From dancing at the crossroads to Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, Irish dance has swept the world in spectacular fashion making it the dance phenomenon of its generation. It was, unusually, during the interval of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest where this international phenomenon was launched – an eight minute “filler” gripped the imagination of the watching European television audience and Riverdance took off.
To the watching Germans, Finns and citizens of thirty other European countries, the sight of dozens of glamorous black-clad dancers tapping and kicking in time, arms held resolutely by their sides, was a new and thrilling experience. Largely, they were unaware of the background of Irish dance – forged in the enclosed and competitive world of the dance competitions held throughout Ireland and wherever there was a significant Irish emigrant population – England, Scotland, Wales, Canada, USA, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. The glamorous image which Irish dance now enjoys is far removed from Feiseanna held in dusty parish halls where sweat and discipline were the most prized possessions. Some people say that Riverdance put the sex back into Irish dance - others say that it was never there in the first place!
It is known that around the time of the 1920s everybody danced in Ireland. Where did this cultural expression come from? The true origins of Irish dance are shrouded in the mist of history. What is certain is that Irish dance is a fusion of many influences both from within Ireland and beyond. The earliest forms of our dances are jigs and hornpipes, which have a recorded history in Ireland of several hundred years.
Many of the dances originated from further afield. From the 1780s the Quadrilles, a courtly affair danced by the French aristocracy, spread to Irish society and eventually filtered down to the peasants. These dances were taught by foreign dancing masters who brought many new dances to Ireland. Today in parts of Northern Ireland the Quadrilles are still danced with that old stately restraint. Out of this developed the informal style of group dancing which became known as Set dancing which took place in public and usually outside on a platform at the crossroads. From the Sets Sean-nos dancing developed - a wild and raw form of solo dancing which usually took place in kitchens and parlours throughout rural Ireland. Until very recently Sean-nos dancing was kept alive only by old men in remote parts of Ireland but, happily, today it is enjoying a revival.
The wild abandon of Sean-nos dancing and the close contact of Set dancing came under the scrutiny of the dancing masters. They targeted one area of change in particular, which was to define the future of Irish dance forever – the use of the hands. The dancing masters frowned upon expressive use of the hands and made dancers put their hands down by their sides. They put a length of twine tied to a stone onto the palm to make a clenched fist and keep arms down, took the smile of the face and changed Irish dance completely from a very lovely informal style into today’s very formal style of the traditional dance.
At the turn of the century Douglas Hyde, who was to become the first president of Ireland, founded the Gaelic League, whose expressed purpose was to lead to a revival of all things Gaelic – language, literature, games, music and of course dance. The Gaelic League regularised the set dances and the new formal version was christened Ceili Dancing while the stiff solo and competitive form was called Step dancing. By the 1920s these developments were so successful at popularising Irish dance that practically everybody in Ireland danced. The clergy, worried that the set dancing occurring at every crossroads in rural Ireland would lead to “an occasion for sin” took control of the newly formalised Ceili dancing, which most often happened indoors in parish halls. The Clergy’s obsession with all matters sexual lead to a minimising of touching between partners in Ceili dancing, and the complete removal of all sensuality in step-dancing. This new clergy inspired style of Ceili dancing effectively took what little sex there was out of Irish dance.
Irish Dance and Tap Dance have always been linked. It is said that tap dancing legends such as Gene Kelly and Jimmy Cagney learned Irish Dance first, before moving on to tap. World renowned tap dancer and teacher Jimmy Payne also began his dancing career with jigs and reels. Many believe that the one of the roots of tap dance is Irish Dance. Merged with English clog dancing and various African rhythms forms of tap dancing were performed as early as the 1820s.
"We are fortunate possessors of a remarkable heritage of national dance music, consisting of Single Jigs, Reels, Double Jigs, Slip Jigs, Hornpipes and Set Dances - tunes so full of Rhythmic Vitality that listeners can seldom resist the inclination to tap the feet"
Cormac Mac Fionnlaoic, Um Caisg, 1939
Undoubtedly it would be possible to dance Irish dance steps to many types of folk music, but one of the most basic pleasures in learning Irish dance is the opportunity to dance to the unique sound that is Irish music. Irish music developed to its modern form during a period of suppression of all manifestations of Irish culture. Because of this, traditionally the music was not written down, but passed from player to player by listening and repeating. This leads to the Structure of Irish Music, a basic background in which may prove helpful to the dancing student. However - fear not - a degree in music notation is not a prerequisite to an enjoyment of Irish dancing, so don't let the technicalities below put you off! It is much more important to posses the "rhythmic vitality" referred to by Cormac Mac Fionnlaoic above.
Irish music is built up of eight bar sections. A tune consists of several eight bar sections which have to be played completely, the first eight bar section usually being used as an introduction. Subsequent eight bar sections are usually repeated once (to allow musicians learning the tune to join in). The tunes for solo and Ceilí dancing are divided into Jigs, Reels, and Hornpipes based on the number of notes in a bar.
The reel is almost universally accepted as being Scottish in origin, but they are the most popular type of tune in Irish music. The time signature is 8/8 (i.e. eight notes to a bar) or more commonly written 4/4. There are eight quavers in each bar in groups of four, referring to two beats on the first and the fifth quaver. Because there are two beats in each bar, there are four counts (often expressed as "1 - 2 - 3 and 2 -2 -3 and 3 -2 -3 and 4 - 2 -3") with the emphasis on the bold beat, i.e. the first and fifth quaver, and "and" representing the second weightless step, where for advanced dancers a treble can occur).
Examples of reels include Rakes of Mallow and Cooley's Reel
Jigs are played in six-eight time (6/8), with two beats to a bar. The notes are represented in two groups of triplets (expressed as "1 - 2 - 3, 2 - 2 - 3, 3 - 2 - 3, 4 - 2 - 3" where the commas represent a weightless step) For a double jig, the triplets consist of quavers, with the beats being on the first quaver in each triplet. As all the weight of the body is on the feet during these times, the other steps on the off-beat can be danced with a "treble" by an advanced dancer - a rolling of the foot giving the typical "batter" sound of hard-shoe dancing. Because of this extra complication these tunes, known as treble jigs, tend to be played rather more slowly than double jigs. Single Jigs are also in six-eight time - the triplets being usually represented by a crotchet followed by a quaver. These tunes lend themselves to soft-shoes dances danced with solo steps. Variations of the basic Jig in 6/8 time are Slip Jigs which are played in 9/8 time, with the beats being on the first, third and seventh quaver. These tunes are generally played slower than normal jigs.
Jigs are widely held to be Irish in origin, although dances with similar timing have been recorded in Italy from medieval times. It is said that Queen Elizabeth I of England was very much taken with the Irish Jig, an irony as her soldiers at the time in Ireland were actively suppressing all manifestations of Irish culture.
Examples of jigs include Shandon Bells and Coopers and Brass
As with Reels, Hornpipes are in 4/4 or common time, but the hornpipe is played much more slowly than the reel. Due to this, Irish musicians can use many more complications when playing hornpipes. Due to these elaborations, advanced dancers can make a step on each quaver - thus lending hornpipes to more advanced hard shoe dances.
Examples of hornpipes include Greencastle Hornpipe and Murphy's Hornpipe
The Gaelic League created the CLRG in the late 1920s to establish standards for teachers and adjudicators of ID. As such, the CLRG is the oldest and most widely recognised custodian of this extremely popular facet of Irish culture. Since that time nine regional Councils have been established both in and outside of Ireland - in North America, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom and most recently, mainland Europe. September 2003 saw the inauguration of a CLRG affiliate in mainland Europe under the name of Registered Teachers Mainland Europe now known as Regional Council of Continental Europe & Asia (RCCEA). Since that date its membership has grown to 84 teachers across 26 countries.
Regional Council of Continental Europe & Asia is an expanding group of teachers certified and registered with CLRG - The Commission of Irish Dancing with its headquarters in Dublin. This is the largest governing body of Irish dancing world-wide, whose function is to set the highest standards for teachers, adjudicators and dancers alike. RCCEA is its sole affiliate across the landmass of EurAsia. Elections take place every two years to form our Council, whose prime objective is to implement and uphold CLRG rules, as well as formulate new rules where and when we see fit.