If you’re living in or planning to move to Ireland, you’ve most likely noticed that there is a lot to enjoy in the Irish culture. The Irish are proud of their heritage, which is rich through its sports, literature, music, and dance.
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The rhythms and mystic flow of Irish songs have a distinct sound recognised worldwide, and Irish dancing is a tradition as deep-rooted and historically important as the GAA and Irish literature and arts.
The modern world has had the chance to enjoy Irish dancing as part of extra curricular activities in schools and through national and international competitions that have continued to grow in popularity throughout the years. Social media platforms such as tik tok have brought Irish dancing to a global stage.
There are many interesting historical facts about this traditional dance and its development into our contemporary society, and, without further ado, let’s delve into the top 10.
Ancient influence of Celts & Druids
Before the onset of Christianity, the Celts and Druids roamed the Emerald Isle. The roots of Irish dancing come from the influence of their religious rituals, which involved dancing, usually in a circular manner around sacred trees.
This type of dancing was also common in mainland Europe at the time and although it may not really seem anything like traditional Irish dancing, remnants of the formations and patterns can be seen within the dance.
The ‘feis’ was a Celtic ceremony, which celebrated their art, culture and music. It was also an opportunity for them to discuss politics, trade, play sports and tell stories. Dancing was an integral part of this celebration, and Feissana are still held to this day in many Irish communities. However, its purpose now is to showcase Irish dancing and music, where dancers get the opportunity to compete for medals and trophies.
Influence of the Norman Carol dance
After the Normans invaded Ireland in the 12th century, their ‘Carol’ dance conquered Irish towns and villages. It involved one singer, who was surrounded by a circle of dancers that followed his singing and danced accordingly.
In the 18th century, Irish dancing became more disciplined with its styles and formations that are recognised and known today. The emergence of a Dance Master, who was a traveling teacher, meant that people were able to take lessons and the dance grew in popularity.
The best dancers from each town or village were given the status of a ‘soloist’, which meant that they were given special sections of the song to show off their talents in the spotlight.
The formation of Irish dancing
When the Gaelic League was formed in 1893, it organised formal competitions, lessons, and rules for Irish dancing. The popularity of this traditional dance continued to grow within Ireland and by 1930 the Irish Dancing Commission was launched to regulate it.
Once Irish dancing had its own governing body, it really took off as a form of dance and art that became recognised around the globe.
There are 3 main types of Irish dancing routines: set dancing, ceili (social), and sean nos (step). Every dance executes a formal style of dance with little upper body movement and a strict number of steps to be completed.
Ceili routines were the most popular form of Irish dancing because of its social aspect. These routines are performed with a minimum of two and a maximum of sixteen people.
Set dance routines were performed in squares of four couples, where each dancer completed several figures of the routine and swapped sides and also swapped partners.
The Irish Dancing Commission has adapted Sean-nós as the main guide for Irish dancing. Each step is danced twice, once with each foot, where the arms are slightly less rigid compared to the other routines.
3. Arm Movements
Irish dancing is made of fast and intricate footwork, which is the focal point of the dance. However, arm movement appears to be non-existent and is quite irrelevant as the principal lays in the motion of the feet.
Decades ago, dancers performed in limited spaces, which made it hard for them to move their arms. Small rural pubs or barn dances were crowded with locals, and there was little room for arm movement. This eventually became an inseparable part of the dance and the dance became tradition, which is why it is still performed in this way today.
In the past, the traditional accompaniment was a harp, bagpipe, or simply singing. As time went by and the dances got more complex – so did the music.
Irish dancing and Irish music go hand in hand, and there is a wide range of music and instruments to accompany the various dancing routines. One of these instruments is the fiddle, which is basically a violin that is played in a different way. Another instrument is the bodharan – a handheld drum made of goatskin, which is played with a special wooden beater called a tipper.
A whistle can also be heard in Irish dancing, as well as the conterpina, which is similar to an accordion, and uilleann pipes, which are the Irish bagpipes. When an artist goes on stage to perform a solo act, they are usually accompanied by a single instrument.
Male dancers usually wear a shirt, a vest and a tie paired with dark trousers. The attention always gathers on the beautiful dazzling dresses of the female dancers, which are all specially made.
These dresses fall just above the knee and are pleated with long sleeves, often decorated with some sort of Celtic-inspired design or embellishment on the back and chest.
For a long time, girls were required to curl their hair into ringlets or wear wigs to get the desired effect. However, this is slowly becoming less of a requirement. Dresses have also become more flexible and breathable than they used to be in the past.
Soft or hard shoes are worn by the performers depending on the dance. Hard shoes have tips and heels made of fiberglass to add noises to the rhythm of the music.
Soft shoes, also known as ghillies, are made from leather. Male dancers have their own version of the soft shoe, known as ‘reel shoes’. They still have a hard heel and produce noise.
No matter what corner of the globe you are in, if you find yourself interested in learning Irish dancing, there is a possibility you will find a teacher or an Irish dance school.
The World Irish Dance Association (WIDA) is an organization that promotes Irish dancing on the global stage. It was founded in 2004 and currently includes 140 schools in 21 countries. There are Irish dancing schools across the Middle East, Europe, and the USA.
In Ireland, there are several levels of competition, which are divided by age and location. There are regional, county and national competitions. The Dancers are scored on their technique, timing, and the sounds made by their shoes.
An annual World Championship is held by the Irish Dancing Commission in a different country each year. It features over 6,000 dancers from 30 countries all over the world.
The annual regional championship is known as the Oirachatas, which is also the name given to the Irish government.
Riverdance is one of the most important parts of Irish dance history, marking its 25th anniversary this year. This musical theatre show brought Irish dancing to a worldwide audience, making its debut in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest.
It started out as a 7-minute interval featuring the choreography of Irish dancing champions Jean Butler and Flatley. However, it was so well-received that the BBC network commissioned a performance at the Royal Variety Show.
A full-length stage show was created following the growing popularity of Riverdance, which debuted in Dublin in November 1994, six months after the Eurovision performance. It sold over 120,000 tickets and was soon moved to New York and other stages around the globe.
The original show was performed for fifteen years with the final tour being in 2011. Several small productions and spin-offs of the original are being performed to this day, ensuring that Irish dance has a place on the world stage for years to come.
10. Irish dancing goes viral
In recent years, traditional Irish dance has been revived on social media platforms, particularly Tik Tok.
Morgan Bullock from Virginia, USA, made global news when she performed treble jigs to Megan Thee Stallion’s song “Savage”. Many users have been trying to replicate Irish dancing routines on the app since, while others are showing off their talents and techniques.
Through social media, Irish dancing has become a part of the new generation, viewed and shared by millions worldwide.