The origins and history of Irish Dance


Ancient Origins

We can start as far back as the Druids dancing religiously to honour the Oak tree and the sun. Then the Celts arrived in Ireland over 2,000 years ago bringing with them their own types of dancing. Then when the conversion to Christianity happened, the peasants expressed their beliefs through music and dance.

The dancing in Ireland became more sophisticated and admired in the 16th century. It is said that Sir Henry Sydney wrote to Queen Elizabeth I about the dancers he saw in Galway at the time, describing them to be beautiful, magnificently dressed and first class dancers. The dances at the time were called the Irish Hey, the Trenchmore and the Rinnce Fada, which is the long dance usually performed in 2 straight lines.

A Dance of the Old Irish Nobility

Irish dancing was performed in Great Halls and Castles all around Ireland, accompanied by music made from bagpipes and harps. When royalty arrived from other countries they were greeted by ladies dancing. Some dancers were held in high esteem and it is said that often, doors were taken off their hinges to lie on the floor for a solo dancer to dance upon.

In the 18th century Irish dancing masters started to appear in villages, teaching the dances to the community. There were often dance offs at the local markets, only ending if one of the dancing masters fell of fatigue. Variations of the dances were danced all over Ireland, including jigs, polkas, sets, halve sets and reels.

The history of Irish Dance

The early history of Irish dance reveals a constant shifting of population through migration and invasions. Each of these peoples brought their preferred types of dance and music. There are only vague references to the early history of Irish dancing, but there is evidence that among its first practitioners were the Druids, who danced in religious rituals honouring the oak tree and the sun. Traces of their circular dances survive in the ring dances of today. When the Celts arrived in Ireland from central Europe over two thousand years ago, they brought with them their own folk dances. Irish Dance historyAround 400 AD, after the conversion to Christianity, the new priests used the pagan style of ornamentation in illuminating their manuscripts, while the peasants retained the same qualities in their music and dancing.

The Anglo-Norman conquest in the twelfth century brought Norman customs and culture to Ireland. The Carol was a popular Norman dance in which the leader sang and was surrounded by a circle of dancers who replied with the same song. This Norman dance was performed in conquered Irish towns.

Three principal Irish dances are mentioned often in sixteenth century writing: the Irish Hey, the Rinnce Fada (long dance) and the Trenchmore. One of the first references to dance is in a letter written by Sir Henry Sydney to Queen Elizabeth I in 1569. “They are very beautiful, magnificently dressed and first class dancers,” Sydney wrote of the girls he saw dancing enthusiastic Irish jigs in Galway.

Sydney went on to describe the dance formation, observing the dancers in two straight lines which suggests they were performing an early version of the long dance.

During the mid sixteenth century, dances were performed in the great halls of the newly built castles. Some of the dances were adapted by the sixteenth century English invaders and broughtIrish Dance to the court of Queen Elizabeth. One of these dances was the Trenchmore, which was an adaptation of an old Irish peasant dance. From this period onward another style of dance called the Hey was popular where female dancers wound in around their partners, in a fore-runner of the present day reel.

When royalty arrived in Ireland, they were greeted at the shore by young women performing native dances. When King James landed at Kinsale, County Cork, in 1780, he was welcomed by dancers. Three people stood abreast, each holding ends of a white handkerchief. They advanced to slow music and were followed by dancing couples, each couple holding a handkerchief between them. The tempo of the music increased and the dancers performed a variety of lively figures.

Irish dancing was accompanied by music played on the bagpipes and the harp. In the houses of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the master often joined with servants in some of the dances. Dancing was also performed during wakes. The mourners followed each other in a ring around the coffin to bagpipe music.

Styles of Dance

sean nós (“shayn-ohss”) dancing
Seanos dancing is the old time, traditional step dancing of Ireland. This is a percussive style of dance that uses normal dress shoes, though possibly slightly enhanced. (Patrick O’Dea adds an additional leather toe piece for better action. Mick Mulkerrin adds a narrow metal tap maybe as much as 1/2″ wide at the outside corner of his heels, for more sound.) Because this style does not use metal or fiberglass taps, the percussion is muted, so it goes well with a single player, or a few in a session.In Seanos dancing, the arms hang loose and swing freely as the body moves about. (The loose body and swinging arms makes it probable that this was style that was the precursor to American tap dancing.) There is a lot of intricate footwork, with the dancer landing a heel, and then putting the toe down, or landing on the toe and the putting the heel down. Other moves include standing on both heels and clicking the toes together, standing on both toes and clicking the heels, or clicking one toe against the other heel.

The steps stay close to the floor in Seanos dancing. There are no high kicks or jumps, and the dancer tends to stay in one place rather than moving all over the floor. No particular costuming is used for this style dance. You wear whatever you would wear to a social dance.

The point of this style is the percussion, rather than having a a strict look. And the conservation of energy makes it possible to dance for long periods of time. Patrick O’Dea said the old Seanos dance masters knew the tunes, and they accompanied each one, using different steps for different tunes. Mick Mulkerrin’s take on the matter was that you have to feel the music, and interpret it. In his view of things, you play as you would a bodhran. You may not play the same thing, but you “play your feet” in a way that fits the music. And one student reported that when Joe O’Donovan taught a class on hornpipes, he provide a collection of individual moves, saying that it was now up to the students to go put them together in ways they liked. He didn’t teach “set patterns” at all!

ceili (“kay-lee”) dancing
Ceili dancing, like contra dancing (literally, “country dancing”), is a social form of dance with easy figures, where you and your partner(s) generally dance with one set of folks, and then move down the line to the next couple and repeat the figure. You work your way up and down the line that way, so by the end of the evening you’ve generally found yourself face to face with most everyone, at one time or another. The big difference between Ceili dancing and the contra forms I’m familiar with (English, Scottish, and American) is that the latter tend to have steps that resemble walking. To me, ceili dancing seems more vigorous, and you spend a lot more time being light and graceful on your toes — but that may only because I’ve had Valerie Deam giving me expert instruction in the matter when she was teaching in Palo Alto, California.
set dancing
The word “set” means fixed, in Irish dancing. There are “set” dances in the step dance tradition, which means that some of the parts of the dance are set. (Those parts are called the “set”, while the parts in which the dance instructor is free to choreograph something new is the called the “step”.) But the term “Set Dancing” refers to a particular form of dancing that most closely resembles Square Dancing. (Again, though, my thoroughly personal opinion is that Set Dancing is a lot more complex, vigorous, and challenging.)Most all Set Dances are done with 4 couples dancing in a square. Unlike Ceili dancing, where you move on and repeat a figure, in Set Dancing you do each figure only once (although parts often repeat within a figure), and you stay in your set the whole time. Set Dances tend to have 4 or 5 different figures. You might dance the first 4 figures to jigs, or reels, and frequently dance the last figure to a polka (definitions of these terms are coming up!).

But what really makes Set Dancing unique is the addition of battering. Battering steps are Seanos-style dance moves that are performed at the same time that you are doing the complicated figures! The steps you are supposed to perform are “set” for each dance, as well, but you would not ordinarily dance them all the time. Instead, you might do a simple version of a particular move in the figure (say “advance and retire” or “dance at home”. Common moves like those tend to repeat 3 or 4 times in a single figure, so you might add more complex steps on subsequent repeats.

Set Dancing is enormously popular in Ireland, where huge auditorium will be filled from one end to the other with sets of 8 people, all doing the set dances. And when you hear some of those old-timers battering, it gets your heart beating. Those folks might look old but. man, can they dance!

step dancing
“Step Dancing” refers to modern, Irish dance form. Although it is originally based on seanos, it uses fiberglass taps for the hardshoe dancing (although there are lots of soft shoe dances, typically performed in “gillies” — gloves for your feet. Step dancing utilizes a lot of jumping and high kicks, and has the dancer moving about and using the whole stage.At the championship levels, women’s costumes are very traditional, and they can be very ornate and expensive. But at entry levels, costumes are much less expensive, and are easily resold.

In step dancing, the emphasis is on the footwork. The body is held erect, and the arms are held at the sides. Neither the body or the arms move for the duration of the dance. Because of its emphasis on the feet, step dancing has the most complex footwork in the world. (Seanos dancing runs a close second — some of the weight shifts are darn tricky!)

I once took a flamenco class, and found the steps extremely easy to master. But then we had to move our arms at the same time! Suddenly, I found the dance to be very challenging, once again. Restricting the arms, it appears, makes it possible to perform the incredibly intricate footwork that is modern Irish step dancing.

stage dancing
This is a new art form pioneered by Michael Flatley’s innovations in RiverDance, Lord of Dance, and Feet of Flames. It’s still looking for a name. I’ll call it “stage dancing” for now, although other names have been suggested.In stage dancing, you are free to use arms, to do lifts, and to mix hard shoe and soft shoe dancers in the same choreography. You are also have more freedom in your choice of your costuming (which, being a matter of the stage, is a big part of the whole thing.)

The All Ireland dance competition held in Dublin in 2000 marked the second time that a stage dancing competition was part of the event. There were five entries in all, each composed of some 20 dancers. They were all spectacular and great fun to watch.

Party Time

The Feis (“fesh”) is a big part of Irish culture. A Feis is a competition for dancers and for solo instruments, at all levels. Like sports programs here in the U.S., they provide a venue for people to challenge themselves and gain recognition for their efforts in the form of trophies, medals, and “bragging rights”. As a result, they tend to bring out the best of a person’s ability, as a result of their working long and hard to succeed.

There is actually a fair amount of money to played for playing dor the dancers at a Feis, because it is musically quite demanding, and not that many people can do it. (You have to play at strict tempos, for long periods, and do it all day.) It is also possible to get paid to play at a Ceili, although the sums are more modest. And although it is not as popular here, playing for set dances in Ireland is big business!

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