Irish Dance History

What is the history of Irish Dance?

The roots of Irish dancing come from the Celts and the druids who roamed the island and mainland Europe 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. Although these dances are very different from modern Irish dancing, traces of the formations and patterns can still be seen.

A thousand years ago, music and dance were a huge part of Celtic life. At a feis (pronounced fesh), Celtic communities came together to celebrate music, dance, art, culture and in addition to religious and special occasions, these events were used to trade, discuss politics, play sports and share stories. At the Hill of Tara, then the seat of the High King of Ireland and the epicenter of Celtic life, a huge feis known as the ‘Aonach’ (great festival), was held once year.

The Normans invaded Ireland in the twelfth century and brought with them their native customs, including dance. The ‘Carol’ was a common Norman dance that was performed in conquered Irish towns and villages. The ‘Carol’ involved one singer placed in the middle of a circle of dancers who then followed his singing and danced accordingly. For the next few centuries dancing naturally evolved. In addition to circular formations, line formations became common. Dances became more complicated with intricate weaving formations and interchanging placements throughout the dance. Bagpipes and harps became the most common musical accompaniment. Religious ceremonies remained the most traditional cause for dancing… including funerals.

Struggles between the English and Irish had its own effects of Irish Dance. The Penal Laws enacted in the late 1600s crushed Irish commerce and industries while simultaneously repressing Irish culture for more than 100 years. The laws banned the education of Catholic children leading to hidden (hedge) schools and explains some of the initial secrecy of teaching Irish step dancing.

In the late 18th century, Irish dancing became more disciplined and the styles and formations we know today came about. The emergence of the Dancing Master, a teacher who travelled between villages and towns holding lessons, helped to spread and popularize folk dancing throughout Ireland. Each dance master had a repertoire of dance steps and he created new steps over time. (Eight bars of music are called a “step,” hence the term step dancing.) They taught Irish dancing in kitchens, farm outbuildings, crossroads, or hedge schools. Students would first learn the jig and reel, however these men were the creators of the set and ceili dances and they carefully guarded their art of step creation. Dance Masters were held in high regard and it was a significant occasion when one came to town. They would often stay with a local family—giving free lessons in return for room and board.

Group dances, called Ceili (pronounced kay-lee) were 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’. They were given special sections of the music to show off their talents and dance alone. To accommodate being a standout, doors would be taken off the hinges and placed on the floor to give the dancer a makeshift stage and a solid platform to perform on. Over time, stiff rivalry between dancing masters from different territories started to form, which is what gave rise to the modern dance competitions that take place today.

The Penal Laws were finally lifted in the late 1800’s, inspiring Irish nationalism and the Great Gaelic Revival—the resurgence of interest in Irish language, literature, history, folklore, and of course, Irish Dance. In 1893 the Gaelic League was founded to promote and encourage all aspects of Irish culture in Ireland. It organized formal competitions, and standardized lessons and rules for Irish dancing. By 1930, the Irish Dancing Commission launched as a regulatory and governing body of Irish dance, organizing Irish dance competitions around the world as well as standardizing qualifications for teachers.

Why do Irish dancers not move their arms?

As the saying goes, “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story”. There are several “stories” or theories as to why arms are not moved while dancing.

Some believe that the influence of parish priests led to the lack of arm movement stating that stiff arms were less provocative, others argue that the Church was trying to increase dancers’ self-control. Some stories go so far as to suggest priests made dancers carry a heavy stone in both hands so that they had to keep them by their sides when dancing with the opposite sex as to prevent them from holding hands during the dances. 

Others think that as dance was usually done at large celebrations, there was often not a lot of space to move about, so table tops, doors placed on the floor or tops of barrels were often makeshift stages. Because of this the dance was very rigid with arms firmly by the side and the excitement of the dance all came from the noise of the beating of the feet.

One suggestion is that it was in protest by the dancers who were forced to dance for Queen Elizabeth I. The Queen was responsible for starting the plantations of Ireland, among other oppressive policies. As these dancers had no choice, they refused to raise their arms to her, and kept them rigidly by their sides as they danced. This also was to possibly to show their fellow countrymen they were not enjoying themselves as they danced for her and the English.

Along the same defiant lines, another idea is that during the times when British continually tried to stamp out all aspects of Irish identity, the Irish got creative to continue dances in plain sight of the lurking British soldiers. The Irish then had to hide their dancing behind the hedge rows, stable doors and behind the bar in pubs with their upper body straight and arms tight by their sides, so if spotted by English soldiers they wouldn’t be able to see them dance. This theory seems a bit hard to believe that a soldier wouldn’t know what you were up too with all the bouncing up and down in the same spot whither behind a bar or not – but the Irish love a good story.

Perhaps the most likely explanation is that it was merely a preference of style. Dance masters needed to differentiate from one another to stand out and keeping the arms down gave the appearance of a more polished look than the more casual Sean Nos style of dance. 

Why the costumes and curly hair?

Certainly, the costumes of today are a far cry from the tradition “Sunday Best” that dancers used to wear.

Irish Dance schools generally have school costumes, worn by beginners and novice dancers, in public performances, and in team competitions. Like a school uniform, each school as a unique design and color scheme to differentiate from other schools. As dancers advance in competition, they may get a solo costume of their own design and colors to express their own creativity and also set them apart from other solo competitors.

The intricate Celtic knotwork and designs on school and solo costumes are taken from The Book of Kells, which is an illustrated manuscript of the four Gospels created during Medieval times by Irish Monks.

As for the hair, going back to “Sunday Best”, curling of hair was the normal for women as well as styled hair for men. As dancing became more athletic, the curl for women’s hair accentuated the jumping and height achieved while dancing. A high styled full bun as become quite common as well. Many of these styles are achieved by wigs today.

Why are there two kinds of shoes?

Technically there are three kinds of shoes…

Soft shoes, or Ghillies, are only worn by girls. They are black leather lace-up shoes similar to ballet slippers. 

Reel shoes are worn by boys and which resemble black jazz shoes with a hard heel. Boy’s soft-shoe dancing features audible heel clicks.

Hard shoes are similar to tap shoes, except that the tips and heels are made of fiberglass, instead of metal, and are significantly bulkier. The first hard shoes had wooden or leather taps with metal nails. Later the taps and heels were made of resin or fiberglass to reduce the weight and to make the sounds louder.

What are the dances taught in dance schools now?

Solo dancers will learn a variety of soft and hard shoe dances.

Soft shoe dances include:

  • Reels
  • Slip Jigs (traditionally only performed by women)
  • Light Jigs
  • Single Jigs
  • Various Ceili and group dances

Hard shoe dances include:

  • Hornpipes
  • Treble Jigs
  • Treble Reels
  • Traditional and contemporary set dances