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Irish Dance History

Kashmira Lad
Graceful and full of vibrant energy, Irish dance has always been enthralling for years. The various cultural influences it went through over a period of years has led to the dance form that we see today. Here's a look at its history.
Knowing the beauty and the vibrancy of Irish dance, Riverdance charmed with its beautiful compositions. Found in various types of forms and styles, most graceful yet energetic dance forms to come across. Its history is as varied and rich as dancing itself. Today, it is growing in its popularity and many modern dancers have made modifications along the way.


To understand and know more about its history, you would first need to know about the various categories of this dance form. One can broadly classify it under the following categories:
  • Social Dances - These can be further divided into céilí and set dancing.
  • Performance Dances - These can include the very popular step dancing.
Ireland has always been associated with the very stylish step dancing and Irish music also has a major part to play in this. One can trace the roots of the old style of Irish step dancing to the olden days when sailors danced these steps as a way to entertain themselves.
The sailors had no source for music and thus the old-style step dancing was developed in the late 18th century. This was stylized and improved upon by the Irish dance masters. One needed to keep the arms slightly loose and create sounds with their toes. Towards the end of the 18th century, one could see solo dancing arrive in the form of step dancing.
The dance masters played a very important role in its history; who developed steps and introduced a particular kind of discipline amongst those who wanted to pursue this dance form. At olden times, they used to dress in a particular fashion with swallow-tailed coats and tight knee breeches.
The dance masters arrival was considered to be a delightful affair and he would often stay with farmers and would teach the children step dancing lessons for free!
During the mid 16th century, Irish dances were performed in beautiful castle halls, especially in newly built castles. Trenchmore was one of the particular dance form, which was adapted from an old style of an Irish peasant dance. Another dance form popular in this era was, known as Hey. Here, the female dancers needed to wind themselves around the partners.
The Sean-nós style of dancing actually means an old form of dancing according to the Irish language. Sean-nó dancers generally danced to one musician.
Céilí dancing is basically a style of Irish dancing; derived in the late 19th century. This style of dancing required 3 people and one could even add around 16 dancers as well. Such style of dancing was always fast and had an energetic look. It is said that the Normans probably introduced the round dance into Ireland. This was around the 12th century.
Originally, the word Céilí referred to a gathering of people who came together to have a good time. Céilí dancing was even danced at the crossroads in the olden days.
Set dancing was another style of Irish dancing. Here, dancing of the steps is based according to a particular set tune. This is said to have its base on the Quadrilles that was danced at the French courts.
It generally used four couples and was always danced on flat feet. It was also seen that set dancing varied from place to place. This style of dancing also had a strong foothold in those areas where the original culture and tradition of Ireland was valued a lot.
Over the centuries, one can see that several steps have been modified in various ways. This has formed the base of the rich culture. Even today, we can see steps such as jigs, polkas, reels and hornpipes being performed.
The costumes were based upon the traditional peasant dress worn in Ireland. These were often decorated with hand embroidery for women whereas men wore a plain kilt and a folded cloak. The cloak was used to drape the shoulder. Since the olden days, Irish dance was always accompanied by music that was played with the help of bagpipes and the harp.
Thus we see how the various influences have shaped this art form along the way.