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The history of Irish dancing traces its roots to pre-Christian Ireland. Irish dancing grew in tandem with Irish traditional music. Broadly divided into social and performance dancing, Irish dancing drew its influence from old style step dancing which was for solo dancers and referred to as ‘sean-nos dance’. This form of step dancing came about in the 18th century. Irish dancing is largely attributed to travelling Irish dance masters who introduced the movements of Irish dancing to a wider populace.
Irish dancing masters choreographed several types of dance particular to the tunes of traditional Irish music. The steps were fixed for the specific tunes and these step dance routines were solo performances known as the Blackbird and Job of Journey Work. These beautiful and artistic routines have endured as a part of modern Irish dancing today.
The history of Irish dancing reveals that the Irish dance masters had instructed potential dancers to dance one dance step two times – once with either foot. Thus each Irish dance step is actually done two times. The dancers were also instructed to hold their arms more rigidly by the sides.
Irish Dancing Today
Irish Dance Irish dancing is now a modern form of dancing, which descended directly from the old-style of step dancing. The form of Irish dancing that is most familiar to the general public is the Munster, otherwise known as the southern form of dancing. The Irish Dancing Commission has formalised this dance form. This dance form has flourished in the United States and Canada during festivals, brought to the New World by Irish people escaping the dreaded potato famines.
The history of Irish dancing spans more than two thousand years. Pre-Christian inhabitants of Ireland developed step dancing for social purposes. Irish dancing has endured to modern times as an energetic and lively dance routine.
Several versions of the same dance were to be found in different parts of Ireland. In this way a rich heritage of Irish dances was assembled and modified over the centuries. Today, jigs, reels, hornpipes, sets, half sets, polkas and step dances are all performed. Solo dancing or step dancing first appeared at the end of the eighteenth century.
The costumes worn by Irish dancers today commemorate the clothing of the past. Each school of dancing has its own distinct dancing costume. Dresses are based on the Irish peasant dress worn two hundred years ago. Most of the dresses are adorned with hand-embroidered Celtic designs; copies of the Tara brooch are often worn on the shoulder. The brooch holds a cape which falls over the back. The clothes worn by men are less embellished but also steeped in history. Male and female dancers today wear hornpipe shoes, and for reels and jigs, soft shoes similar to ballet pumps are worn.
Today there are many organisations promoting Irish dance. The Feis has been an important part of rural cultural life. Children, teenagers and adults compete in separate competitions for Feis titles and prizes. There are group and solo competitions where dancers are graded by age from six to seventeen and then into the senior categories.
Modern Irish DanceThere are dancing championships in all four provinces, and winners of these provincial competitions qualify for the All Ireland Championships. The World Championships are held in Dublin at Easter where dancers from England, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand compete for the World title.
The world-wide success of Riverdance and more recently Lord of the Dance has placed Irish dance on the international stage. Dancing schools in Ireland today are filled with young pupils keen to imitate and learn the dancing styles which brought Jean Butler and Michael Flatley international acclaim.
Today there are many opportunities to watch and enjoy Irish dancing. It is still a regular part of social functions. Dancing sessions at céilis are usually preceded by a teaching period where novices are shown the initial steps. During the summer months, céilis are held in many Irish towns. Visitors are always welcome to join in and with on the spot, informal instruction, anyone can quickly master the first steps and soon share the Irish enthusiasm for Irish dance.