Irish dance or Irish dancing is a group of traditional dance forms
originating from Ireland, encompassing dancing both solo and in
groups, and dancing for social, competitive and performance purposes.
Irish dance in its current form developed from various influences such
as French quadrilles and English country dancing throughout the 18th
and 19th centuries.
Dance was taught by "travelling dance masters"
Ireland throughout this period, and separate dance forms
developed according to regional practice and differing purposes. Irish
dance became a significant part of Irish culture, particularly for
Irish nationalist movements. From the early 20th century, a number of
organisations promoted and codified the various forms of dance,
creating competitive structures and standardised styles.
Irish dance includes the most well-known form of Irish dance,
Irish step dance, which was popularised from 1994 onwards by dance
shows such as Riverdance, and which is practised competitively across
the Irish diaspora. Step dance is characterised by the rigid upper
body and intricate footwork of its performers. Other forms of solo
Irish dance include sean-nós dance, a relaxed and social dance style
involving improvised steps, and festival Irish dance, a style which
separated from step dance in the mid-20th century.
Irish dancing in groups is made up of a number of styles and
traditions, which developed from French and English dances and
formations. Ceili dance, practised both competitively and socially, is
performed by groups of two to sixteen people, and often uses
traditional or codified dances and formations. Its footwork is simple,
and emphasis is placed on the figures and formations of the dances.
Set dance is primarily a social tradition, for groups of four dancers,
and includes elements of the intricate footwork found in step dance.
2 Irish stepdance
2.1 Modern stepdance
2.1.2 Shoes and costume
2.1.3 Competition structure
2.2 Old-style step dancing
2.3 Festival dance
3 Sean-nós dance
4 Irish céilí dances
5 Irish set dancing
6 See also
9 External links
9.1 General information
There is very little documentary evidence of dance being practised in
Ireland prior to the 17th century. Scholars have hypothesised that
this may result from the integral and consequently unremarkable nature
of dance in pre-modern Irish society, or from the non-literate
nature of the Irish cultural tradition. Indeed, the modern Irish
words for "dance", rince and damhsa did not develop until the 16th
century. The scant evidence available is primarily that of visitors
to Ireland, such as a fourteenth-century song written in the South of
England, where the poet invites his listeners to "come ant daunce wyt
me in Irlaunde". The first native Irish documentary evidence of
dancing is an account of a Mayor of Waterford's visit to Baltimore,
County Cork in 1413, where the attendees "took to the floor" to
celebrate Christmas Eve. However, the Norman invasion of
the twelfth century is likely to have brought with it the round dance
tradition, as it was contemporaneously performed in Norman
Accounts of dancing in the seventeenth century suggest that dancing
was by that time extremely widespread throughout Ireland. A report
from 1600 mentions that Irish dances were group dances similar in form
to English country dances, and later references mention the "rinnce
fada", also known as the "long dance" or "Fading". This dance,
performed to a jig tune though not to any particular piece of music,
became the customary conclusion to balls held in
Ireland towards the
end of the seventeenth century. At this time, dancing was commonly
accompanied by musicians playing bagpipes or the Jew's harp.
By the 1760s, the distinctive hornpipe rhythm of the Irish dance
tradition had developed, and with the introduction of the fiddle to
Ireland from the European continent, a new class of "dancing master"
began to emerge.
The dancing traditions of
Ireland probably grew in association with
traditional Irish music. Although its origins are unclear, it was
later influenced by dance forms from the Continent, especially the
Quadrille. Travelling dancing masters taught across
Ireland as late as
the 18th and early 19th centuries. Because local venues were usually
small, dances were often demonstrated on tabletops, or even the tops
of barrels. As a result, these early styles are characterized by the
arms held rigidly at the sides, and a lack of lateral movement. As
larger dance venues became available, styles grew to include more
movement of the body and around the dance area.
A variety of forms of solo
Irish dance have developed which are
described as stepdance. These include the well-known "modern"
stepdance performed competitively; old-style stepdance, which is
closer in style to the dance practised by 19th-century travelling
dance masters; and festival dance, which separated from modern
stepdance over stylistic and administrative disputes in the mid-20th
Main article: Irish stepdance
Irish step dancers from Scoil Rince na Connemara in Wilkes-Barre, PA,
dance at the HUB, Penn State University.
The most predominant form of
Irish stepdance is that popularised by
the Broadway show Riverdance, and other Irish dancing stage shows
since the late 20th century. Characterised by a rigid torso and dances
performed high on the balls of the feet, this style became distinct
from the late 19th century when the
Gaelic League began efforts to
preserve and promote
Irish dance as part of a broader nationalist
movement concerned with Irish culture. In 1929, the League formed An
Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (The Irish Dancing Commission) in order
to codify and standardise stepdancing competition and education. Over
the following decades, CLRG expanded globally, and promoted this
particular form of stepdance by developing examinations and
qualifications for teachers and competition adjudicators. Today,
stepdance in the style codified by the
Gaelic League is performed
competitively in a number of countries, and under the auspices of a
number of organisations which have at various times broken away from
Irish solo stepdances fall into two broad categories based on the
shoes worn: hard shoe (or heavy shoe) and soft shoe (or light shoe)
There are four soft shoe dance styles: the reel, slip jig, light jig
and single jig (also referred to as hop jig). Reels have a 4
4 (or sometimes 2
4 or 2
2) time signature. Slip jigs are in 9
8 time. Light and single jigs are in 6
8 time, with different emphasis within the measure distinguishing the
music. Hard shoe dances include the hornpipe in syncopated 2
4 or 4
4 time, the treble jig (also called the heavy jig or double jig) in a
8, the treble reel (hard shoe dance done to reel music) and
traditional sets, which are a group of dances with set music and
steps. Many traditional sets have irregular musical phrasing. There
are also more advanced "non-traditional sets" done by advanced
dancers. These have set music, but not steps. There are multiple
traditional sets, including St. Patrick's Day, Blackbird, Job of
Journeywork, Three Sea Captains, Garden of Daisies, and King of the
Competitive dancers generally dance two or three steps at a time,
depending on their dancing level. Each step lasts sixteen bars of
music. They are each danced starting with the right foot for eight
bars, then repeated with the left foot for the last eight bars, doing
the same movements with the opposite feet. Set dances, however, have a
different format. The dancer usually dances one step, which is limited
to eight bars, and is then repeated, resembling the steps of other
dances. Then the dancer usually dances a "set" which is not repeated.
It is a highly sought after and competitive feat to dance this "third
round" — at regional, national, and world competitions, only a small
percentage (typically the top half of dancers graded after the first
two rounds) of dancers are invited back to perform.
The céilí dances used in competitions are more precise versions of
those danced in less formal settings. There is a list of 30 céilí
dances which have been standardised and published in An Coimisiún's
Ar Rinncidhe Foirne as examples of typical Irish folk dances; these
are called the "book" dances by competitive stepdancers. Most Irish
dancing competitions only ask for a short piece of any given dance, in
the interests of time.
Shoes and costume
There are two types of shoes; soft shoes (also known as ghillies or
pumps) 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 made of 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. A new trend
includes adding white laces to the soft shoes, and white tape to the
straps of the hard shoes in order to give the illusion of elongating
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 or wear the team dress. 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, a bun or
hairpiece for a competition, but some still curl their own hair.
Costumes are heavily integrated into the
Irish dance culture and
feature traditional elements of classic peasant wear adorned with
Celtic designs. Most men wear a shirt, vest, and tie paired with
black trousers. Each
Irish dance school has its own distinctive full
skirted dress, often featuring lace or an embroidered pattern copied
from the medieval Irish Book of Kells.
An organized dance competition is referred to as a feis (pronounced
"fesh", plural feiseanna). The word feis means "festival" in Irish,
and strictly speaking would also have competitions in music and
crafts. Féile (/ˈfeɪlə/) is a more correct term for the dance
competition, but the terms may be used interchangeably. Dance
competitions are divided by age and level of expertise. The names of
the levels and other organising rules vary between countries and
regions. Dancers are scored based on technique (placement of the feet,
turn out, off of their heels, etc.), style (grace, power, etc.) and
other items such as timing, rhythm, and sounds in their hard shoe
An annual regional Championship competition is known as an oireachtas
(/oʊˈrɒktəs/). An Coimisiún holds various "national" championship
competitions. Each of the major
Irish step dance
Irish step dance organisations hosts a
premier championship, going by differing titles. An Coimisiún's World
Championships are the largest, with over 6,000 dancers competing from
over 30 countries worldwide. The Aisling (pronounced 'Ashling', Gaelic
for dream) is awarded to the highest placing dancer in each category
from oversees (Mexico, Central and South America, Europe, Africa and
Asia) to encourage them to continue their dream of dancing.
Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, or "The World Championships" (for An
Coimisiún dancers), first took place in
Dublin in 1970 at Coláiste
Mhuire, a school in Parnell Square. The "Worlds" outgrew its original
location and moved around the Republic of
Ireland and Northern
Ireland. In 2002, for the first time, the "Worlds" left
Glasgow. In 2009, for the first time, the World Championships were
held in the United States, in Philadelphia. The 2011 championships
were held once again in Dublin. The 2012 championships were held in
Belfast, with the 2013–2016 Worlds scheduled for Boston, London,
Glasgow respectively. The BBC documentary film Jig
provided an insight into championship level dancers competing in the
2010 World Championships held in Glasgow. The Oireachtas Rince Na
Cruinne will be held in
Dublin in 2017. The Oireachtas Rince Na
Cruinne will be held in
Glasgow in 2018.
An Coimsiún also holds the Oireachtas Rince na hÉireann, or "All
Irelands" which will not take place until February 2018, as the date
has been moved from October. The location for 2018 has not yet been
An Comhdhail's World championships take place each Easter week, with
the competition being held in
Killarney in 2015. The largest NAIDF
(North American Irish
Dance Federation) competition currently is The
Nationals held at
Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in
2010, and at The Valley Forge Convention Center in Pennsylvania in
2012. The WIDA (World Irish
Dance Association), which is mainly
dancers from European countries, also hold their own World and
European Championships over the Easter week, with the competition
being held in Berlin in 2011, and scheduled for Poland in 2012.
Old-style step dancing
Old-style step dancing is a tradition related to, yet distinct from,
sean-nós dancing, though it is sometimes called "Munster-style
sean-nós". Old-style step dancing evolved in the late 18th and early
19th century from the dancing of travelling
Irish dance masters. The
dance masters slowly formalised and transformed both solo and social
dances. Modern masters of old-style step dancing style can trace the
lineage of their steps directly back to 18th century dancers.
Irish dance masters refined and codified indigenous Irish dance
traditions. Rules emerged about proper upper body, arm, and foot
placement. Also, dancers were instructed to dance a step twice—first
with the right foot then with the left. Old-style step dancers dance
with arms loosely (but not rigidly) at their sides. They dance in a
limited space. There is an emphasis on making percussive sound with
the toes. The
Irish dance masters of this period also choreographed
particular steps to particular tunes in traditional music creating the
solo traditional set dances such as the Blackbird, St. Patrick's Day,
and the Job of Journey Work, which also persist in modern Irish
stepdancing. In this context, "set dance" signifies a separate
tradition from the social dance tradition also called set dance.
Main article: Festival Irish dance
Following criticism of CLRG for its emphasis on certain regional forms
of stepdance to the detriment of others, dance teacher Patricia
Mulholland developed a new style of stepdance, beginning in the 1950s.
It was described as a form of "folk ballet" which appealed to dancers
of both Catholic and Protestant religious persuasions. Like other
forms which share the heritage of modern stepdance but have departed
from its codification, festival dance emphasises individuality and
practises more relaxed style and posture.
Main article: Sean-nós dance
Sean-nós, or "old style" dance is a form of Irish dancing which
originated from western regions of Ireland. It has been described
variously as a regional style of stepdancing, and as an entirely
separate style that was virtually unknown outside small areas until
the late 20th century. It is distinguished by footwork which is
percussive but low to the ground in comparison to step dancing, and by
its more freeform nature. Performers use a more relaxed posture, and
improvise steps to fit with music. Typically, sean-nós dances are
performed in small spaces, traditionally doors laid flat and table
Irish céilí dances
Main article: Ceili dance
Irish social, or céili /ˈkeɪli/ 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 bodhrán or fiddle in addition to the
concertina (and similar instruments), guitar, whistle or flute.
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
Main article: Irish set dance
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 and hornpipes. The sets come from various
Ireland and are often named for their place of origin;
examples are the Corofin Plain Set, the
South Galway Set and the Clare
Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann
Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann promotes and hosts
many set and ceili dance events.
Irish cultural stereotypes
^ a b Brennan 1999, p. 15.
^ Ó hAllmhuráin 2017, p. 11.
^ a b Ó hAllmhuráin 2017, p. 16.
^ Whelan 2001, p. 9.
^ a b Brennan 1999, p. 18.
^ Brennan 1999, p. 16.
^ a b Ó hAllmhuráin 2017, p. 33.
^ Ó hAllmhuráin 2017, p. 26.
^ Brennan 1999, p. 22.
^ "The History of Irish Dancing Crystal Parade Blog".
www.crystalparade.co.uk. Retrieved 2017-12-06.
^ Margaret Scanlan (2006). "Culture and Customs of Ireland". p. 163.
Greenwood Publishing Group
^ McCarthy, Todd (16 June 2011). "Jig: Film Review". The Hollywood
Reporter. Retrieved 4 February 2012.
^ McGonagle, Suzanne (7 March 2015). "Irish dancing legend honoured".
The Irish News. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
^ Dorrity, Christie (28 May 2015). "Interview with a Festival Dance
Teacher from Tir Na n-Og Irish Dancing School". Antonio Pacelli.
Retrieved 12 April 2017.
^ Hill, Constance Valis (2014). Tap Dancing America: A Cultural
History. Oxford University Press. p. 11. ISBN 9780190225384.
Retrieved 4 August 2017.
^ Wulff, Helena (2008). Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility
in Ireland. Berghahn Books. p. 18. ISBN 9781845455903.
Retrieved 4 August 2017.
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An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha (2003). Ár Rincí Fóirne: Thirty
Popular Céilí Dances. Westside.
Cullinane, John P. (1987). Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing.
Cork City: John P. Cullinane. ISBN 095279523X.
Cullinane, John (1998). Aspects of the History of Irish Céilí
Dancing. Clontarf, Dublin: The Central Remedial Clinic.
O'Keeffe, J. G.; O'Brien, Art (1902). A Handbook of Irish Dances (1st
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Ó hAllmhuráin, Gearóid (2017). A Short History of Irish Traditional
Music. The O'Brien Press. ISBN 9781847179401. Retrieved 19
Murphy, Pat (1995). Toss the Feathers – Irish Set Dancing.
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Whelan, Frank (2000). The complete guide to Irish dance. Belfast:
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Irish dance.
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Beginners Guide to Irish Dancing
The History of Irish Dance
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Dance instruction database
An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha The Irish Dancing Commission
An Comhdháil Múinteora Rince Gaelacha Congress of Irish Dance
Cumann Rince Náisiúnta (CRN) National
Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann Gathering of Musicians of Ireland
Cumman Rince Dea Mheasa An Organisation of Good Will
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