Learn about Irish dance - styles, steps, music, history & more!
Irish dance or Irish dancing is traditional Gaelic or Celtic dance forms that originated in Ireland. It can be performed as a solo or in groups of up to twenty or more trained dancers. In Ireland, Irish dance is part of social dancing or may be for formal performances and competitions.
It is performed traditionally with intricate foot work and is most known for the dancers performing with a stiff upper body. Unlike other dance forms, Irish dancers do not move their arms or hands so that footwork is accented.
The History of Irish Dance
The history of Ireland is also the history of Irish Dance. The actual dates of its origin has never been determined specifically. However, Irish history is steeped in Druidic, Celtic and other religious history which affected the origins of Irish dance. For example, processionals in Druidic and Celtic religious practices required precision movement as do Irish reels and jigs.
The Celts are a 2,000 year old civilization that brought with them their own folk dances. Many of their dances were comprised of circular formations around sacred trees or they consisted of certain patterns performed by males and females in a religious rite.
If there has been any influence in Irish Dance, it may have been the Quadrille. Ireland has been a country of many travelers who brought with them various continental dance styles. The Quadrille was one of these styles that impacted Irish dance.
The Quadrille was popular across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries when royalty held balls and cotillions. Although, the Quadrille was popular toward the end of the 18th century and spread to England and Ireland around the early 19th century.
A Quadrille is a square dance performed by four couples. It contains five choreographic figures. Each of these figures is a complete dance sequence of itself. Thus, it is easy to see how Irish reels became a prominent part of Irish dance.
Musical instruments like the Irish Bodhran (drum), fiddle, concertina, accordian, Uiliean pipes, Celtic harp, tin whistles and banjo form the background of Irish dance music
Irish Dance Costumes, Dresses and Shoes
In the early days of Irish dance the dance costumes for females were basically ankle length dresses or blouses and skirts. For male dancers, costumes might have consisted of a shirt with a kilt in the Irish clan plaid or it may have been a long coat, shirt, vest and briques (calf length pants) with leggings.
Modern Irish dancers and dancers performing in traditional Celtic dance wear several different costume styles. For Traditional Celtic dance, female dancers wear blouses and long skirts while the male dancers perform with traditional shirt and kilt.
Modern Irish female dancers perform in beautiful short dresses in bright colors, mostly always with their arms fully covered. Modern Irish male dancers perform in trousers and a shirt with a colorful sash tied at the waist.
Shoes for male Irish dancers depends on the type of dance they are performing. For Flat Down step dancing, shoes have metal cleats on the toes and heels. For Ballet Up dance, shoes for males have soft soles.
Female dancers wear black leather "Ghillies" that have soft soles for flexibility for Ballet Up steps. The soft leather of Ghillies help Irish dancers perform dance steps either on the balls of the feet or on tips of their toes.
Female Irish dancers wear two basic types of shoes. For Flat Down step dances, shoes are an oxford style with a thick heel with metal cleat attached to the full heel and a thick frontal sole that also has a metal cleat attached. The oxford is usually black leather, has laces and a leather strap to secure the shoe to the foot.
Irish Dance Styles & Types
In total, there are six Irish dance styles. However, it is equally important to note that within each of the six Irish dance styles, there are basically only two dance style techniques, these are known as Ballet Up and Flat Down. These describe how Irish dancers use their feet in the six styles.
Ballet up describes a balletic style where toes are pointed and steps are performed high on the balls of the feet or on tips of the toes. Body weight is lifted upward from the floor.
Flat Down describes a technique that relies more on the use of the heels in a flat, gliding motion. Body weight sinks downward into the floor to emphasize the sound of the metal cleats.
The six Irish dance styles include:
Traditional Irish Step Dancing - only the legs and feet move in flat down technique
Modern Irish Step Dancing - full body movement with ballet up technique
Irish Set Dancing - with Flat Down technique
Irish Ceili Dancing - with Ballet Up technique
Irish Sean Nos Dancing - with Flat Down technique
Irish Two Hand Dancing - with Flat Down technique
Traditional Irish Step
Traditional Irish Step dancing is performed by male and female dancers in long lines, circles, squares or as partnered reels. Traditional Iris Step Dancing consists of dances set to traditional Irish music with a fast tempo that dancers are required to perform sets of steps to.
For example, two groups of dancers face opposite each other and shuffle, hop, jump, tap and stamp to the music as they more toward each other. Dancers then move between the dancers of the opposite line and then back to their original position. This is often referred to as a "competition" line dance.
Modern Irish Step Dancing
Modern Irish Step dancing has female dancers performing ballet up dance movements like leg swings, hopping and jumping or sashaying to the music. The female dancers perform in soft ghillies while the male dancers are heard tapping in Oxford tap shoes to the music Modern Irish Step Dancing
Modern Irish Step dancing has female dancers performing ballet up dance movements like leg swings, hopping and jumping or sashaying to the music. The female dancers perform in soft ghillies while the male dancers are heard tapping in Oxford tap shoes to the music.
Irish Set Dancing
Irish Set Dancing, as its name implies consists of dances performed in "sets." For example, a performance of Irish Set Dances may be part of a whole choreographed dance performance that is broken up into several separate parts. The set usually requires dancing in couples in four sets.
The Set Dance begins with all four couples dancing to the same choreography. This is followed by each couple performing the same sets as individual couples.
Irish Ceili Dancing
Irish Ceili (pronounced "kay-lee) Dancing is a very traditional dance form. It originated in the 1500's and is always performed to traditional Irish music. The Ceili Dances consist of quadrilles, reels, jigs and long or round dances. These were the most native Irish traditional folk dances.
Irish Sean Nos Dancing
Irish Sean Nos Dancing is one of the oldest of the traditional Irish dance styles. It is the only one performed as a solo. It differs from other Irish dances in that it allows free movement of the arms and it is flat down with the heavy weight on the accented beat of the music.
Sean Nos Dancing is the only Irish dance that also allows the solo dancer to improvise the choreography simultaneously as the dance is performed. The taps consist of shuffles and brushes as the dancer moves across the floor.
Irish Two Hand Dancing
This style of Irish Dance was a predominant part of Irish socializing. It is performed much like Irish Set Dancing with the exception that is it danced to polkas, Irish hornpipes, waltzes and jigs. Like the Irish Set Dancing, it is performed by couples with specific choreographic dance patterns, although in Irish Two Hand Dancing the patterns are repeated.
In Irish Two Hand Dancing couples dance in a relaxed style while they tap their feet in shuffling, hopping and spinning motion. By all appearances, when Irish Two Hand Dancing is performed on a large dance floor, the couples seem to be gliding along as they dance.
Basic Irish Dance Steps
Ballet Up styles of Irish dance rely on several uniformly performed steps. The first comes from the ballet step, "chasse," which means to "chase." In this step the Irish dancer steps with the right foot while the left foot "chases" the right in three counts. This is often called the "1-2-3."
Another step borrowed from Ballet is the "cabriole" which is to leap into the air while the left calf beats under the right calf that is extended forward in the air. There are several other steps that require the dancer to perform full or half turns.
In Flat Down Irish dance steps, the dancer's foot strikes the floor in a twisting shuffle of the right foot while hopping into the air with the left foot.
There are also combinations of Irish dance steps that include the "1-2-3", shuffle, stamping the whole foot and tapping one toe behind the other foot that holds body weight.
Although traditional Irish dance limits movement of the arms, today's modern Irish dancers are seen starting a dance routine with their hands on their hips and using certain movements of the arms that coordinate with music for interpretation of choreography.
Irish Dancers are as young as pre-school age to adult. There are numerous Irish Dance schools that teach traditional and modern Irish dance styles in the U.S. and Europe. The syllabus for Irish Dance is less complex than ballet, although several Irish steps originate from ballet.
Irish Dance is a combination of ballet and tap dancing. Although, it can be said that tap dancing originated from Irish flat down dance technique.
Unlike ballet, however, Ballet Up dance steps require dancers to place full weight on their toes in ghillies that are not blocked as ballet pointe shoes are.
In Flat down dance steps, the shoe is more flexible across the front of the shoe than a traditional tap dance shoe. This enables the Irish dancers to perform shuffling steps with more speed.
Irish Dance Today
The first international reintroduction to Irish Dance performances was with the performance of "Riverdance", composed by Bill Whelan.
The first performance was in 1995 in Dublin. It starred the now famous Irish Dancer and Irish Dance choreographer, Michael Flatley.
Although, it predominantly features Irish step dancing, "Riverdance" has a Baroque style that incorporates other dance styles like flamenco and a Russian dervish. The end result for dance experts is that "Riverdance" provides insight into how dances are linked in technique and styles.
It has since been performed as a touring Irish Dance show in New York City and at the Vatican for Pope Francis.
In addition to "Riverdance," Michael Flatley choreographed his first full length Irish Dance performance in which he starred, in "Lord of the Dance." This was followed by "Feet of Flames" and "Celtic Tiger Live." These are modern Irish dance shows that include Ballet Up and Flat Down Irish dance techniques.
In "Feet of Flames," Michael Flatley performs a lengthy series of movements that seem to defy gravity, all while maintaining balance and musical timing.
However, in the Flatley shows, he included traditional Irish songs in the Gaelic language as well as actual story lines for each of his Irish dance shows. For example, in Lord of the Dance, the story line has both a romantic and a fairy tale plot that includes a whimsical fairy piper.
As a result of the addition of a Gaelic singer and two Irish talented Irish fiddlers in these shows, similar Irish entertainment emerged from these Irish performances such as "Celtic Woman" and "Irish Tenors."
All of these Irish performances include some of the most extraordinary dance talent and shows the extreme skill needed to maintain Irish dance choreography as well as a semblance of acting talent.
There are also Irish Dance Championships that encourage students of Irish Dance to take part in competitions for awards for their dance techniques, skills and choreography.
There is no doubt Irish Dance captures the attention of audiences wherever it is performed. There are also many Irish societies and organizations that help promote Irish dance performances like the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Milwaukee St. Patrick's Day Parade, Friendly Sons of the Shillelagh and the World Irish Dance Organization. Today, Irish Dance is seen in the Thanksgiving Day Macy's Parade as well as the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York City and Chicago.