Not only does Irish culture have its own unique sound through traditional Irish music, but it also has its own unique dance style recognised worldwide as Irish dancing. Long before Riverdance and Lord of the Dance exploded on to the world stage, much of Ireland’s boys and girls have flirted with this style of dance in schools and private clubs nationwide, many of whom still practice today.
The origins of Irish dancing is believed to date as far back as the 1700s but only really grew in popularity in the 18th century when the Druids encompassed round or group dancing. First historical recordings of Irish dancing are likened to that of English country-dance. This dance needed music and was accompanied by Irish musical instruments and it was this unique sound that caused the dance to develop its distinctly Irish flavour seen today.
Traditionally, Irish instruments played for Irish dancers include a harp, bagpipe, or singing. As the dances developed and got more varied so did the music. Some typical Irish instruments include the fiddle, the bodhran, tin whistle, concertina, and the uilleann pipes. Nowadays, Irish dancing and traditional Irish music go hand in hand and both are an ingrained staple in Irish culture.
So now we know a bit about the history and music, it’s time to explore the style. Let’s begin with the footwear – soft or hard shoes are used by dancers depending on the style of dance; hard shoes have tips and heels of fiberglass to add percussion noises and rhythm, while soft shoes are leather lace-ups, also known as ghillies. To compete, male dancers generally wear a shirt, vest and tie with dark trousers, whereas female dancers where ostentatious colourful dresses that are pleated and sit just above the knee. Hair is pinned up in curls or ringlets (or wigs are worn) and topped off with a tiara, heavy make-up is applied and even socks are crystalised for that extra ‘bling’ factor. When competitions are finished, you’re more likely to see dancers in simple, plain dresses with straight hair, so their footwork is given complete focus.
It would be remiss to write about Irish dancing and to forego mentioning Riverdance, the 1994 Eurovision song contest interval act that went on to steal the show and proved a game changer for Irish dancing. This was an original and dramatic adaptation of traditional Irish dancing and music that propelled Irish dancing onto the world stage for nearly 20-years. This show captured the imagination of audiences, of all ages and nationalities, through an exciting blend of traditional Irish music, dance and song.
Irish dancing is a very significant part of the heritage and culture of Ireland and to see it first hand is inspiring especially in its native country. Unquestionably, a truly unique experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. The best way to see Irish dancing is of course to visit Ireland and book a local show of which you will find one in nearly every county and who knows, you may even find yourself at a local céili learning the dance yourself!