Before There Was Riverdance

Dancing has been an important form of artistic expression and social interaction in Ireland for thousands of years. The Celts and the druids had their own forms of folk dancing. Some say that the prevalence of ring structures in modern Irish dancing has to do with the way the ancient druids danced around sacred oak trees — either that, or it's just easier to dance in a circle.

The Evolution of Irish Dance

The Vikings, the Normans, and the English all probably contributed to the development of dance in Ireland. By the sixteenth century, three dances were spoken of as distinctively Irish: the Irish Hey, the Rinnce Fada, and the Trenchmore.

Sir Henry Sidney, Queen Elizabeth's lieutenant in Ireland, saw some comely Irish lasses dancing Irish jigs in Galway. He wrote, “They are very beautiful, magnificently dressed and first class dancers.” Whenever royalty or important guests visited Ireland, it was customary to meet them with fancy dancers.

The best way to hear a range of traditional music is to attend a Fleadh (flah), a traditional music festival. The festivals attract musicians and dancers from all over the country. The largest, the Fleadh Nua, is held over five days every May in Ennis.

The steps toward the development of contemporary Irish dance are unclear. It is known, however, that dancing was an important part of the social lives of the native Irish population. Festivals, weddings, and wakes were all occasions for dancing. Towns would have dance competitions, and wandering dance masters would go from town to town, teaching all the latest steps. It was through the influence of these itinerant masters that the Irish forms of the jig, reel, hornpie, and polka developed.

Today, thanks in part to Riverdance, Irish step-dancing is the most recognizable form of Irish dance. In this style, dancers hold a rigid posture, keep their arms mostly by their sides, and step and kick about for all they're worth.

Many Irish dancers maintain that their ancestors developed this rigid-armed style of dancing so that if English people looked in through a window they wouldn't be able to tell that the Irish were dancing. There may be a grain of truth to this, but most dance scholars think that the style was adapted from French dances imported in the eighteenth century.

The Céilí

The most authentically Irish form of dance is the céilí, or ceilidh (kay-lee), which is similar in form to folk dancing in many other parts of the world. A céilí is essentially a dance party in which everyone dances to traditional Irish music, spinning, exchanging partners, waltzing around, and generally having a good time. Céilí dance arrangements generally involve four or more dancers at a time. Irish-American organizations throughout the United States host céilís from time to time. The steps are easy to learn, so if you're interested you should ask at your local pub.

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