Irish dance

From Academic Kids

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Girls in traditional costume performing Irish dance in a St. Patrick's Day Parade in Fort Collins, Colorado

Irish Step dancing (sometimes referred to as "Irish dance") is a type of recreational and competitive folk dance that has been recently popularized by the world-famous "Riverdance" and "Lord of the Dance". As the name suggests, the dance form has its roots in Ireland. When performed as a solo dance, it is generally characterized by a stiff upper body and the quick and precise movements of the feet.

As a dance form, Irish dance has very precise rules about what one may and may not do and when, but within these rules there is almost infinite room for variety and innovation. Thus, Irish Step Dance is a vibrant and constantly evolving art form.


Roots of Irish dance

The dancing tradition probably grew in tandem with Ireland's rich tradition in music. The very first roots were in Pre-Christian Ireland, but Irish dance was also heavily influenced by dance forms on the Continent, especially the quadrille dances and ballet. Nearly every child in Ireland was taught at least a little dance, and probably some music too. Traveling dancing masters taught all over Ireland.

The Catholic Church and the English both frowned on dancing, the former as immoral and the latter as subversive, but the tradition never truly disappeared. In the nineteenth century, the Irish diaspora spread Irish dance all over the world, especially to North America and Australia.

Many folk tales exist to explain the practice of keeping the arms stiff at one's side while dancing, a practice which is nearly unique in the world of dance. One folk tale originated when the practice of Irish culture, including dance, was forbidden in Ireland under British rule. When people wanted to dance, they would just move their feet, and if anyone happened to look in the window, they would see only the motionless upper body and think nothing of it.

Another explanation relates to the stage. In order to get a hard surface to dance on, people would often unhinge doors and lay them on the ground. Since this was clearly a very small stage, there was no room for the movement of the arms.

Yet another explanation has to do with venue. Irish dance was usually performed in pubs or in small barns, where because of the restricted space, moving the arms could be hazardous to both the dancer and the audience.

But perhaps the most likely explanation is a practical one. The solo dances are characterized by quick, intricate movements of the feet. Movement of the upper body would only distract from the beautiful and precise movements, and hence is kept to a minimum.


Some of the footwork of softshoe dances may be compared to the footwork of Scottish country dancing, though the two styles should never be confused. Tap dance was also influenced by Irish Step Dancing. Unlike softshoe dancing, hardshoe dancing involves rhythmic and very fast striking of the floor with the tips of the shoes.

Three types of shoes are worn in competitive step dancing: hardshoes and two kinds of softshoe. The hardshoe ("heavy shoe", "jig shoe") is often mistaken for a tap shoe, but the taps on the sole of the shoe are made of wood, fiberglass, or resin, rather than of metal. The first hard shoes did have metal taps. It was common practice in the 17th and 18th century to hammer nails into the soles of a shoe in order to increase the life of the shoe. Dancers used the sounds created by the nails to create the rhythms that characterize hard shoe dancing. Later the soles were changed into resin or fiberglass to reduce the weight.

Each shoe has eight striking surfaces: the toe, bottom, and sides of the front tap and the back, bottom, and sides of the back tap (the heel). Hardshoes are made of black leather with flexible soles. Sometimes the front taps are filed off in order to enable the dancer to stand on his or her toes, rather like pointe shoes. Hardshoes are worn when dancing the hornpipe, the treble jig or "heavy jig", and the treble reel or "tap reel". The same hardshoes are worn by all dancers, regardless of gender or age.

A legend about hardshoe dances is that the Irish used to dance at crossroads or on the earthen floors of their houses, and they removed and soaped their doors to create a resonant surface for hardshoe dancing.

Softshoes are also known as "reel shoes" and come in two types. Those of the first type, called "ghillies" (or "gillies"), fit more like ballet slippers, but they are of black leather, with a soft leather sole and a very flexible body. They lace from toe to ankle and do not make sounds against the dance surface. They are worn for the simple jig, the reel, and the slipjig, by female dancers of all ages and by the younger male dancers, though the slipjig is only performed by females. They also can be worn for céilí dancing, though this can be done in any kind of shoe.

The second kind of softshoe is worn by more advanced male dancers; these are usually only called "reel shoes" and are basically men's ballet slippers, in black leather, with fiberglass heels that the dancers can click together. The men usually make slight adjustments to their steps in order to take advantage of their taps.


Modern Irish dance is usually taught in a studio, much like ballet or tap. Teachers must be certified by the World Irish Dance Commission (An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha), in order for their students to be eligible for competitions. The certification consists of a written and practical exam in the applicant's ability to teach Irish dance. The certification is called a T.C.R.G., which stands for Teasgicoir Choimisiuin Le Rinci Gaelacha (translated in English as Gaelic Commission Dancing Teacher.)

"Reel", "slipjig", "hornpipe", and "jig" usually refer to dances, but they really mean the timing of the music. Reels are in 2/4 or 4/4 time. Slip jigs are in 9/8 time, a structure which is more or less unique to Irish music. The slip jig is usually only danced by female dancers, though the boys usually learn a few of the steps anyway. It is considered to be the lightest and most graceful of the dances. Hornpipes can be in 2/4 or 4/4 time, and are danced in hard shoes. There are three jigs danced in competition, the light jig, the single jig and the treble (or double) jig. Light and single jigs are in 6/8 time, like "Pop Goes the Weasel" and are soft shoes dances., while the treble jig is hard shoe. The "treble jig" is hard shoe, danced in a slow 6/8.

The actual steps in Irish step dance are usually unique to each school. Steps are developed by Irish dance teachers for students of their school. Each dance is built out of the same basic elements, or steps, but the dance itself is unique, and new dances are being choreographed all the time. For this reason, choreography can be closely guarded and videotaping of competitions is forbidden under the rules of World Irish Dance Commission.

Each step is sequence of foot movements, leg movements and leaps. In reels danced by older boys, heel clicks are added. Hardshoe dancing also includes clicking (striking the heels of the feet against each other), tapping (the toe of the shoe striking the floor), and stomping (the entire foot striking the floor.

There are two types of hard shoe dance, the school dances, which are the hornpipe and treble jig, and the traditional sets. There are approximately thirty solo "set tunes," mostly jigs and hornpipes, to which hardshoe dances are done in competition. These tunes vary a bit in tempo (being either slow or fast) but are always played in basically the same way. Teachers choreograph the sets their dancers dance.

The traditional sets are unique in Irish dance, because every school does the traditional set the same way. The music and steps for each traditional set was set down long ago, hence the "traditional." There are many traditional sets, but the four major traditional sets performed in competition are The St. Patrick's Day, the Blackbird, Job of Journeywork and Garden of the Daisies.

The group dances, or the céilí, vary widely throughout Ireland and the rest of the world. The céilí dances used in competitions are bouncier and more precise versions of those danced in pubs and church basements. There are a group of céilí dances which have been standardized, called the "book" dances. A céilí may be performed with as few as two people and as many as sixteen. The céilí dances are also called party dances; they are meant more for socialization and fun than as an athletic and competitive form. But the céilís are still fast-paced and complicated. The céilí may be "called" -- that is, the upcoming steps are announced during the dance for the benefit of newcomers.

Some of the ceili dances are named after the traditional Irish tunes to which they are danced, others after the region of Ireland they were developed in, and some may be done to any jig or reel. The ceili dances developed from the French quadrille dances; and are the ancestors of the North American square dance.

A related Irish form is Sean-nos dancing, a solo form from Connemara. Sean-nos is usually danced to reels, with much stamping. It is very improvisational, and the arm and leg positions are not nearly as rigid as those in step dancing, and can be quite athletic.

Competition structure

Competitive step dancing has grown steadily since the mid 1900's, and more rapidly since the appearance of "Riverdance". An organized step dance competition is referred to as a feis (pronounced "fesh", plural feiseanna). The word feis means "festival" in Gaelic, and strictly speaking is also composed of competitions in music and crafts. Feile (fey-LUH) is a more correct term for the dance competition, but the terms may be used interchangeably. Many annual feiseanna are truly becoming full-fleged feiseanna, by adding competitions in music, art, baking, etc.

Participants in a feis must be students of an accredited step dance teacher. Dance competitions are divided by age and level of expertise. In North America, dancers progress from Beginner/Advanced Beginner to Novice to Prizewinner (in some areas this level is referred to as Open) to Preliminary Champion to the final level, Champion. Feis competition levels vary around the world (e.g. in South Africa there are Beginner XXX, etc.), generally depending on the local history and the presence of more advanced dancers.

Rules for feiseanna are set by the World Irish Dance Commission (An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha). Dancers are judged by adjudicators certified by the An Coimisiún. This certification is known as the A.D.C.R.G., meaning Ard Diploma Choimisiuin Le Rinci Gaelacha (in English - Highest Diploma in Gaelic Dancing.) It is awarded to those who have passed the exams set by the An Coimisiún and have also been certified as T.C.R.G. Local organizations may add additional rules to the basic rule set. There are seven regions in North America.

An annual regional Championship competition is known as an oireachtas (pronounced "uh-rock-tus"). In North America, regional Chanpionship competitions are held the weekend of the Thanksgiving Holiday. Annual "national" championship competitions are held in Ireland (known as the "All-Ireland" competition), North America (including Canada and the United States), Australia, and Europe. Annual World Championship competitions have been held in The Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The World Championship competitions (called the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne) are held around the Easter Holiday.

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