Over the past few years, country dancing has taken off across the country. Big dance venues such as the Hazel Tree in Mallow, the Shearwater in Ballinasloe, the McWilliam Park in Claremorris and the West County in Ennis would be packed to the door as dancers took to the floor for three hours of nonstop jiving, quick stepping and waltzing.
Declan Nerney, Jimmy Buckley, Lisa McHugh, Robert Mizell, Mike Denver, Nathan Carter, Michael English and Derek Ryan became household names, both on the dancehall and concert circuits. Dancers thought nothing of travelling long distances three nights a week to support their favourites.
But thanks to COVID-19, dancing is out for at least the next six months, so what can be done to bring back a bit of normality and fun to life?
We all know the rules and regulations and in the latest COVID Road Map plan, there’s no mention of dance halls
Joe Finnegan is the presenter of Shannonside Northern Sound’s flagship morning radio show and is also very well known in the music business. He worries that even if the regulations were relaxed, whether people be comfortable returning to dance halls or concert venues.
“We all know the rules and regulations and in the latest COVID Road Map plan, there’s no mention of dance halls. The guidance is that all nightclubs – and we presume dance halls fit in here – and casinos will be closed until 1 April. No exemptions.”
But even if the ban on dances was lifted in the morning, would the dancers return? Joe is not so sure.
“Take Pat and Mary, a couple in their fifties, who go dancing three nights a week. I doubt they will go back dancing until we have a vaccine and their safety is guaranteed.”
After dancing, bingo is very popular and I was in Ballyleague, Co Roscommon
So what can be done to make life a bit more sociable without putting anyone’s health in danger?
“After dancing, bingo is very popular and I was in Ballyleague, Co Roscommon, the other night where I saw no less than 100 cars lined up on the local football pitch and everyone calling out the numbers and having a good time.”
Joe says something similar should be done for the dance and music scene: “The idea is that every county council would build a drive-in band stand in the county town that would meet all safety requirements. All sorts of entertainment could be facilitated. Friday nights could be for country music, Saturday for céile music, Sunday night for rock or pop and so on.
“It would create a circuit for entertainers that would see them tour the country and the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) money could be used as part of the funding.
“Declan Nerney put it well when he said: ‘If you are going to pay us, then pay us to work.’ If something like this doesn’t happen, what have people to look forward to except watching a fourth repeat of Killnascully and an early night. It doesn’t bear thinking about.”
Galway woman Maura Canning is the former chair of the IFA farm family committee. She is also an avid dancer and Mike Denver’s number one fan. So how has she filled the gap left by the ban on dancing?
“I went back to college to study for a degree and I took fitness and meditation classes, but I really miss the dancing. We even drove for three hours to a drive-in concert at the equestrian centre in Ballymena. But it’s just too far away to do that again. I’ve also taken up line dancing classes with Joan Higgins and Liam Malone better known as the ‘Galway Dancers’.
“At the start, there were 15 in the class and they were being held outdoors at a secondary school in Claregalway. We are now in the huge basketball arena, which can take 50 people with social distancing in place. There’s a waiting list to join.”
Maura supports the drive-in concert proposal: “For so many people, dancing and the social scene around it is what keeps them sane, keeps them from being isolated. “Until we get a vaccine, we have to live with COVID, but we can’t be controlled by it,” she says.
Robert Mizzell is one of the most popular country music entertainers on the circuit. He reckons it could be 12 months before he’s back on the road.
“I did my last gig two weeks before lockdown. I had just bought a Mercedes car, but I’ve traded that in for a pick-up truck with a hitch. As far as I can see, dancing is in trouble. People won’t take the risk as long as COVID-19 is still with us.”
He too favours the drive-in option and has seen it work: “There must have been 400 cars at a drive-in concert at Kilbeggan.
I’m not one to sit around
“The Farmers Bash in Northern Ireland was also a great success. It would give people an opportunity to work, it would let us do what we are good at.”
What Robert is also good at is carpentry, a trade he pursued before getting into music and which he has now reactivated as ‘Mizzell’s Dixieland Garden Furniture.’
“I’m not one to sit around, I have to be working. With this new business, I am making all sorts of garden seating and my L-shaped sofas are proving popular. It’s a scary time for the live music business and there’s no point putting a plaster on it.”