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Home : Articles : Arts / Lifestyle : A Short History of Irish Dance

A Short History of Irish Dance

Irish dancing has been enjoying renewed popularity in recent years, largely due to Irish dance stage shows like Riverdance and Lord of the Dance.

The nature of the Irish dance tradition has changed and adapted over the centuries to accomodate 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.
In this clip dancer Breandán de Gallaí talks about his time with Riverdance and his life before he was a professional dancer.

A Changing Vision of Irish Dance
Opinion is divided as to the exact origins of Irish dance.  What is certain is that it has been around in some form for centuries, although its early form would be far removed from modern Irish dance.  Irish dance has evolved and absorbed influences of new cultures over a long period of time to create hybrid offshoots, resulting in the three main forms of Irish dance today.  These are: social dance, including céilí and set dancing, seán-nós dancing, and step dancing, arguably the form which has received the most exposure in recent years.

Dance features prominently Ireland’s mythology and history.  The legends of Tara state that the first ever feis was held there millennia ago, and feiseanna held for trade and communication primarily, but often featured politics, sports and storytelling as well as dance.  The feis has remained, but today it is associated chiefly with music and dance, and is often a platform for solo and group step dancers to perform competitively for medals and trophies.

One of the most influential groups to settle in Ireland in terms of their impact on Irish dance were the Normans.  In 1413 the first instance of caroling was recorded – this was a Norman custom combining singing and dancing. 

Step Dancing
In 1893 the Gaelic League was established to preserve and strengthen all elements of Irish culture.  Although their main focus was Irish language, they also organised Irish dancing classes and competitions, and were behind the founding of An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha in 1929.  The Commission, as it is also known, became responsible for the development and promotion of Irish dancing, and provided qualifications for teachers and adjudicators.  The Commission has a global reach – it has branches throughout the world, and organizes the World Championships.  Comhdháil Múinteoirí na Rincí Gaelacha was later set up to focus more on the training and welfare of dancing teachers, and has branches in Australia, Israel, Slovakia and England, as well as Ireland.

Dancing Master
In the eighteenth century the dancing master became prominent in the story of Irish dance.  He was typically a colourful character who travelled around a district, lodging in a parish teaching dance to the peasants in the surrounding area.  He would stay for a number of weeks, lodging with a local family, and giving lessons for a fee to those who could afford them.  A barn or large space had first to be procured in which to hold the lessons; usually this was arranged with a local farmer, whose children in turn received tuition for free.  It was often a cause of great excitement and esteem to have a dancing master staying in the parish, and the masters often added to this animation with eccentricity of dress and behaviour.

Listen to this interview with Máire Ní Bhruadair, who has been teaching Irish dancing in Belfast for over forty years.  Dancing has changed greatly over this time, and Máire discusses these changes, as well as the pleasure she still finds in dancing, in this clip.

Modern Step Dancing
With the advent of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, Irish dancing costumes became looser, less restrained and more relaxed, relying less on the heavy ornamentation of the traditional style and focussing more on the feet and the steps, and not distracted by embellishment.  Dresses for group dances at competitions were replaced with simple one-colour short dresses worn with black tights, while the solo dresses remained sequinned and colourful.

The twenty-first century has lent some new conventions to Irish dance that would make it unrecognisable to the eighteenth century dance masters.  Fake tan, curly wigs, tiaras, heavy make-up and jewellery are as much a part of competitive dancing today as the music itself.  The male dancers have not escaped the ‘bling’ culture of the twenty-first century either – sequinned waistcoats, bejewelled shoe buckles and studded ties are available for them.

In this clip Eimhear, a step dancer in the modern tradition, reveals her passion for Irish dancing, and also demonstrates her talent and exhibits her many medals and trophies.

Social Dancing
As many people know, céilís were of great significance to Irish people, serving an important social function for meeting friends and exchanging news back in the days before television, radio – originally they did not necessarily include dancing.  Dancing often took place at crossroads when the weather was fair, as this was a large square suitable for the group dances.  Today the meaning of the word céilí has evolved to focus on the dancing, and céilís thrive as a social events for dancing enthusiasts and tourists.
Set dancing is related to céilí dancing, but is more structured and formal.  It usually comprises four couples dancing arranged steps to set music on flat feet, differing from step dancing which is performed on the balls of the feet.  It is said that set dancing is based on the Quadrilles of the French court.

Sean-nós Dance
Probably the most liberated and unregimented form of Irish dance, sean-nós dancing is strongly associated with Connemara, and means ‘old-style’ dancing.  This form is danced low to the ground, and includes improvisation and rhythmic percussive steps with the feet.  The dancer often has a much closer relationship with the musician, and has been referred to as ‘the visual expression of the music and the musician’, due to the use of hips, shoulders and arms as well as feet to accentuate points in the music.  It was traditionally danced upon a wooden half-door or round barrel-top to produce hard clicks with the feet, and the confined space of today’s sean-nós dancing is a remnant of that.

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