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A Brief History of Irish Dance

history of irish dance

One of the best known cultural elements of the Irish is their love of dance and music. Combining the two has been a folk tradition for centuries and has resulted in an appreciation and interest in Irish dance that literally encompasses all areas of the globe.

Early Origins

As with many traditions, the origins of Irish dance are somewhat lost to history, but there is little doubt that as each wave of immigration and occupation occurred in the country the dances evolved and changed slightly. The first elements of Irish dance were likely the religious practices of the Druids. These dances occurred in the outdoors and were circular in pattern to pay homage to the sun, earth and the mighty oak trees that were central in the religion. Celts, arriving in Ireland about two centuries ago, added elements of their traditional folk dances. This included the rhythmic or percussive steps that are so much a part of the modern Irish dance. The Normans and Anglo-Norman wave of insurgence into Ireland in the 12th century brought song to the dance. A leader danced in the center of a circular group of dancers that echoed both the song and the dance steps.

Developing Formal Dances

Throughout history, different specific dances haven been performed, each with their unique style and movements. During the 16th century Irish dance, with more formal costumes for both men and women, became a cultural activity for all walks of society. Dance events were held indoors and for royalty as well as for entertainment of the masses. Each specific school of dance developed their own individual style and costume which is still in place today. These local dance traditions were further refined through the teachings of dance masters. These individuals worked with small and large groups to teach dance, and also competed with each other at local fairs. Each dance master remained strictly in one area, leading to individualized styles that were easily identifiable.

Types of Irish Dance Today

From this early beginning came the styles of dance so well known today. These include the céilí style, which can be danced by a couple or a group of people. These are traditional dances and, in some dances, may even have a caller similar to a square dance but much faster in pace. There is also a set dance, which is like a quadrille, and is danced by four couples in a group. Step dancing or Sean-nós dance can be done solo or with a group in unison. The upper body is held relatively still while the feet move rapidly and with complex combinations of steps. Many of the most popular stepdances today can be traced back to specific areas of Ireland and specific dance masters. There are several different further subcategories within Irish dance including what are known as the soft shoe dances and the hard shoe dances. Female soft shoe dancers wear Irish ghillies that are similar to a ballet shoe, while males wear reel shoes that have a hard sole.