Irish dance

Irish dance comes in several forms, which can broadly be divided into social dances and performance dances. Irish social dancing can be divided further into céilí and set dancing. Irish set and céilí dances are usually danced by couples arranged into formations (sets); frequently squares of four couples, but many other formations are found, also. Irish social dance is a living tradition, and variations in the way a particular dance is danced are found across the Irish dance community; in some places, dances are deliberately modified and new dances are choreographed.

Irish performance dancing is traditionally referred to as stepdance. Irish stepdance has been recently popularised by the world-famous show "Riverdance" and its followers. Aside from public dance performances, there are also stepdance competitions in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia and North America. Most competitive stepdances are solo dances, though many stepdancers also perform and compete using traditional set and céilí dances. When performed as a solo dance, it is generally characterized by a stiff upper body and the quick and precise movements of the feet.

The dancing traditions of Ireland probably grew in tandem with traditions of Irish traditional music. The very first roots were in Pre-Christian Ireland, but Irish dance was also partially influenced by dance forms on the Continent, especially the quadrille dances. Travelling dancing masters taught all over Ireland as late as the early 1900s.

Irish céilí dances

Irish social, or céilí, dances vary widely throughout Ireland and the rest of the world. A céilí dance may be performed with as few as three people and as many as sixteen. Céilí dances may also be danced with an unlimited number of couples in a long line or proceeding around in a circle (Such as in Shoe the Donkey or the Gay Gordons). Céilí dances are often fast-paced and may be quite complicated. In a social setting, a céilí dance may be "called" -- that is, the upcoming steps are announced during the dance for the benefit of newcomers.

The term céilí dance was invented in the late 19th century by the Gaelic League, to distinguish non-quadrille dances from the quadrille-based set dances, which were thought to be a British or foreign influence in Ireland. Today, céilí dancing is rarely performed in the Republic of Ireland[citation needed] but is active in Northern Ireland and the U.S.


There is a distinction between the noun céilí, and the adjective. A céilí is a social gathering featuring Irish music and dance. Céilí dancing is a specific type of Irish dance. Some céilithe (the plural of céilí) will only have céilí dancing, some will only have set dancing, and some will be mixed.

Irish set dances

Set dances are folk dances of Ireland based on French quadrilles. Most are done in square sets of four couples and consist of several "figures" each of which has a number of parts. Throughout the dance, as they perform the figures, the dancers use various steps, with the style of the step varying from place to place and from set to set. The sets themselves come from various parts of Ireland are often named for their place of origin, such as the Corofin Plain Set or the Claire Lancers Set. The music used can be reels, jigs, slides or polkas, but only one type of tune is used for a given figure although types are frequently mixed within any given set.

Irish set dancing is popular throughout Ireland as well as in Canada, portions of the United States, Australia and other countries. Social set dancing is not competitive, but the term "traditional set dancing" is also used to describe a different type of competitive dancing taught by Irish dance schools.

Sean Nós

Sean-Nós, literally meaning "old style", is a highly improvised solo form danced to Irish traditional music. It is found primarily in Connemara, where it originated, on the West coast of Ireland and features a great deal of foot work and more body motion than is found in the more well known Irish stepdance. Sean-Nós dancing is a very impromptu low-key accompaniment to a lively traditional band. The footwork is primarily in a "battering" style.

Irish stepdance

Roots of Irish stepdance

Irish step dancers from Scoil Rince na Connemara in Wilkes-Barre PA dance at the HUB, Penn State UniversityStepdancing as a modern form is descended directly from sean nós ("old style") stepdancing[citation needed]. There are in several different forms of stepdancing in Ireland (such as the Connemara style stepdancing), but the style most familiar is the Munster, or southern, form, which has been formalised by An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha—the Irish Dancing Commission.

Irish stepdancing is primarily done in competitions and public performances or other formal settings.


Irish solo stepdances fall into two broad categories based on the shoes worn: hardshoe and soft shoe dances.

Soft shoe dances include the reel, slip jig, light (or double) jig, and single jig. Reels are in 2/4 or 4/4 time. Slip jigs are in 9/8 time. Light and single jigs are in 6/8 time, with different emphasis within the measure distinguishing the music. Hard shoe dances include the hornpipe, in 2/4 time, the treble jig, in a slow 6/8, the treble reel, and traditional sets, which are a group of 30 dances with set choreography and various rhythms. Many traditional sets have irregular musical phrasing.

The céilí dances used in competitions are more precise versions of those danced in less formal settings. There is a list of 30 céilí dances which have been standardised and published in An Coimisiún's Ar Rinncidhe Foirne as examples of typical Irish folk dances; these are called the "book" dances by competitive stepdancers. Most stepdance competitions only ask for a short piece of any given figure dance, in the interests of time.

Shoes and costume Two types of shoes are worn in step dancing: hardshoes and softshoe. The hardshoe ("heavy shoe", "jig shoe") is unlike the tap shoe, in that the tips and heels are made of fiberglass, instead of metal. The first hard shoes had wooden taps with metal nails. Later the soles were changed into resin or fiberglass to reduce the weight. The soft shoe, which are called Ghillies, resembles a ballet shoe minus the hard toe and the ribbons for laces. Ghillies are only worn by girls while boys wear a black leather shoe that looks like a black jazz shoe with a hard heel. Boys soft-shoe dancing features an ever-increasing amount of audible heel clicks.

Several generations ago the appropriate dress for a competition was simply your "Sunday Best". In the 1980s ornately embroidered dresses became popular. Today even more ornamentation is used on girls' dresses, including lace, sequins, silk, extensive embroidery, feathers, and more. These dresses are made by dress makers all across the world including some makers like Siopa Rince and G. Doherty. There are Irish Dancing schools that have team dresses, but once they reach prizewinner level they may get a solo dress. Men's costume has evolved as well, though not as much as that of the girls dresses. Today in competition, you will find most wearing a shirt, vest, and tie paired with black pants; before about ten years ago kilts were commonly worn.

Competition structure

An organized step dance competition is referred to as a feis, plural feiseanna). The word feis means "festival" in Irish, and strictly speaking would also have competitions in music and crafts. Féile is a more correct term for the dance competition, but the terms may be used interchangeably. Dance competitions are divided by age and level of expertise.

An annual regional Championship competition is known as an oireachtas. Dancers from each age group may qualify for the World Championships. Qualifying for the World Championships, Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, (roughly translated to Irish Dance Championship of the World) varies slightly due to the competition or region. In the United States, dancers may qualify at either a Regional Oireacthas, or the North American Championships, which includes the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The World Championships have in years past only been held in Ireland, Northern Ireland, or Scotland, however in 2009, for the first time they will be held in the United States in Philadelphia.

The history of Irish Dance

The early history of Irish dance reveals a constant shifting of population through migration and invasions. Each of these peoples brought their preferred types of dance and music. There are only vague references to the early history of Irish dancing, but there is evidence that among its first practitioners were the Druids, who danced in religious rituals honouring the oak tree and the sun. Traces of their circular dances survive in the ring dances of today. When the Celts arrived in Ireland from central Europe over two thousand years ago, they brought with them their own folk dances. Around 400 AD, after the conversion to Christianity, the new priests used the pagan style of ornamentation in illuminating their manuscripts, while the peasants retained the same qualities in their music and dancing.

The Anglo-Norman conquest in the twelfth century brought Norman customs and culture to Ireland. The Carol was a popular Norman dance in which the leader sang and was surrounded by a circle of dancers who replied with the same song. This Norman dance was performed in conquered Irish towns.

Three principal Irish dances are mentioned often in sixteenth century writing: the Irish Hey, the Rinnce Fada (long dance) and the Trenchmore. One of the first references to dance is in a letter written by Sir Henry Sydney to Queen Elizabeth I in 1569. "They are very beautiful, magnificently dressed and first class dancers," Sydney wrote of the girls he saw dancing enthusiastic Irish jigs in Galway.

Sydney went on to describe the dance formation, observing the dancers in two straight lines which suggests they were performing an early version of the long dance.

During the mid sixteenth century, dances were performed in the great halls of the newly built castles. Some of the dances were adapted by the sixteenth century English invaders and brought to the court of Queen Elizabeth. One of these dances was the Trenchmore, which was an adaptation of an old Irish peasant dance. From this period onward another style of dance called the Hey was popular where female dancers wound in around their partners, in a fore-runner of the present day reel.

When royalty arrived in Ireland, they were greeted at the shore by young women performing native dances. When King James landed at Kinsale, County Cork, in 1780, he was welcomed by dancers. Three people stood abreast, each holding ends of a white handkerchief. They advanced to slow music and were followed by dancing couples, each couple holding a handkerchief between them. The tempo of the music increased and the dancers performed a variety of lively figures.

Irish dancing was accompanied by music played on the bagpipes and the harp. In the houses of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the master often joined with servants in some of the dances. Dancing was also performed during wakes. The mourners followed each other in a ring around the coffin to bagpipe music.

The Irish Dance Master

During the eighteenth century, the dancing master appeared in Ireland. He was a wandering dancing teacher who travelled from village to village in a district, teaching dance to peasants. Dancing masters were flamboyant characters who wore bright clothes and carried staffs. Their young pupils did not know the difference between their left and right feet. To overcome this problem, the dancing master would tie straw or hay to his pupils' left or right feet and instruct them to "lift hay foot" or "lift straw foot". Group dances were developed by the masters to hold the interest of their less gifted pupils and to give them the chance to enjoy dancing. The standard of these dances was very high. Solo dancers were held in high esteem and often doors were taken off hinges and placed on the ground for the soloists to dance on.

Each dancing master had his own district and never encroached on another master's territory. It was not unknown for a dancing master to be kidnapped by the residents of a neighbouring parish. When dancing masters met at fairs, they challenged each other to a public dancing contest that only ended when one of them dropped with fatigue.

Several versions of the same dance were to be found in different parts of Ireland. In this way a rich heritage of Irish dances was assembled and modified over the centuries. Today, jigs, reels, hornpipes, sets, half sets, polkas and step dances are all performed. Solo dancing or step dancing first appeared at the end of the eighteenth century.

The costumes worn by Irish dancers today commemorate the clothing of the past. Each school of dancing has its own distinct dancing costume. Dresses are based on the Irish peasant dress worn two hundred years ago. Most of the dresses are adorned with hand-embroidered Celtic designs, copies of the Tara brooch are often worn on the shoulder. The brooch hold a cape which falls over the back. The clothes worn by men are less embellished but steeped in history- they wear a plain kilt and jacket, with a folded cloak draped from the shoulder. Male and female dancers today wear hornpipe shoes, and for reels and jigs, soft shoes similar to ballet pumps are worn.

Today there are many organisations promoting Irish dance. The Feis has been an important part of rural cultural life. Children, teenagers and adults compete in separate competitions for Feis titles and prizes. There are group and solo competitions where dancers are graded by age from six to seventeen and then into the senior categories.

There are dancing championships in all four provinces, and winners of these provincial competitions qualify for the All Ireland Championships. The World Championships are held in Dublin at Easter where dancers from England, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand compete for the World title.

The Irish word céili originally referred to a gathering of neighbours in a house to have an enjoyable time, dancing, playing music and storytelling. Today it refers to an informal evening of dancing. Céilis are held in large towns and country districts where young and old enjoy together group dances. The céili can be traced back to pre-famine times, when dancing at the cross-roads was a popular rural pastime. These dances were usually held on Sunday evenings in summer when young people would gather at the cross-roads. The music was often performed by a fiddler seated on a three legged stool with his upturned hat beside him for a collection. The fiddler began with a reel such as the lively "Silver Tip", but he had to play it several times before the dancers joined in. The young men were reluctant to begin the dance but after some encouragement from the fiddler, the sets of eight filled up the dancing area.

The world-wide success of Riverdance and more recently Lord of the Dance has placed Irish dance on the international stage. Dancing schools in Ireland today are filled with young pupils keen to imitate and learn the dancing styles which brought Jean Butler and Michael Flatley international acclaim.

Today there are many opportunities to watch and enjoy Irish dancing. It is still a regular part of social functions. Dancing sessions at céilis are usually preceded by a teaching period where novices are shown the initial steps. During the summer months, céilis are held in many Irish towns. Visitors are always welcome to join in and with on the spot, informal instruction, anyone can quickly master the first steps and soon share the Irish enthusiasm for Irish dance.

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