THE HISTORY OF IRISH
The dancing traditions of Ireland are likely to have grown in tandem with Irish traditional music. Its
first roots may have been in Pre-Christian Ireland, but Irish dance was also partially influenced by
dance forms on the Continent, especially the quadrille dances. Traveling dancing masters taught all
over Ireland as late as the early 1900s.
Professor Margaret Scanlan, author of Culture and customs of Ireland, points out that the earliest feis
or stepdancing competition dates no earlier than 1897, and states: "Although the feis rhetoric
suggests that the rules [for international stepdancing competitions] derive from an ancient past, set
dances are a product of modern times". There are many other 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 (English: The Gaelic Dancing Commission),
which first met in 1930. The Commission (abbreviated as CLRG), was formed from a directorate of the
Gaelic League that was formed during the Gaelic Revival and agreed the modern rules.
In the 19th century, the Irish diaspora had spread Irish dance all over the world, especially to North
America and Australia. However, schools and feiseanna were not established until the early 1900s: in
America these tended to be created within Irish-American urban communities, notably in Chicago. The
first classes in stepdancing were held there by the Philadelphia-born John McNamara.
The nature of the Irish dance tradition has changed and adapted over the centuries to accommodate
and reflect changing populations and the fusion of new cultures. The history of Irish dancing is as a
result a fascinating one. The popular Irish dance stage shows of the past ten years have reinvigorated
this cultural art, and today Irish dancing is healthy, vibrant, and enjoyed by people across the globe.
One explanation for the unique habit of keeping the hands and upper body stiff relates to the stage. 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 arm movement. The solo dances are
characterised by quick, intricate movements of the feet.
Sometime in that decade or the one following, a dance teacher had his students compete with arms
held firmly down to their sides, hands in fists, to call more attention to the intricacy of the steps. The
adjudicator approved by placing the students well. Other teachers and dancers quickly followed the
new trend. Movement of the arms is sometimes incorporated into modern Irish stepdance, although
this is generally seen as a hybrid and non-traditional addition and is only done in shows and
performances, not competitions.
Irish stepdance is a style of dance with its
roots in traditional Irish dance. It can be
performed solo or by troupes. Two types of
shoes are worn; hard shoes, which make
sounds similar to tap shoes, and soft shoes,
which are similar to ballet slippers.
Dancers stiffen their upper bodies while
performing quick, intricate footwork.
Costumes are considered important for
stage presence in competitive Irish
stepdance. There are several levels of
competition available for both individuals
and groups. Riverdance, an Irish
stepdancing interval act in the 1994
Eurovision Song Contest, greatly
contributed to its popularity.
The group dances are called céilí dances or, in the less formal but common case,
figure dances. Competitive céilís are more precise versions of the festive group
dances traditionally experienced in pubs and church basements.
There is a list of 30 céilí dances that have been standardised and published in An
Coimisiun's Ar Rinncidhe Foirne as examples of traditional Irish folk dances.
Standardized dances for 4, 6 or 8 dancers are also often found in competition. Most
traditional céilí dances in competition are significantly shortened in the interests of
time. Many stepdancers never learn the entire dance, as they will never dance the
later parts of the dance in competition.
Other céilí dances are not standardised. In local competition, figure dances may
consist of two or three dancers. These are not traditional book dances and are
choreographed as a blend of both traditional céilí dancing and solo dancing.
Standardized book dances for 16 dancers are also rarely offered. Figure Choreography
competitions held at major oireachtasi (championships) involve more than 8 dancers
and are a chance for dance schools to show off novel and intricate group
Some dance schools recognised by an Coimisiun Le Rinci Gaelacha place as much
emphasis on céilí dancing as on solo dancing, meticulously rehearsing the dances as
written in the book and striving for perfect interpretation. In competition, figure
dancers are expected to dance their routine in perfect unison, forming seamless yet
intricate figures based on their positions relative to each other.
Irish social dances
Irish social, or keɪli dances vary widely throughout Ireland and the rest of
the world. A céilí dance may be performed with as few as two 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 "The Walls of Limerick", "The Waves of Tory", "Haymakers Jig", "An
Rince Mor" or "Bonfire Dance"). Céilí dances are often fast and some are
quite complex ("Antrim Reel", "Morris Reel"). 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 céilí dances are typically
danced to Irish instruments such as the Irish Bodhran hand drum or fiddle
in addition to the concertina (and similar instruments), guitar, whistle or
The term céilí dance was invented in the late 19th century by the Gaelic
League. Céilí as a noun differs from the adjective céilí. A céilí is a social
gathering featuring Irish music and dance. Céilí dancing is a specific type
of Irish dance. Some céilithe (plural of céilí) will only have céilí dancing,
some only have set dancing, and some will have a mixture.
Irish set dancing
Irish set dancing (also referred to as "country set
dancing") are dances based on French quadrilles that
were adapted by the Irish by integrating their sean-nós
steps and Irish music. The distinguishing characteristics
of Irish set dancing is that it is danced in square sets of
four couples (eight people), and consist of several
"figures," each of which has a number of parts, frequently
repeated throughout the set. Each part of the set dance
(figure) is danced to a music tempo, mostly reels, jigs,
polkas, hornpipes and slides. The sets come from various
parts of Ireland and are often named for their place of
origin; examples are the Corofin Plain Set, the South
Galway Set and the Clare Lancers Set.
The organisation Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann promotes
and hosts many set dance events.
Shoes and costume
There are two types of shoes; soft shoes (also known as ghillies) and hard
shoes. 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 changed into resin or fiberglass to reduce the weight
and to make the sounds louder. The soft shoes, which are called ghillies,
are black lace-up shoes. Ghillies are only worn by girls, while boys wear
black leather shoes called "reel shoes", which resemble black jazz shoes
with a hard heel. Boy's soft-shoe dancing features audible heel clicks.
Several generations ago, the appropriate dress for a competition was
simply "Sunday best" (clothes one would wear to church). Irish Dance
schools generally have school dresses, worn by lower-level competitors
and in public performances. As dancers advance in competition or are
given starring roles in public performances, they may get a solo dress of
their own design and colours. In the 1970s and 1980s, ornately
embroidered dresses became popular. Today even more ornamentation is
used on girls' dresses. Solo dresses are unique to each dancer. Today
most women and girls wear a wig or hairpiece for a competition, but
some still curl their own hair. Most men wear a shirt, vest, and tie paired
with black trousers.