History of Irish Dancing
While many people associate Irish dancing with elaborate stage shows like Riverdance, there are a number of traditional Irish dances that can be found in communities, pubs, and parties all over Ireland.
Irish dance is really an amalgamation of cultural influences. When they settled Ireland, the Druids, Celts, and Normans each introduced their own social and religious rituals. One Druid ritual involved circular dances around sacred trees to honor nature and the sun. Celtic communities held celebrations that they called a “feis”, which included sports, storytelling, and political discussions, as well as folk music and dancing.
The Normans brought the “Carol” dance, where a circle of dancers followed the lead of one central singer—the first written record of the Carol is from 1413.
The 18th century saw the emergence of Dance Masters. These teacher-choreographers traveled from town to town, providing dance lessons to the local community. Dance Masters were held in high regard and it was a significant occasion when one came to town. He would often stay with a local family—giving free lessons in return for room and board—and use a local barn as a teaching and performance space. The best dancers were allowed to perform solos, and rivalries emerged between different Dance Masters. Today’s Irish dance competitions emerged from these traditions.
The Dance Masters’ most enduring legacy was that by traveling and teaching across the countryside, they helped to spread and popularize folk dancing throughout Ireland. The formation of the Gaelic League in 1893 was another significant event. The League organized dance competitions as a key part of their mission to preserve Irish culture. This preceded the Irish Dancing Commission, which took the League’s mission a step further. Officially established in 1930, and still in existence today, the Commission organizes Irish dance competitions around the world as well as standardizing qualifications for teachers.
Step dancing is the most common dance form seen in competitions. Teams of 8 or 16 dancers perform original choreographed pieces, and dancers wear intricate, sequined outfits and curly wigs. Soft shoes—picture ballet slippers—are usually worn for team dances, while hard shoes—picture tap shoes—are worn for solo performances.
Irish stepdance evolved from “old style” sean nós dances. These were done in an improvisational style, with limited upper body movement and quick feet tapping in time with the music. Sean nós dances are usually performed solo within a confined space since dancers used to stand on a wooden platform or barrel top. Hard shoes on the wooden surface create a rhythmic clicking sound.
Céilís are traditional Irish group dances. The term céilí used to refer to social gatherings, similar to a feis, but has evolved to refer specifically to folk dancing. Céilís can be performed by anywhere from 2 to 16 dancers.
Set dances are more structured than céilís—think of American square dancing. Groups of four couples form squares and perform a series of dances, occasionally swapping sides or partners.
The great thing about Irish dancing is that anyone can learn it, no matter their age or experience level. With so many different variations, there’s a dance out there for everyone. It’s always a fun social activity that honors Irish history and tradition.