Ireland is know throughout the world for its dancing. Here at Claddagh Design we are much better with hammers rather than hornpipes. And the only Irish dancing we do these days is the occasional ‘Siege of Ennis‘ at a wedding. So we thought it would be a good idea to share everything you need to know about Irish dancing!
Irish dancing is a very important part of the heritage and culture of Ireland; just like the Irish language, native sports like Gaelic Football or Hurling, and traditional Irish music. In the past few decades Irish dancing has seen a huge revival, partly because of the worldwide success of Riverdance. However, it was around long before Michael Flatley and Riverdance. Learning Irish dancing is a regular extra curricular activity of many Irish children, and it always features prominently at Irish themed events like St. Patrick’s Day. It’s not exactly comparable to modern dancing, but that’s what makes it so special. Here is a complete guide to everything you could ever want to know about this wonderful part of Irish life.
The roots of Irish dancing come from the Celts and the druids who roamed the island before the onset of Christianity and outside influences came along. Many of the druids’ religious rituals involved dancing, usually in a circular fashion around sacred trees. The Celts had their own folk dances with similar formations. This type of dancing was common around much of the European mainland at the time, and although it wasn’t really anything like what traditional Irish dancing became, remnants of the formations and patterns can be seen.
Naturally, the dancing was accompanied by music or singing and usually took place at religious celebrations or other special occasions. The ‘feis’ was a big local celebration held by Celtic communities. It was all about their art, culture and music as well as an opportunity for discussing politics, trading, playing sports and storytelling. Dancing was an integral part of the feis. At the Hill of Tara, then the seat of the High King of Ireland and the epicentre of Celtic life, a huge feis known as the ‘Aonach’ (great festival), was held once year, apparently beginning over a thousand years ago. Feiseanna are still held today in many communities, but these days they are usually just a showcase for Irish dancing and music, where dancers compete for medals and trophies.
When the Normans invaded Ireland in the twelfth century, they settled in the country and brought with them their native customs, dance being one of them. The ‘Carol’ was a popular Norman dance that was soon performed in conquered Irish towns and villages. The Carol dance involved one singer placed in the centre of a circle of dancers who then followed his singing and danced accordingly. It is the first historically recorded dance in Ireland. For the next few centuries dancing naturally evolved. Three types of dance emerged; the Irish Hey, the Rinnce Fada (long dance) and the Trenchmore. Instead of circular formations, line formations became common. These in turn became more complicated with female dancers weaving between males, or interchanging couples. Bagpipes and harps became the most common musical accompaniment. The tradition of dancing at religious ceremonies still continued however – it was not unusual to dance in a circle around a coffin at a wake!
It wasn’t until the 18th century when Irish dancing became more disciplined and the styles and formations we know today came about. This was all down to the emergence of the Dancing Master, a teacher who travelled between villages and towns holding lessons for peasants. This is how group dances came to the fore; it was a simple way to have all pupils in a class involved in one dance. The best dancers from each community where given the status of ‘soloists’, i.e they were given special sections of the song to show off their talents and dance alone in the spotlight. When this happened, doors would be placed on the floor to give the dancer a makeshift stage and a solid platform to perform on. There was stiff rivalry between dancing masters from different territories, which is what gave rise to the modern dance competitions that take place today.
In 1893 the Gaelic League was founded as an organisation to promote and encourage all aspects of Irish culture in Ireland. It organised formal competitions, lessons and rules for Irish dancing, and this further developed into the launch of the Irish Dancing Commission in 1930 to regulate the now immensely popular past-time. Irish dancing really took off once it had its own governing body, and over the following decades it spread to the vast Irish diaspora around the world.
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There are three main types of Irish dancing routines; set dancing routines, social or céilí routines and sean nós or step routines. In all cases, the style is relatively formal and regimented, with little upper body movement, precise and quick foot movement and a strict number of steps to be completed. This was mostly because of the limited space performers would have had in the 18th and 19th centuries; small rural pubs or barn dances crowded with locals didn’t afford much room for arm movement or for dancing around the floor.
Céilí routines were the most popular form of Irish dancing, and a standard component of any social occasion. They’re performed with a minimum of two and a maximum of sixteen people (or sometimes an unlimited number of people!). Set dance routines are based on the French quadrille dances, i.e ‘squares’ of four couples who complete several different figures of the routine which are repeated throughout the song. Among other steps, dancers swap sides and swap partners – it can get extremely chaotic if you don’t know what you’re doing!
You may also be interested in reading our article on the Meaning of The Celtic Knot
Step routines descend from the old-style sean nós dancing, and are what the Irish Dancing Commission has adopted as the flagship Irish dancing style. Each step is danced twice, once with each foot, with arms slightly less rigid than other styles. Percussive sounds are made with the feet to add to the rhythm of the music. In the 18th and 19th centuries these dances were often performed on top of barrels or tables.
Each type of dance falls into one of two categories; soft shoe or hard shoe. Soft shoe dances include reels, slips, light jigs and single jigs; these are all classified by the time signature of the music and the steps taken in each dance. Hard shoe dances include the hornpipe, treble jig, and treble reel. Some of the more popular sets have been given names, like the St. Patrick’s Day set, the King of the Fairies Set, or the Tree Sea Captains set.
Historically the traditional accompaniment for Irish dancing was a harp, bagpipe, or just singing. As the dances got more complex however, so did the music. Nowadays, Irish dancing and traditional Irish music go hand in hand, and in the same way that there are a variety of different dances and routines, there is a variety of music and instruments to go with it. Some typical Irish instruments include the fiddle (pretty much a violin, just played differently), the bodhran (a hand held drum made of goatskin and played with a special wooden beater called a tipper), the tin whistle, the concertina (similar to an accordion), and the uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes). When solo dancers take to stage, a solo instrument will also generally play with them.
Ornate and sometimes ostentatious costumes can be common in overseas Irish dancing competitions and showcases, but in both historic and modern Irish dancing, more modest and flexible costumes are used. Soft or hard shoes are used depending on the style of dance; hard shoes have tips and heels of fiberglass to add percussion noises and rhythm, while soft shoes are leather lace ups, also known as ghillies. Boys have their own version of the soft shoe, known as ‘reel shoes’, which still have a hard heel and produce noises, but not to the same extent as the hard shoes do.
Male dancers generally just wear a shirt, vest and tie with dark trousers, while female dancers wear specially made dresses. Each Irish dancing school has their own specific dress uniform. The dresses are just above the knee and pleated, with long sleeves and more often than not some sort of Celtic-inspired design or embellishment on the chest and back. In the past girls were required to curl their hair into ringlets or wear wigs, but this is slowly becoming less common. Dresses have become more and more flexible and breathable compared to decades past, when tough material and elaborate decoration was the name of the game. Outside of competitions you’re more likely to see dancers in simple, plain dresses with straight hair, so that the footwork and movement of the dance is given complete focus.
Outside of performances, the best way to see some Irish dancing is by attending a competition or feis. In Ireland there are several levels of competition divided by age and location, ranging from county to regional and national competitions. The annual regional championship is known as the Oireachtas, which also happens to be the name given to the Irish government! Dancers are scored on technique, timing, and sounds made from their shoes. All contests have very rigid regulations and criteria for qualifications, and the whole process is very competitive between both dancers and teachers.
The Irish Dancing Commisson began holding an annual World Championship in 1970, and they still take place each year in a different corner of the globe. They feature over 6,000 dancers from 30 countries all over the world.
No article about Irish dancing would be complete without mentioning Riverdance, the theatrical show which brought the art to a worldwide audience and boosted its popularity around the world. Riverdance is twenty years old this year, having made its debut at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. It started out as just a seven-minute long interval act featuring Irish dancing champions Jean Butler and Michael Flately, who choreographed much of the show. The accompanying music was played by the RTE Concert Orchestra.
The interval act was so well received that the BBC commissioned a repeat performance at the Royal Variety Show that year and the audio recording stayed at number one on the Irish singles chart for 18 consecutive weeks. The next natural step was to create a full length stage show expanding on the original interval act. The production team did just that and debuted the show in Dublin in November 1994, just six months after the Eurovision performance. It sold over 120,000 tickets and immediately went further afield to the UK, Europe, an New York.
The original show went on to play all over the world for fifteen years, before a final farewell tour in 2011. There are still several smaller productions touring all over the world and a number of spin off shows, ensuring that Irish dancing has a place on the world stage for years to come.
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