Irish stepdance is a style of performance dance with its roots in
traditional Irish dance. It is generally characterized by a stiff
upper body and quick and precise movements of the feet. It can be
performed solo or in groups. Aside from public dance performances,
there are also stepdance competitions all over the world. These
competitions are often called Feiseanna (singular Feis). In Irish
dance culture, a
Feis is a traditional Gaelic arts and culture
festival. Costumes are considered important for stage presence in
competition and performance Irish stepdance. In many cases, costumes
are sold at high prices and can even be custom made. Males and females
can both perform
Irish stepdance but for the most part in today's
society, the dance remains predominantly female. This means that the
costumes are mainly dresses. Each dress is different, with varying
colors and patterns, designed to attract the judge's eye in
competitions and the audience's eye in performance. General appearance
besides the costume is also equally important. Dancers would typically
curl their hair before each competition. Many dancers invest in curled
wigs that match their hair color. Poodle Socks are worn with the
dresses and shoes. These are white socks that stretch to mid calf with
Riverdance, an Irish stepdancing interval act in the 1994 Eurovision
Song Contest that later became a hugely successful theatrical
production, greatly contributed to its popularity. Once Riverdance
became a large production, it changed the way that
Irish dance was
performed and viewed. Now that entrepreneurs could capitalize on Irish
culture, they were able to tweak it to the audiences liking. This
meant adding theatrical flair to the performance, including arm
movements (as opposed to the previously rigid top half that dancers
maintained) as well as sexualizing the dance and the costumes. To many
this was a betrayal of tradition, but to some it was a way of
expanding Irish culture and became widely accepted. Following after
Riverdance was Lord of the
Dance and many other theatrical productions
based on Irish stepdance. Michael Flatley, an Irish stepdancer, became
a well known name within these shows.
Two types of shoes are worn in Irish stepdance; hard shoes, which make
sounds similar to tap shoes, and soft shoes (called Ghillies), which
are similar to ballet slippers. The dances for soft shoe and hard shoe
are generally different and go by different names. Different music
with varying beats are played based on the dance, though they all
share basic moves and rhythms. Most competitive stepdances are solo
dances, though many stepdancers also perform and compete in
traditional set and céilí dances. Competition is organized by
several organizations, and there are competitions from the local level
to world championships.
1.1 Early history (prehistory–1927)
1.2 Codification and organisation (1927–1994)
Riverdance era (1994–present)
2.2 Solo dance
2.3 Group dance
3.1 Competitive costumes
3.2 Festival costumes
4.1 Hard shoes
4.2 Soft shoes
5 Competitive step dance
6 In performance
7 In the media
8 See also
11 External links
11.1 Male Irish Step Dancing costumes
Irish dance § History
Early history (prehistory–1927)
The dancing traditions of Ireland are likely to have grown in tandem
with Irish traditional music. Its first roots may have been in
Pre-Christian Ireland, but
Irish dance was also partially influenced
by dance forms on the Continent, especially the quadrille dances. Some
of the earliest recorded references to
Irish dance are to the Rinnce
Fada or "long dance", towards the end of the 17th century, which was
performed largely on social occasions. Traveling dancing masters
taught all over Ireland beginning around the 1750s and continuing as
late as the early 1900s.
By the late 19th century, at least three related styles of step dance
had developed in Ireland. The style practised in
Munster saw dancers
on the balls of their feet, using intricate percussive techniques to
create complex rhythm. On the other hand, a tradition developed in
Ulster saw dancers instead using their heel to create a persistent
drumming effect, and primarily performing in pairs. The Connemara
style, later described as sean-nós dance, combined heel and ball
movements with swaying of the torso and vigorous movement of the
Although informal competitions were held between towns and students of
different dance masters, the first organised feis was held in 1897 by
the Gaelic League, an Irish nationalist body formed with the purpose
of preserving traditional
Irish language and culture. The League
began to codify and promote the form of step dance which was practiced
in southern areas. This codification, practised from the early
1920s, greatly narrowed the range of traditional Irish dances
acceptable in popular culture.
Codification and organisation (1927–1994)
In 1927, the
Gaelic League set up An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha
(CLRG, the Irish Dancing Commission), a separate body dedicated to the
organisation and standardisation of Irish dance. CLRG created
certifications for dance teachers and began to hold examinations for
adjudicators of feisanna.
In the 19th century, the
Irish diaspora had spread
Irish dance all
over the world, especially to North America and Australia. However,
schools and feiseanna were not established until the early 1900s: in
America these tended to be created within Irish-American urban
communities, notably in Chicago. The first classes in stepdancing were
held there by the Philadelphia-born John McNamara.
According to the BBC's A Short History of Irish Dance, "The nature of
Irish dance tradition has changed and adapted over the centuries
to accommodate 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."
Sometime in that decade or the one following, a dance teacher had his
students compete with arms held firmly down to their sides, hands in
fists, to call more attention to the intricacy of the steps. The
adjudicator approved by placing the students well. Other teachers and
dancers quickly followed the new trend. Movement of the arms is
sometimes incorporated into modern Irish stepdance, although this is
generally seen as a hybrid and non-traditional addition and is only
done in shows and performances, not competitions.
The first television broadcast of Irish stepdance, on
CBS in 1945,
contributed to the increased popularity of a stepdance style
originating in Ulster. This style, which incorporated balletic
movements and high elevation on the toes, gradually usurped the
Munster style with fast, low footwork which had prevailed up to that
Riverdance era (1994–present)
The success of
Riverdance and other dance shows in the late 20th
century influenced the choreography and presentation of stepdance in
both competitive and public performance environments. This included
the use of simpler costumes and hairstyles for public performance in
imitation of the
Riverdance styles, and the development of new dance
styles, such as hard shoe dances performed to music typically
associated with soft shoes. In competitive dance, movements from
flamenco and figure skating began to be incorporated into traditional
steps, although such developments were criticised by elements of the
competitive dancing community.
The techniques involved in
Irish stepdance are essentially similar
across each of the individual dance styles. The basic style of modern
step dance used in competitive contexts evolved from the stylistic
features of traditional step dance in Munster. This style is largely
performed on the balls of the feet with toes pointed outwards.
Competitive dancers are judged on posture, timing, rhythm and
execution, which in practice means a rigid torso, rapid and intricate
footwork, and legs and feet crossed over each other, with knees close
Irish stepdances can be placed into two categories. Solo stepdances,
which are danced by a single dancer, and group stepdances, which are
coordinated with 2 or more dancers.
Irish stepdancers performing in school costumes and hard shoes
Reel, slip jig, hornpipe, and jig are all types of Irish stepdances
and are also types of Irish traditional music. These fall into two
broad categories based on the shoes worn: hard shoe and soft shoe
dances. Reels, which are in 2
4 or 4
4 time, and slip jigs, which are in 9
8 time and considered to be the lightest and most graceful of the
dances, are soft shoe dances. Hornpipes, which can be in 2
4 or 4
4 time, are danced in hard shoes. Three jigs are danced in
competition; the light jig, the single jig, which is also called the
Hop jig, and the treble jig, which is also called double jig. Light
and single jigs are in 6
8 time, and are soft shoes dances, while the treble jig is hard shoe,
danced in a slow 6
8. The last type of jig is the slip jig, which is danced in 9
8 time. There are many dances, which steps vary between schools. The
traditional set dances (danced in hardshoe) like St. Patrick's Day and
the Blackbird, among others, are the only dances that all schools have
the same steps.
The actual steps in
Irish stepdance are usually unique to each school
or dance teacher. Steps are developed by
Irish dance teachers for
students of their school. Each dance is built out of the same basic
elements, or steps, but the dance itself is unique, and new dances are
being choreographed continuously. For this reason, videotaping of
competitions is forbidden under the rules of An Coimisiun.
Each step is a sequence of foot movements, leg movements and leaps,
which lasts for 8 bars of music. It is traditional for each step to be
performed first on the right foot and then on the left foot. This
practice leads to a large proportion of dancers exhibiting a
preference for their right leg over their left in dance movements.
Hard shoe dancing includes clicking (striking the heels of the shoes
against each other), trebles (the toe of the shoe striking the floor),
stamps (the entire foot striking the floor), and an increasing number
of complicated combinations of taps from the toes and heels.
There are two types of hard shoe dance, the solo dances, which are the
hornpipe and treble jig, and the traditional set dances, also called
set dances, which are also solo dances, despite having the same name
as the social dances. Traditional set dances use the same choreography
regardless of the school whereas contemporary sets are choreographed
by the teachers. The music and steps for each traditional set was set
down by past dance masters and passed down under An Coimisiún
auspices as part of the rich history of stepdancing, hence the
There are about 30 traditional sets used in modern stepdance, but the
traditional sets performed in most levels of competition are St.
Patrick's Day, the Blackbird, Job of Journeywork, Garden of Daisies,
King of the Fairies, and Jockey to the Fair. The remaining traditional
set dances are primarily danced at championship levels. These tunes
vary in tempo to allow for more difficult steps for higher level
dancers. An unusual feature of the set dance tune is that many are
"crooked", with some of the parts, or sections, of the tunes departing
from the common 8 bar formula. The crooked tune may have a part
consisting of 7½ bars, fourteen bars, etc. For example, the "St.
Patrick's Day" traditional set music consists of an eight-bar "step,"
followed by a fourteen-bar "set."
The group dances are called céilí dances or, in the less formal but
common case, figure dances. Competitive céilís are more precise
versions of the festive group dances traditionally experienced in
There is a list of 30 céilí dances that have been standardised and
published in An Coimisiun's Ar Rince Ceili (which replaced Ár
Rinncidhe Foirne in 2015) as examples of traditional Irish folk
dances. Standardized dances for 4, 6 or 8 dancers are also often found
in competition. Most traditional céilí dances in competition are
significantly shortened in the interests of time. Many stepdancers
never learn the entire dance, as they will never dance the later parts
of the dance in competition.
Other céilí dances are not standardised. In local competition,
figure dances may consist of two or three dancers. These are not
traditional book dances and are choreographed as a blend of both
traditional céilí dancing and solo dancing. Standardized book dances
for 16 dancers are also rarely offered. Figure Choreography
competitions held at major oireachtasi (championships) involve more
than 8 dancers and are a chance for dance schools to show off novel
and intricate group choreography. An Coimisiún has also introduced a
"dance drama" category, which combines physical theatre with Irish
dance. A 200-word story is read and followed by a six-minute dance
performance including costumes, mime and facial expression.
Some dance schools recognised by An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha
place as much emphasis on céilí dancing as on solo dancing,
meticulously rehearsing the dances as written in the book and striving
for perfect interpretation. In competition, figure dancers are
expected to dance their routine in perfect unison, forming seamless
yet intricate figures based on their positions relative to each other.
The development of
Irish stepdance costumes occurred throughout the
20th century alongside the dance style itself. Costumes were thus
heavily influenced by the rules and competitive structures put in
place by An Coimisiún and other organisations. In more recent years,
costumes changed dramatically and departed significantly from
A boy's costume. It may vary from a simple shirt and tie to
Judges at competitions critique the dancers primarily on their
performance, but they also take into account presentation. In every
level of competition the dancers must wear either hard shoes or soft
shoes. Boys and girls wear very distinctive costumes. Girls must wear
white poodle socks or black tights. Competition dresses have changed
in many ways since Irish
Dance first appeared. Several generations ago
the appropriate dress was simply your "Sunday Best". In the 1980s
ornately embroidered velvet became popular. Other materials include
gaberdine and wool. Today many different fabrics are used, including
lace, sequins, silk, embroidered organzas and more. Some dresses,
mainly solo dresses, have flat backed crystals added for stage appeal.
Swarovski is being used more frequently.
Velvet is also becoming
popular again, but in multiple colours with very different, modern
embroidery. The commission dresses have stiff skirts which can be
stiffened with Vilene and are intricately embroidered.
Irish step dancers in a St. Patrick's Day Parade in Fort Collins,
Costumes can be simple for the beginning female dancer; they often
wear a simple dance skirt and plain blouse or their dancing school's
costume. The certain colours and emblem that are used on the dresses
represents the dance school to differentiate it from other dance
schools. These are similar to a solo dress, but are simple with only a
few colours, while are still more pounds, depending on the fabric, and
may require some getting used to. School costumes are not decorated
At advanced levels where dancers can qualify for Major competitions,
solo costumes help each dancer show their sense of style, and enable
them to stand out among a crowd. The dancers can have a new solo dress
specially tailored for them with their choice of colours, fabrics, and
designs. Popular designers include Gavin Doherty, Siopa Rince, and
Elevations. Some dancers will even design the dress themselves. The
dancer can also buy second hand from another dancer. Since the dresses
are handmade with pricey materials, unique designs, and are measured
to each dancer's body type, the dresses can cost between $600 and
Along with having the handcrafted dresses, championship commission
dancers have wigs and crowns or decorative headbands. In commission
schools female dancers have the choice to wear either a wig or curl
their hair, but usually in championship levels, girls choose to wear a
wig, as wigs are more convenient and popular. Dancers get synthetic
ringlet wigs that match their hair color or go with an extremely
different shade (a blonde dancer wearing a black wig or vice versa).
The wigs can range from $20.00 to $150. Usually the crowns match the
colours and materials of the dresses, but some dancers choose to wear
tiaras, or tiaras with a fabric crown. The championship competitions
are usually danced on stages with a lot of lighting. To prevent
looking washed out, dancers often wear stage makeup and tan their
legs. A rule was put in place in January 2005 for Under 10 dancers
forbidding them to wear fake tan, and in October 2005 it was decided
that Under 12 dancers who were in the Beginner and Primary levels
would not be allowed to wear fake tan or make up.
The boys used to wear jackets and kilts, but now more commonly perform
in black trousers with a colorful vest and tie and, more frequently, a
vest with embroidery and crystals.
The festival style differs, styling more towards a simple unified
design, not using much detail or diamonds.
Irish dance festivals (also
called "shows") have dancers wear their hair either in a wig or down,
depending on the age and level of the dancer.
Three types of shoes are worn in competitive step dancing: hard shoes
and two kinds of soft shoe.
Hard shoes with fiberglass tips
Hard shoes, also known as the heavy shoes or jig shoes, are leather
shoes in the style of an
Oxford shoe but with a toe piece similar to
the cleat on a tap shoe as well an extended heel, both of which enable
the production of rhythmic sounds.
Early 20th century dancers used a variety of shoes, including both
those made of cowhide, which minimised sound production, and hobnail
boots, which produced loud percussive sounds. At this time, it was
common for women to perform jigs and hornpipes in ordinary lightweight
shoes, because their dances did not involve rhythmic percussion, but
from the 1930s onward both men and women began to wear heavy leather
shoes. Although in Ireland, hard shoes were used only for heavy
jigs and hornpipes, in Australia until the 1950s it was common
practice to perform all dances in such heavy shoes.
After An Coimisiún Le Rince Gaelacha banned the use of metal heel or
toe pieces in the 1940s, ordinary shoes were modified with nails,
coins or gravel in order to improve the clarity of sound and to
emphasise the rhythms of the heavy dances. At this time, it
was also common for heel and toe pieces to be improvised with several
layers of leather stitched together in a tapered shape.
From the 1980s, toe pieces and heels were developed made from
fibreglass or plastics, in response to lighter shoe leather with
inferior sound production qualities, and with the aim of minimising
damage caused to floors by nails. The lightweight nature of such
materials allowed dancers to achieve more elevation in their
steps, and furthermore enabled entirely new movements to be
incorporated into dances, such as pointe work in the balletic style on
the very tip of the toe piece. A further innovation, the "bubble
heel", which added an inwards protrusion to the hollow plastic heel,
created a far louder sound when clicking the heels together than was
possible in traditional leather-heeled shoes. An Coimisiún later
outlawed bubble heels in competition, but plastic heels continued to
enable "click" movements. Dancing en pointe was popularised further by
the introduction of shoes with modified, more flexible soles.
The sound production qualities of shoes were further augmented by the
radio microphones built into the toe for shows such as Riverdance.
At the end of the 20th century, a further development occurred in shoe
design: the "flexi" sole, which removed the rigid "spine" from the
base of the shoe, in an attempt to enable greater flexibility in the
feet. However, concerns were raised by dance regulators that the lack
of support would have an adverse impact on dancers' feet.
It is common for an intricate but entirely cosmetic buckle to be added
to hard shoes for competition, in the shape of a shamrock or other
Commercially available hard shoes are priced at between US$100 and
Until the early 20th century, reels and slip jigs were performed in
ordinary walking shoes, as with heavy jigs and hornpipes. Beginning at
the dancing competition of the 1924 Tailteann Games in Dublin, a style
of ballet pump held on by a looped piece of elastic was introduced for
these dances. The increased popularity of these shoes over the
following decades contributed to a more balletic style in the slip jig
which eventually led to this dance being performed exclusively by
In the latter half of the 20th century, the pumps changed to a low cut
type with crossed laces similar to the Scottish ghillie. This modern
type of shoe, however, differs from the traditional Scottish footwear
with a shorter toe box and round laces. A number of variations on this
type are available, including variants with softer leather and split
soles. This change was motivated by a desire to highlight the
position of feet to adjudicators, as the usual black colour of the
pumps contrasted with the exposed white of the poodle socks. The
flexible nature of these shoes enables rapid and graceful movement as
well as elevation in the dancer's performance.
These soft shoes cost around $40 when purchased new.
Until the 1970s, it was common for men to wear the pumps as well,
particularly when competing in the slip jig, but at this time, An
Coimisiún introduced legislation restricting their use to boys under
the age of 11. Consequently, a new style of she was adopted for men
similar to the contemporary hard shoe, with the toe piece and ankle
strap removed but the fibreglass heel retained. This second type
of soft shoe, often known as the "reel shoe", is worn exclusively by
male dancers, although younger male dancers are occasionally
encouraged to begin in jazz shoes which are similar apart from the
Competitive step dance
From the late 1800s, when the
Gaelic League began to organise cultural
festivals to promote the cause of Irish nationalism, Irish step dance
developed a competitive element. Throughout the 20th century,
structures for competition developed and spread across the world.
Several organisations, many of which at various stages separated from
the Gaelic League's An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha, independently
organise Irish dancing competitions, both in Ireland and elsewhere. In
addition to An Coimisiún, Irish step dance is regulated by An
Comhdháil na Múinteoirí le Rincí Gaelacha, Cumann Rince
Náisiúnta, the World Irish
Dance Association, the Festival Irish
Dance Teachers Association, and others.
A number of smaller organisations are described as "open platform",
meaning that dancers and teachers may affiliate with and compete under
other open platform organisations. Open platform organisations also
adhere to broad mission statements rather than strict hierarchy, in an
attempt to appeal to dance teachers wishing to remain independent.
An Coimisiún and An Comhdháil are primarily closed to competitors
from other organisations, but operate open platform competitions in
areas with fewer members.
Irish step dance organisations generally require their teachers and
adjudicators to be qualified by the governing body. Most follow the
structure set by An Coimisiún, the most important qualifications of
which are the TCRG (qualification to teach) and the ADCRG
(qualification to adjudicate). These qualifications are awarded by
examinations which test practical and theoretical knowledge of
traditional and original steps for both step dance and ceili
dancing. An Comhdháil and some other organisations recognise
the qualifications awarded by An Coimisiún, but An Coimisiún
only recognises teachers and adjudicators qualified under their own
A feis (/ˈfɛʃ/, plural feiseanna) is a competitive step dance
event. The word "feis" means "festival" in Irish, and traditionally
consists of dancing competitions as well as competition in music and
traditional crafts. Many modern feiseanna, however, are solely Irish
dancing events. At a feis, several grades of competition are
typically offered, in accordance with regional practice and the rules
of the governing organisation. These grades may be based on a dancer's
level of experience or their previous results in feiseanna. A feis
competition is generally judged by between one and three adjudicators,
depending on the size of the event and local organisation rules.
Dancers compete in sections of one solo dance at a time, and feiseanna
may also include competitions for ceili dances.
An oireachtas (plural oireachtais or oireachtasi) or championship
competition is a larger and usually annual Irish dancing competition.
The first oireachtas, established by the Gaelic League, was inspired
by the Welsh eisteddfod and was conceived as an Irish national
festival. An oireachtas is often the highest-level competition for
a region or country, such as
Oireachtas Rince Na hEirann (The
All-Ireland Championships) or the North American Irish Dancing
Championships. Oireachtais operate at only one level of competition
and are judged by multiple adjudicators. In An Coimisiún oireachtais,
dancers perform three dances in consecutive rounds and are placed
according to their cumulative scores. Like feiseanna, oireachtais may
include competitions for ceili dances.
Many of the larger organisations operate an annual World Championships
for their organisation's dancers. The largest and oldest of these
is An Coimisiún's
Oireachtas Rince Na Cruinne, which was established
in 1970, and involves up to 3000 competing dancers who have qualified
at regional and national oireachtais.
At the 1897 general meeting of the Gaelic League, displays of dancing
were observed to be more popular than the speeches and debates. The
public performance of step dance, therefore, evolved with the
organisation of social dances as a means for the
Gaelic League to
ensure both ongoing popularity and financial stability for its
Riverdance was the interval act in the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest
which contributed to the popularity of Irish stepdance, and is still
considered a significant watershed in Irish culture. Its roots are
in a three-part suite of baroque-influenced traditional music called
"Timedance" composed, recorded and performed for the 1994 contest,
which was hosted in Ireland. This first performance featured
American-born Irish dancing champions
Jean Butler and Michael Flatley,
RTÉ Concert Orchestra
RTÉ Concert Orchestra and the Celtic choral group
Anúna with a
score written by Bill Whelan. Riverdance's success includes an
eight-week sell out season at Radio City Music Hall, New York, with
the sales of merchandise resulting in Radio City Music Hall
merchandise sale's record smashed during the first performance,
sell-out tours at King's Hall, Belfast, Northern Ireland, and The
Green Glens Arena, Millstreet, Co. Cork, Ireland, plus a huge three
and a half-month return to The Apollo in Hammersmith with advance
ticket sales of over £5,000,000.
After Flatley left Riverdance, he created other
Irish dance shows
including Lord of the Dance,
Celtic Tiger Live and Feet of Flames, the
last-named being an expansion of Lord of the Dance.
In the media
A 2007 RTÉ reality television program, Celebrity Jigs 'n' Reels,
combined traditional stepdance with modern music and choreography in a
competitive format which paired celebrities with professional dancers.
Competitors were judged by well-known stepdancers including Jean
Butler and Colin Dunne.
Sue Bourne documentary film
Jig followed eight dancers as
they prepared for An Coimisiún's 2010 World Championships in
Glasgow. On its release, the film was praised for attention to
technical aspects of stepdance, but criticised for failing to explain
the historical and socio-political context of the event.
TLC acquired the rights to the documentary in preparation for a new
television show about the competitive
Irish stepdance world in
America, for which the working title is Irish Dancing Tweens. The
series, which will be produced by Sirens Media, features several dance
schools. Each episode will focus on individual dancers during
rehearsals, preparation, travel, and during competitions. Eight
episodes of the series have been ordered.
BBC One produced a six-part documentary series called Jigs
and Wigs: The Extreme World of Irish Dancing, which featured "the
unusual individuals and the stories" of stepdance. The series was
noted for its focus on the extreme elements of the modern Irish
stepdance world, and the increasing financial pressures on
competitors. Reviewers also noted that Jigs and Wigs presented a
stepdance world increasingly divorced from perceived Celtic
Sean-nós dance in United States
Festival Irish dance
The Keltic Dreams
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The History of Irish Dance
Irish Step Dancing
Beginners Guide to Irish Dancing
Male Irish Step Dancing costumes
Video of male Irish Step Dancing costumes
Another video of male Irish Step Dancing costumes
Website about male Irish Step Dancing costumes
Sean-nós dance (in the United States)
2 and 4
Single and double jig
Haste to the Wedding
South Galway Set
Clare Lancers Set
An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha
Conradh na Gaeilge
An Comhdháil na Múinteoirí le Rincí Gaelacha
Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann
Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne
Shows and groups
Lord of the Dance
Dancing on Dangerous Ground
Feet of Flames
The Keltic Dreams
Breandán de Gallaí
Dance Halls Act 1935
Jig (2011 film)
Did you know?
Major present-day genres
Lead and follow
Dance and disability
Dance and health
Dance in film
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History of dance
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