The history of Irish dance, one of the most distinctive parts of Irish culture, is intriguing. You may be familiar with events where girls in curly wigs and beautiful costumes with special shoes take to the stage to perform coordinated traditional dances at Irish heritage festivals, dance shows, or competitions.
If you’ve ever seen this sort of thing, you might be asking yourself, how did all of this begin? Is Irish dance popular? What distinguishes Irish dance?
You might be surprised how big a part of Irish culture it has always been. This is why we celebrate Irish music and dance as a significant part of Irish American heritage.
Irish dancing is a traditional dance form that originated amongst the Celtic and Gaelic people of Ireland.
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How it All Began
Back in 500 BC, there was a group of people called the druids who had first moved to Ireland.
They were an educated class of Celts who were religious figures and leaders in the earliest Irish culture. Dance was a very significant part of their religion. These Celtic dances would happen at religious celebrations, like dancing around sacred trees such as oak trees in circular formations, or other special occasions, like weddings.
The druids created something called a feis (pronounced fesh, and feiseanna plural which is pronounced as fesh-enna), which is a showcase for Irish dancing and music.
This was the very beginning of a rich history and the development of Irish dance as we know it today. Feiseanna are still held today wherever Irish dance and music are taught and celebrated, even in the United States.
The druids and Irish dance were deeply interconnected and their influence on Celtic culture continues to this very day.
The Normans’ Influence on Irish Dance
Changes came to Irish dancing in the 12th century. After the arrival of The Normans in 1169, they brought their own dances and culture to Ireland.
The Normans became more Irish than the Irish themselves, as the old saying goes. Their favorite dance was called Carol. A singer was surrounded by a circle of dancers who performed to the melodic notes of the caroller.
The Normans performed this dance in Irish villages and towns especially all around the province of Leinster, their stronghold.
The assimilation of these two cultures melded the druids’ and Normans’ dances together into brand new forms of dance that the world had never seen before. Irish step dancing was evolving.
Evolution of More Formal Dance Steps and Routines
Over the centuries more formal dances started to emerge in Ireland. By the 16th century there were three definitive dances that were often practiced by Irish people.
The Irish Hey or the Irish Hay involved people joining hands in a chain and moving in circles, passing under the arms of others at different points in the chain. This dance evolved into the reels we know today.
The Rinnce Fada (phonetically pronounced as rink-ah fad-ah) is said to have been created in honor of James II of England and Scotland. Remember, he arrived in Ireland with his armies. The people hoped he would restore the rights of Catholics all over Ireland. Unfortunately he lost the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and the rest is history.
The Rinnce Fada literally means the long dance. A row of men faced a row of women, who joined together one by one as couples starting at one end of the two lines. The couple danced together up and down the length of the rows of people, and then the next couple danced.
Was this dance named because the rows of people were very long? Or did it take a long time for all the couples to dance? Probably both reasons are true.
What makes the Rinnce Fada special is that all social classes joined in, when this dance was performed at a social gathering.
The Trenchmore evolved from an old Irish peasant dance.
These dances were still a pretty loose concept at this time, but the dances had started to be categorized, and line dances were gaining traction, forming a basis for future, more evolved versions, like the dances we’d see today.
These original dances started to get a bit more formalized in the 18th century. That’s when the dances we are familiar with in modern times such as set dancing, céilí (social dancing), and sean nós (old style, less formal step dancing) came into the frame.
Here's a list of the different Irish dance styles:
- Traditional Irish Step Dancing - only the legs and feet are used to move as the dancer maintains a stiff upper body.
- Modern Irish Step Dancing - this modern take on Irish dancing allows full body movement and is similar to ballet.
- Irish Set Dancing - is sometimes called country dancing where couples dance together. This can also be called Irish Two Hand Dancing. It was influenced by the quadrille dance of Europe.
- Irish Céilí Dancing - this is the traditional form of group dancing in Ireland.
- Irish Sean Nós Dancing - is an old style of solo Irish dance that is more casual in form that traditional Irish step dancing.
Of course, all of these were performed with different types of traditional Irish music, which featured the fiddle, pipes, and other instruments that made the entire performance distinct from those of other cultures. There was a type of dance to suit everyone in an Irish community.
Dancing Masters In Days Gone By
In 1750, a position called the Dancing Master was created. A Dancing Master was a person who was extremely good at all of the dances, and they would go around to all the villages and towns in their area to teach traditional Irish dance lessons.
As dancemasters came to the fore in different regions, this culture of formalized training instilled a feeling of competition among Irish dancers. From village to village the desire to be the best spread.
Each Irish Dancing Master wanted to prove themself the most skilled teacher in the nation. Irish dancing was practiced all over Ireland.
In a previous post we traced the origins of the phrase hay foot, straw foot to these dancing masters who needed to help their students learn the difference between right and left.
Irish dancing flourished in the 18th century and spread to all parts of Ireland.
The Gaelic League
In 1893, the Gaelic League was established to try to revive knowledge of and excitement for Irish language and culture in Ireland, as the Irish language was threatened to die out.
The Irish suffered greatly during the years of the Great Irish Famine. Many who practiced Irish dancing either died or immigrated in this national calamity.
After the Famine, people turned their backs on some Irish traditions, including the language. They believed that learning to speak English, and adopting English ways was a vital step for survival in a cruel world.
By 1893 some Irish scholars recognized that we were losing our culture. The Gaelic League created specific rules to judge Irish dance and created formal competitions. They later handed off that responsibility to the Irish Dance Commission.
This is how Irish dance competitions began as we know them today. The world championships attract competitors from all over the world, to celebrate this unique dance style with deep roots in Ireland.
Dancing at the Crossroads
In the early part of the 20th century, dancing at the crossroads was a summertime activity all over Ireland.
Young people would meet at a country crossroads, lay planks on the road, and dance their heart away. This was a wonderful time for young people to enjoy themselves on mild summer evenings when Irish days are long. Musicians would play Irish music, and dancers would rock those boards to the rhythmic beats of that traditional music.
Unfortunately the government of the day grew afraid of too much carousing and they banned the activitiy through the Public Dance Halls Act of 1935, moving all dancing indoors, where the activity could be supervised.
In 1994, a group of Irish-American dancers featuring Jean Butler and Michael Flatley performed in the Eurovision Song Contest, a talent competition on TV. They had created a 7-minute routine to Irish music by composer Bill Whelan that they called Riverdance.
The audience was enthralled, not only the live audience at the venue, but people all over the world. Irish dancing captured the attention and imaginations of people from many varied backgrounds. Interest grew, and Irish dancing spread to many corners of the globe.
In 1995, a husband and wife duo named John McColgan and Moya Doherty expanded this performance into a stage show that took the world by storm.
Riverdance has since been performed at over 450 venues and viewed by over 25 million people, meaning it is one of the most popular dance productions in the world.
This phenomenon, although it began in Dublin, Ireland, is what sparked an interest in Irish dance among people in the United States ever since it opened in New York in 1996.
Lord of the Dance is an Irish dance production that has been a star attraction on the Las Vegas strip. It was created by Michael Flatley, one of the original performers of Riverdance.
Irish Dance in the United States
Today, there are plenty of options if you’d like to participate in or simply see Irish dance. Many dance studios in the United States offer Irish dance classes, and it’s still possible to find some local productions of Irish dance performances at concert halls and Irish culture festivals or events.
Most large cities in the USA have at least one school of Irish dance, and in cities such as Chicago and New York, with large Irish American poplulations there are many Irish dance schools to be found.
In the United States and Ireland there are many different Irish Dance Championships, some of which are known as Feiseanna (pronounced fesh-anna with the singular being Feis which is pronounced as fesh).
These competitions are designed to encourage students of Irish dance to improve their techniques and skills, with awards being bestowed upon the best championship dancers.
Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne (pronounced irr-ock-thus ring-ka nah krinn-ah) is the Irish name for the World Irish Dancing Championships. This is an annual Irish stepdance competition, which is held in diffferent locations around Irieland.
It is organized by An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (pronounced phonetically as on kum-mish-oon leh ring-kee gale-ock-ah) which is the Irish Dancing Commission.
These competitions are organized by gender and age for solo dancers. There are also competitions for céilí dances. This competition is like the Olympics of Irish dancing. Each dancer must qualify to participate by winning at major Irish stepdance competitions held across the world.
If you would like to see it for yourself, I’d highly recommend going to see it live. You can also view a Riverdance DVD so you can experience the magic of Irish dance without even leaving your house.
Irish dance is a very significant part of our Irish cultural tradition. It's held dear by Irish people all over the world. We see it as a symbol of our culture, one that has evolved, developed and survived over the centuries.
Irish dancing communities in cities all over the world are keeping our age old traditions alive, and passing our heritage on to the next generations.
Let’s hope we continue to share the joy and importance of Irish dancing for many generations to come.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade
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