sat and waited for the music to start, discussions flowed around us about who was spotted speaking to whom and whose house needed a little paint on the porch and who was looking a little tired tonight and oh my goodness but did you see Debbie wearing that red blouse, she knows she can’t pull off red, what in tarnation was she thinking?

And then the music started. Well, it was mostly music. The fiddle made occasional and unfortunate screeches of a most unmusical nature. I like to think I have a fairly broad, if not eclectic, knowledge of many genres of music, but there was not a single song that I recognized. I can assure you that they were not something that Alan Doyle will be covering on Great Big Sea’s next album, of that I am sure. The best approximation I could offer would be early Pasty Cline mixed with the very whiniest type of “my tractor’s got a flat and my dog died and my wife ran off with my uncle Joe” western twang. After a few songs, new musicians would take the stage and clearly the evening was part dance and part talent show, 50 years after grade school ended.

And didn’t the dance floor just fill up with all those grey-haired locals? Couples danced, women without menfolk danced with each other, and each song they switched partners. Beloved nailed it when he called it a box social at the senior’s home. It was equal parts weird and delightful, and I couldn’t help smiling at how much everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Everyone except the boys, that is. While I can certainly appreciate the joy of the dancers on their social outing of the week, you can surely appreciate the torture that the evening wrought on their teenage souls. To their credit, they clapped politely after each song, but I could see plainly on their faces that they’d rather be trapped in the car through endless hours of New Brunswick highway than endure two hours of sitting through this. That’s the point at which I leaned over, laughing, and whispered in Beloved’s ear, “Okay, so maybe not ALL my ideas are good ones.” I think Lucas was actively sliding off his chair onto the floor as I said it.

I should mention here that I have serious dance anxiety. I have never enjoyed dancing. I’m naturally clumsy, and have no sense of rhythm whatsoever, and while I am incapable of ceding the lead to my partner I am not a strong enough dancer to lead. Beloved, on the other hand, is a wonderful dancer, which makes me feel even more clumsy and wooden and anxious. Watching the dancing couples filled me with joy, though, and I knew it was up to me to make the best of what I already thought was a rather delightful memory in the making. I asked Beloved to dance, and I managed not to break any of his toes in the process. More importantly, though, the boys watched us with interest. Another song passed, and when I asked Tristan if he would like to dance, he blushed and hesitated long enough that Simon jumped in for his opportunity. And then this happened.

At the ceilidh

At the ceilidh-2

At the ceilidh-3

And then Simon wanted to dance again, and Lucas wanted to dance again, and the other families were dancing, and some of the local men asked the young daughters of the tourist families to dance, and it was the sweetest, most charming evening. There was one fellow in particular who looked alarmingly like Mike Duffy to me, and he was having the time of his life. He jigged and stepped and kept his handkerchief in his pants pocket to wipe the sweat pouring from his bald brow as he danced with every lady in the room. He was adorable, and I harboured a deep fear that he’d make is way around to asking me to dance by the time the night was through – thankfully, for the sake of his toes and mine, he did not.

Just as we were getting ready to leave, the floor cleared for a square dance of sorts. It was really a bit of a disaster of couples, and every turn seemed to leave someone standing awkwardly out of place, and people bumped into each other and there were really only two or three folks who seemed to have any idea of their way through the chaos. One fellow in particular, I’m going to conservatively put him at 80 years old, seemed to know what he was doing and I so enjoyed watching him that when we happened to bump into him on our way out, I had to let him know how much I enjoyed watching him dance. His brogue was so thick that I could make out only about half of what he said, but the gist of it was, “I used to teach square dancing but there’s only so much one man can do. I can’t teach the whole bloody floor!” The disgust in his voice was priceless and worth the price of admission alone.

As we made our way out, several of the locals stopped us to wish us a good evening, or to tell us to stay. “We’re about to put out the lunch, you can’t leave now!” Lunch, at 9:30 pm, was being laid out as we left, and of course it comprised sandwiches on white bread, cut into triangles. While we didn’t stay for lunch, we were charmed by the kind words from the locals, complimenting the boys on the dancing and speaking to us as if we showed up every week and would be back the next week for more.

So while not all my ideas are good ones, some of them turn out for the best despite my intentions. Our ceilidh adventure was nothing close to what I’d expected, but I’m willing to bet the boys will never forget it.

Author: DaniGirl

Canadian. storyteller, photographer, mom to 3. Professional dilettante.

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