Irish dance has developed quietly in Ireland for centuries. Irish immigrants brought their traditional dances to America beginning in the 1840s, driven from their homeland by the Great Famine. Their dances had a profound influence on
traditional American folk dances like square dancing and their music was a powerful ingredient in country music. Modern Irish dance, however did not begin to become popular until after World War II. The independence of Ireland
in 1921, rising income levels after the War, and the increasing interest in Irish heritage by Irish Americans all contributed to the expanding interest in Irish dance. This interest was almost entirely within the Irish community until River Dance introduced Irish dancing to the public at large in the 1990s.
Irish step dances are relatively modern, creations of the dancing masters
prevalent in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. "... almost all references to
Irish dances in literature, down to the beginning of the eighteenth century, deal
only with Round and Long dances, and ... there is a marked absence of any
indication of the existence of the dancing-master until about the same time." The
intricate steps were invented by the dancing masters, who elaborated on the simple steps of Round and Long dances. Irish dancing until the Republic obtained independence in 1921 was rather informal. The new Republican Government as a matter of national policy sought to promote Irish culture which they felt, with some validity, had been suppressed by the English. This included even attempts to revive the Irish language which was then only spoken in remote rural areas. Thus all areas of traditional culture, including dance and music benefited from Government support. Irish dance developed during the inter-war years (1919-39), but began to become increasingly popular after World War II. The rising income levels provided more leisure time for a widening sector of the population. The increasingly economically successful Irish in America began to take more interest in their heritage and one expression of this was Irish dance and music. This was a particularly important development as 30 million Americans identify themselves as Irish-American, ten times the population of the the Republic. One Irish contributor to HBC reports that his dance teacher began dancing in the 1940s. She says she has been dancing since she was a young girl. Her house is filled with medals and prizes. Apparently Irish dance became very popular in the 1960s and 70s. Our Irish contributor remembers seeing pictures of his older cousins (boys and girls) dancing. It was the "done thing" back then to learn Irish dancing and a musical instrument. The costumes were simpler and less frequent costume changes.
Irish dance teachers points to many benefits of Irish dance for the children
participating. They learn increased physical skills. They develop body
control and coordination. Dance is great exercise. There is also the opportunity
to increased mental skills: listening, following directions,
increasing attention span, and memorizing steps. Dancing also fosters a healthy
competitive spirit. It increases the child's desire to do well and to the
best of his/her ability. It helps build self-esteem and increase the child's
confidence as he/she develops "stage presence". Dancers build lasting
friendships, not only with classmates, but through performing and competing, meeting children from all parts of the city, state, and country. Irish dancing also helps to promote Irish culture. A revival of Irish identity and tradition began in the 1960s. While a young dancer may not comprehend this particular benefit while training, this revival continues!
Parents often ask when children should begin Irish dancing lessons. Many
instructors suggest beginning at the age of 6 or 7, sometimes younger if the
dancer has an older brother or sister in the school. But there are many children
who first began lessons as early as age 4 and as late as their mid-teens. Before
enrolling a very young child into Irish dance, it is a good idea to ask the teacher
to spend a few moments with your youngster and give you an honest appraisal of
what to expect in the first year (before committing to lessons). Teachers are
qualified to evaluate your child and usually welcome the opportunity to do so.
There are fivev main Irish dances: light jig, treble jig, reel, slip jig, and hornpipe. There is also traditional hornpipe (a faster speed of music), treble reel (hardshoe reel), and setpieces (contemporary pieces to specified music).
There is also a set of rules and regulations to Irish Step Dancing and competitions. You can find these rules at the North American Feis Commission Website. Irish dance groups in other countries have similar rules. On this website
website, you can also see a feis schedule and upcoming national and regional Oireachtas (meaning "festival" in Gaelic). One Irish dance enthusiast believes that rules may be necessary for modern Irish step dancing. Especially younger children need some encouragement and persuasion to put in the long hours
required for learning step dancing. Considerable practice is needed. He writes, "But that is why I personally find modern Irish step dancing boring to the extreme--all the kiddies look alike and dance alike due to the 'rules.'" Set dancing is quite different. Some argue that rules are not needed. The Irish dance enthusiast writes, "Similarly for the old-style 'sean nos' step dancing and brush dancing. These are primarily free-style and would die out completely if 'rules' were imposed on the performers."
Dancers in different countries have different names for the various levels of
dancing. They are, however, basically the same despite the different names. The
beginning dancer moves from Novice, to Primary, to Intermediate to Open. To
progress from one grade to another, the dancer must fulfill certain specified
requirements, such as taking first second or third place at the Feis in Novice, or
first in Primary or Intermediate. The dancer can move up the rankings, but if you
go from Intermediate to Open, and find the standard is too high, you can move
back down to Intermediate after the following January 1, but not before. It may
sound quite easy to progress, but with so many dancers in each category, the
dancer may have to be patient and practice hard. It usually is much easier for the
boys as there are far fewer boys competing than there are girls.
While watching in awe at a dance school performance, a parent may wonder
"How long would it take for my child to learn to do those amazing steps?" Dance teachers generally see individual dancing skills as a gradual progression and that there is no "normal" progression. This all depends on the dancer's age, talents, commitment, home practice, etc. Here is a general assessment as to where an individual dancer could be while describing the following dance program.
Formal lessons of an Irish dance school generally follows an academic
calendar, beginning in September and ending in May/June. Teachers, however
may accept new students at any time during the year. You can expect your beginner's lesson to run approximately one hour, one afternoon or evening each week. Additionally, the teacher may call for extra lessons, especially before an important performance or competition. These lessons may or may not require additional lesson fees depending on the circumstances. Also, private or semi-private (two or three dancers) lessons can be arranged with the teacher throughout the year at an agreed fee schedule. Parents shouldn't expect to remain in the same room while lessons are in progress. Like an academic setting, the teacher needs to be in control of the class and have the full attention of the students. However, a teacher may open certain lessons for parents to observe and question. These nights may be beneficial to the parent keeping abreast of the child's development thus being able to more
closely monitor his/her practice at home.
Irish dance includes a wide variety of types for solo, pair, and group dances. Most people think of step dancing when thinking about Irish dancing. There are many types of step dancing, including reels and jigs. There are four basic Irish step dances (solos): reel, (light) jig, slip jig, and hornpipe. There are, of course, many many variations of reel, light jig, slip jig, and hornpipe steps. Each dancing school has its own versions of
the steps. There is, of course, much more than just step dancing. Irish dance also includes set dancing, ceili, waltzes, and other group dances.
Dance styles have of course changed over time. In modern Irish step dancing, arms and hands are held rigid during solo dances. This was not always the case. Previously they were sometimes more relaxed and were even placed on hips. The lack of arm movement in modern step dancing may have been the influence of parish priests. Some dance historians believe that stiff arms were considered less provocative. Others argue that the Church was trying to increase dancers' self control. The hands held stifly at the side are today one of the most distinctive charateristics of Irish step dancing. Hand movements, however, still occur in figure (group) dances, in part required by the interactions between the dancers. One growing debate in Irish dance is the "battering" or the noise made by hard shoes on wooden stages. This is another of the impacts of the popularity of Michael O'Flarery and "River Dance".
The kingdoms and provinces of early Ireland set aside times and places
for the general assembly of the people. Chief of these, the one to which each
territorial assembly sent representatives, was the Aonach of Great Fair at Tara,
seat of the Ard Rhi, or High King of Ireland. The modern feis, or festivals,
traces its origins to these events. The modern feis began before the turn of the
20th Century as part of the revival of Irish culture. They became a celebration of Irish culture. As a result, they were discouraged by the English. The feises of today are primarily dancing competitions, but music, language, cooking and other competitions are often also held.
Irish dance has evolved in other ways during the 20th Century.
Instruction is beginning at a younger age. Who is instructed has also changed
from mostly males to mostly females (the turning point was before 1930). Girls
dancing solos in competition were rare before the 1920s. Both boys and girls
participate, but the great majority of the dancers are now girls. Often less than 10 percent of the dancers are boys at modern feises. Many mothers would like to encourage their sons to dance, but are unsure as to just how to do it.
A costume is required of each dancer entering a competition or performing
with the school. Individual school's policies vary as to obtaining a school
costume. Sometimes the costume is purchased outright and owned by the
dancer. Other times costumes are owned by the school (or parent organization)
and rented to the student requiring a security deposit. In the third or fourth year, your dancer may earn the right to wear his/her own "solo" costume. Modern costumes are quite different from those worn historically at feises. The dance costume has changed greatly from traditional garb. Boys doing Irish dance wear either long black pants or kilts.
The girls doing Irish step dancing wear dresses, never kilts for
performances. The dresses are heavy "A"-line dresses, often in bright colors.
Many are heavily embroidered in Celtic symbols. Some schools do allow the
girls to even wear kilts for practice. Reserving the kilts for boys is done in part because the kilt was the ancient Celtic male garment and in part so the boys aren't dressed like the girls. This would probably discourage many younger boys from participating in Irish dancing.
I do not note any special hair styles for the boys. They seem to war what ever is currently popualr. Girls tend to dance with long hair. Younger girls often have their hair done in ringlet curls. Older dancers, especially the young women doing programs like "River Dance" often want long hair. There is no rule here, but the hair movement as one does a routein can often be expressive--important in that the hands are kept straight atb ones side. A dancer tells us, " Also, girls don't curl their hair anymore, unless they're beginners. Now, wigs are very popular because they are easier for people traveling and/or with straight hair. Curly hair is by far the majority on hair styles, not because of expression but because it makes it seem
like the dancer is lifting higher in the air when the curls bounce." [Cipollo]
Many teachers are passionate about their commitment to Irish dancing. They
are not only deeply committed to Irish dance and culture, but they also see the
benefits to the dancers. Many find great personal award in teaching and helping
the dancers develop their dancing skills and in the process learning the benefits of
hard work and discipline.
There are interesting similarities and differences between Irish dancing and other dance forms. The most obvious similarities are with Highland dancing, but there are relations with other forms as well. Dance is a constantly evolving art form. The relationships between different dances add important historical insights as to historical trends and cross cultural influences. Irish dance has been significantly influence by ballet and in turn was one of the major influences in the development of American dance forms, especially tap dancing and Western square dancing.
Social dances of the British Isles and Ireland is an interesting topic. Irish steo dancing may have been an influence. There was often a programme card issued for formal balls (or assembly). A little pencil was attached on a ribbon. Inside the programme card the various dances were listed with a column to write each partner's name next to the name of the dance.
We note one source who came across a ball programme card with the entry "Irish Jig" inside. The basic Irish Jig of course was not done with a partner. It could have been a quadrille, a country dance (two lines one facing the other or contre [=contra] as in Franch), or maybe a 'line dance' such as Timmy the Brit's "Peeler and the Goat." At first the source thought that it might have been an interval entertainment of a solo jig aka step dance. But the programme clearly includes a space. One of the big social events in Ireland was a Ceili. This involves a lot of group dances like the "Waves of Tory" where you have two lines and your partner is across from you. A lot of these Ceili dances use Reel and Jig music. There are reels that can have 2-16 people in it and it becomes more technical with the increase in the number of people. You see a lot of these done in Feis competitions and shows. Another report describes a dance they called the "Irish Washerwoman" which is done at English country dances. If they dance it to that tune, it would be a jig. Apparently the dance involves sets or lines of people and uses footwork that looks like a Scottish setting step or pas de bas. There seemed to be sideways skipping up and down the hall as well.
Irish step dancing is of course most associated with Ireland. Boys in many
other countries, of couese do Irish dancing. As a consequence of the Famine,
however, large numbers of Irish had to emmigrate and settle in other countries.
The largest number of course is in America where 10 times more people call
them selves Irish than there are in Ireland. There are Irish in many other countries
as well, such as Austrlia and New Zealand. In addition, Irish dancing and festivals
alsio tale place in countries not normally associated with Ireland. The 2nd
Gaelfest Frankfurt was held in May 2001 in the heart of Germany. Two dance
workshops along with other workshops for instruments, singing,
accompaniment and Gaelic are held. Gaelfest Frankfurt is the biggest Irish
The subject of globelization of Irish and other dance forms is an important
topic to consider. The 2001 Congress on Research in Dance Conference is
being held in New York City. One of the papers to be presented is one on Irish
dance, "Inventing Tradition: Global Development of Irish Dance". The
conference will explore the ways in which dance forms circulate across
communities, regions and nations, acquiring new meanings as they travel. While
the term "globalization" has gained currency in scholarly debatesof recent years,
the dispersion of performance practices is hardly a new phenomenon. Thus, the
conference will include both historical and contemporary analyses of dances'
migrations. The commercialization of folk styles in shows such as "River Dance"
is one aspect of this.
HBC readers report that there have been major developments in Irish dancing in recent years, especially since River Dance. One impact is that many more boys are interested in participating now. River Dance has also affected dance styles and costuming. These developments have been noted in Ireland, America, and other countries where Irish dance has proven popular, primarily countries like America with large numbers of people tracing their ancestry to Irish immigrants.
Some HBC readers have provided us information on their personal experiences concerning Irish step dancing. For many the kilt costume was an importantpart of the experience. So far the comments have come from Ireland, but large numbers of children did Irish dancing in America and other countries. There are probably more Irish dancers in America than Ireland. We hope to eventuallly hear from them as well to add their own experiences about dancing.
We have noted some interesting internet sites dealing with Irish dance and music. HBC readers who know of pertinent sites are encouraged to let us know other sites to link here. Webmasters who would like to exchange links are encouraged to contact us. One site is Patricia Cahill. Patricia Cahill is known as "The Irish Nightingale". Her albums include both beautiful irish music to easy listening and songs from her shows.
Cipollo, Kaelyn. E-mail message, August 13, 2004.
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