Irish dance, like the Irish language, or local sports like Gaelic Football or Hurling, and traditional Irish music, is a significant aspect of Ireland's legacy and culture. Irish dance has had a significant renaissance in recent decades, thanks in part to the global success of Riverdance.

Ireland is famous for its dance all around the world. And these days, the only Irish dance we perform is the 'Siege of Ennis' during weddings. Sharing what you need to know about Irish dance is a grand concept!

Irish dance, like storytelling, Gaelic games, and traditional Irish dance music, is an important element of Ireland's culture, history, and legacy.

Whether you live in Ireland, are a member of the diaspora, or simply admire Irish culture from afar, chances are you've seen Irish dance in some form or another as you join its new Irish dance classes with no idea for costs.

Despite this, few people should know the origins of Irish dance, and we intend to correct this...

So, let's dive into its history and see what we can learn about the conception of Irish dance.

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Ancient Celtic Dance

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The traditional Irish dance being performed Source - Celtic Dance (Amber Tribe) @ Tribal Fusion @ Yantarnaya shleika 2018

Although the actual origins and roots of early Irish dancing have been lost to time, there is evidence to establish a relationship between early Celtic dance and current Irish dance.

The early history of Irish dancing demonstrates continuous population shifts due to migration and invasions. Each of these individuals contributed their own style of dance and music.

There are just a few references to Irish dancing's early origins, but there is evidence that the Druids were among its first practitioners, dancing in religious rites honouring the oak tree and the sun. The ring dances of today preserve traces of their circular dances.

When the Celts arrived in Ireland over two thousand years ago from central Europe, they brought their own folk dances with them.

The Celts were sun worshipers who performed a pagan dance within a circular stone arrangement that is like the circular structure used in Irish set dancing. Celts were also supposed to dance in circles clockwise on suitable occasions and anti-clockwise on sad ones.

They frequently incorporated motions such as repetitive tapping of the feet on one location (reminiscent of Sean Nós), modern solo dancing, and establishing steps in Irish and Scottish group dances.

Many of the druids' religious ceremonies included dancing, which was often done in a circle around holy trees. The Celts had their own folk dances that followed a similar pattern. This kind of dance was popular on the European mainland and while it wasn't exactly like traditional Irish dancing, remains of the forms and patterns can still be observed.

A massive feis known as the 'Aonach' (great festival) was celebrated once a year, supposedly commencing over a thousand years ago, at the Hill of Tara, once the seat of the High King of Ireland and the heart of Celtic life. Many localities still have Feiseannas nowadays, although they are mainly only a showcase for Irish dancing and music, with dancers competing for prizes and trophies.

The Carol - A new beginning for Irish dance

The first mention of dancing in Irish history comes from a meeting between the mayors of Waterford and Baltimore. Carolling, a professional mix of singing and dancing that originated in European folk dance history and was supposed to have been introduced to the Irish by the Normans when they arrived in 1169, was performed.

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Carol arrived in Ireland after Norman invasion (Source - Christmas Caroling in Dublin Ireland by John Rizzuto)

When Ireland converted to Christianity in 400AD, music and dance became more popular, and there are literary allusions to circle dances, formation dancers in two straight lines, dancers welcoming Royalty, and singing and dancing to harp or bagpipe music. The dance, which was often performed at wakes, attracted aristocrats and peasants alike.

The ‘Carol’ was a popular Norman dance that was soon performed in conquered Irish towns and villages. The Carol dance involved one singer placed in the centre of a circle of dancers who then followed his singing and danced accordingly. It is the first historically recorded dance in Ireland. For the next few centuries, dancing naturally developed. Three types of dance emerged; the Irish Hey, the Rinnce Fada (long dance) and the Trenchmore.

Sir Henry Sydney's letter to Queen Elizabeth I in 1569 contains one of the earliest mentions of dancing. "They're stunning, superbly dressed, and world-class dancers," says the narrator.

Sydney explained the dance configuration, noting that the dancers were in two straight lines, implying that they were doing a pre-long dance version.

Dance reels were first written in a publication called News from Scotland in the year 1598. The reel, which is said to have originated in Scotland, was called from the Swedish word ragla, which means to stumble, slant, or move while walking, first to one side and then to the other.

These got more difficult when female dancers weaved amongst male dancers or switched pairings. The most prevalent musical accompaniments were bagpipes and harps. However, the practice of dancing during religious events persisted - it was not uncommon for people to dance in a circle around a coffin.

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The Dancing Master

The dance master first emerged in Ireland in the seventeenth century. He was a roaming dancing instructor who taught peasants to dance from village to village in an area. Dancing masters were colourful individuals with staff who wore vivid costumes.

Their young students were oblivious to the distinction between their left and right feet. The dance instructor would bind straw or hay to his pupils' left or right feet and urge them to "lift hay foot" or "lift straw foot" to solve the dilemma.

Introducing the Irish Dance Master about 1750 signalled a formal recognition of Irish dance. The Master would go from town to village, clad in vibrant colours and wielding a stick. It was an incredible honour to have a Dance Master among you. One anecdote tells of young dancers who couldn't tell their right from their left foot, so the Dance Master would tie straw to one and hay to the other to distinguish between them.

Solo dancers, as well as the musicians who accompanied the dancers on their journeys across the countryside, were valued. They trained group dancers to provide a chance for those who were less skilled in the art of Irish dance to appreciate it.

Irish dance in modern times

The Gaelic League was founded in 1893 with the goal of conserving and promoting the Irish language, music, arts, and crafts, both in Ireland and abroad. Between 1885 and 1930, examples of Irish lace, weaving, metalwork, and woodwork were regularly displayed in national and international art and industry fairs.

Celtic Revival, a design style that emerged around this time, took influence from jewellery, linens, and calligraphy made in Ireland before the 1500s. Ancient Irish penannular brooches, Celtic knotwork designs, and late 1880s crochet lace were the key parts of Irish Dance attire as we know it today.

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How Irish Dance developed throughout the millennia Source - Century Ireland

It organised regular tournaments, instruction, and regulations for Irish dancing, which eventually led to the establishment of the Irish Dancing Commission in 1930 to govern the now-extremely popular pastime. Irish dance took off once it had its own regulating body, and it spread around the world over the next few decades thanks to the enormous Irish diaspora.

Today's Irish dance dress and outfits are reminiscent of those worn in the past. Each dance school has its own particular dance attire. They based the dresses on the two-hundred-year-old Irish peasant outfit. Hand-embroidered Celtic motifs decorate most of the garments, and they frequently wear replicas of the Tara brooch on the shoulder.

They attach the brooch to a cape that drapes over the back. Men's clothing is less ornate but historically significant, comprising a basic kilt and jacket with a folded cloak hung from the shoulder. Today, both male and female dancers wear hornpipe shoes, whereas reels and jigs require soft shoes comparable to ballerina pumps.

Irish Dance Today

The presentation of Bill Whelan's "Riverdance" was the first international reintroduction to Irish Dance performances.

The first performance took place in Dublin in 1995. Michael Flatley, a well-known Irish dancer and choreographer, starred in it.

 

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The current production of Riverdance was updated for its 25th anniversary. But performances have been postponed for the rest of the month because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Although "Riverdance" is mostly about Irish step dancing, it has a Baroque flair that combines other dance genres such as flamenco and a Russian dervish. For dance specialists, the ultimate effect is that "Riverdance" reveals how different dances relate in terms of technique and aesthetics.

They have performed it in New York City as part of a travelling Irish Dance event and at the Vatican for Pope Francis.

Traditional Irish dance has a long history along with a rich cultural Irish dance dress and music that accompanies it. Irish dance classes in Dublin or schools for adults and children can help you learn these facts.

Join Irish dance classes and find the best way to learn more about Irish dance history.

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