Irish dancing refers to a group of traditional forms of folk dancing, which originated in Ireland over several centuries. Different forms of Irish dancing are primarily danced either as social dances or performance dances, though sometimes this distinction is also blurred. With rising global interest in traditional Irish dancing, the form itself has enjoyed a renaissance as well as significant cross-pollination with other dancing styles.

History

Irish dancing forms an ancient part of Irish culture. Like many forms of folk dance, it can be divided into numerous regional and historical styles. Given England’s role in Irish history as an imperial ruling force, Irish dancing also has a history as an underground art form. During the late 1800s, Irish traditional dancing was banned along with other regional cultural activities. Nonetheless, the Irish people continued to hold dances in secret. In the early 20th century, the tradition was revived among a wider public.

Throughout the later 20th century and 21st century, traditional Irish dancing has earned greater popularity throughout the world, leading to an increasing profusion of styles and fusion dance styles mixed with other forms of world dance.

Types of Dances

In broad strokes, Irish dancing has made a transition from a relatively subtle, “grounded” form of dancing to the flashier variations popularized through productions such as Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. More specifically, traditional Irish dance forms include set dances, step dances and ceili dancing. In set dancing, the two primary variations are

In set dancing, the two primary variations are soft shoe and hard shoe. Each form has a different feel, with more clean and staccato rhythms to the latter. The former, soft shoe dancing, is primarily performed by women. Step dancing grew out of the period of suppression of traditional Irish culture. At this time, dance masters would perform and teach secretly, elaborating various “sets” of movements, each set corresponding to eight bars of music. Ceili dancing may include round dances, line dances, and progressive line dances and may also simply refer to a social gathering that involves traditional Irish dance.

Shoes and Costumes

The shoes and costumes used in Irish dancing vary depending on the style of dance and the historical time period. In set dancing, the type of shoe worn is directly related to which of the two forms the dancers practice. Hard shoe set dancing relies on the hard sole of the shoe, much like a character shoe, which creates a distinctive sound against the floor.

By contrast, in soft shoe set dancing, the dancer does not come in percussive contact with the floor. In fact, a well-performed soft shoe dance gives an ethereal, almost floating impression to the dancer’s movements. Many more traditional dancers and dance schools use highly elaborate embroidered costuming, inspired by modern conceptions of ancient Irish culture. However, for many centuries, the appropriate attire was simply one’s finest outfit, or “church clothes.” Braided hair is common among women, as are curled wigs.

Competition

Irish dancing festivals and competitions now exist throughout the world, often as a part of Irish heritage cultural festivals. During the period of English rule, the masters of step dancing would sometimes compete at informal and secret events.

Traditional Gaelic cultural events, also known as fèis (pronounced “fesh”), are now a common occasion for Irish dancing competitions, as well as storytelling, musical performances and culinary displays. These modern fèis are based on ancient Irish traditions in which townspeople would gather together in local festivals at certain points throughout the year. While feiseanna (the plural form of fèis) are primarily held in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, there are also major events in all countries with significant Irish-born populations, including England, Wales, South Africa, the United States, Canada, and beyond.