Irish stepdance

Irish stepdance

Irish stepdance is a type of performance dance originating in Ireland from traditional Irish dance. Irish stepdancing has been recently popularized by the world-famous show "Riverdance" and its followers. Irish stepdance is performed in most places with large Irish populations, though not all stepdancers are of Irish ancestry. Aside from public dance performances, there are also stepdance competitions in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and North America. Most competitive stepdances are solo dances, though many stepdancers also perform and compete using traditional set and céilí dances. When performed as a solo dance, it is generally characterized by a stiff upper body and the quick and precise movements of the feet.

Irish step dancing

Roots of Irish stepdance

The dancing traditions of Ireland probably grew in tandem with traditions of Irish traditional music. The very first roots might have been in Pre-Christian Ireland, but Irish dance was also partially influenced by dance forms on the Continent, especially the quadrille dances. Traveling dancing masters taught all over Ireland as late as the early 1900s.

Stepdancing as a modern form is descended directly from sean nós ("old style") stepdancing. There are in fact many other forms of stepdancing in Ireland (such as the Connemara style stepdancing), but the style most familiar is the Munster, or southern, form, which has been formalized by An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha, which first met in 1930. An Coimisiún was formed from a directorate of the Gaelic League during the so-called Modern Revival.

Irish stepdance has very precise rules about what one may and may not do and when, but within these rules leeway is provided for innovation and variety. Thus, stepdance can evolve while still remaining confined within the original rules.

The tradition never truly disappeared. In the nineteenth century, the Irish diaspora spread Irish dance all over the world, especially to North America and Australia.

One explanation for the unique habit of keeping the hands and upper body stiff relates to the stage. In order to get a hard surface to dance on, people would often unhinge doors and lay them on the ground. Since this was clearly a very small "stage", there was no room for the movement of the arms. But perhaps the most likely explanation is a practical one. The solo dances are characterized by quick, intricate movements of the feet. Reportedly, as in "sean nós" (old style) dancing, the arms were kept relaxed or with fists on the hips before the late 1890s.Fact|date=February 2008

Sometime in that decade or the one following, a dance master had his students compete with arms held firmly down to their sides, hands in fists, in order to call more attention to the intricacy of the steps. The adjudicator approved by placing the students well. Other teachers and dancers quickly followed the new trend. Movement of the arms is sometimes incorporated into modern Irish stepdance, although this is generally seen as a hybrid and non-traditional addition.


Irish solo stepdances fall into two broad categories based on the shoes worn: hardshoe and soft shoe dances.

"Reel", "slip jig", "hornpipe", and "jig" (soft shoe and hard shoe) are all types of Irish stepdances and are also types of Irish traditional music. Reels are in 2/4 or 4/4 time. Slip jigs are in 9/8 time, and are considered to be the lightest and most graceful of the dances. Hornpipes can be in 2/4 or 4/4 time, and are danced in hard shoes. There are three jigs danced in competition, the light jig, the single jig and the treble jig (also called double jig). Light and single jigs are in 6/8 time, and are soft shoes dances, while the treble jig is hard shoe, danced in a slow 6/8.

The actual steps in Irish stepdance are usually unique to each school or dance teacher. Steps are developed by Irish dance teachers for students of their school. Each dance is built out of the same basic elements, or steps, but the dance itself is unique, and new dances are being choreographed all the time. For this reason, videotaping of competitions is forbidden under the rules of An Coimisiun.

Each step is a sequence of foot movements, leg movements and leaps, which lasts for 8 bars of music for the "right foot" and is repeated for the "left foot" of the step. Hardshoe dancing includes clicking (striking the heels of the feet against each other), trebles (the toe of the shoe striking the floor), stamps (the entire foot striking the floor), and an increasing number of complicated combinations of taps from the toes and heels.

There are two types of hard shoe dance, the solo dances, which are the hornpipe and treble jig, and the traditional set dances, also called set dances, which are solo dances, despite having the same name as the social dances. There are approximately thirty solo set dance tunes, mostly jigs and hornpipes. These tunes vary in tempo to allow for more difficult steps for higher level dancers. Teachers choreograph the contemporary non-traditional sets their dancers dance to these special tunes. An unusual feature of the set dance tune is that many are "crooked", with some of the parts, or sections, of the tunes departing from the common 8 bar formula. The crooked tune may have a part consisting of 7 1/2 bars, fourteen bars, etc. For example, the "St. Patrick's Day" traditional set music consists of an eight-bar "step," followed by a fourteen-bar "set."

The music and steps for each traditional set was set down by past dance masters and passed down under An Coimisiún auspices as part of the rich history of stepdancing, hence the "traditional." There are about 30 traditional sets used in modern stepdance, but the traditional sets performed in most levels of competition are St. Patrick's Day, the Blackbird, Job of Journeywork, Garden of Daisies, King of the Fairies, and Jockey to the Fair. The remaining traditional set dances are primarily danced at championship levels.

The céilí dances used in competitions are bouncier and more precise versions of those danced in pubs and church basements. There is a list of 30 céilí dances which have been standardized and published in An Coimisiun's "Ar Rinncidhe Foirne" as examples of typical Irish folk dances; these are called the "book" dances by competitive stepdancers. Most céilí dances in competition are significantly shortened in the interests of time; many stepdancers never learn the entire dance, as they will never dance the later parts of the dance in competition.

Many CLRG dance schools place as much emphasis on ceili dancing as on solo dances, meticulously rehearsing the dances as written in the book, striving for perfect interpretation. In local competition figure dances may be competed included 2 or 3 dancers. These are not traditional book dances and are choreographed similar to solo dancing. Dances for 4, 6 or 8 dancers are also often found in competition, but the book dances for 16 dancers are rarely offered. The Figure Choreography competition at Major Oireachtasi must be for more than 8 dancers and is a chance for teachers to show off interesting and intricate group choreography. A winning team at an Oireachtas gains a reputation for their school, and is thus an important part of competition.


Some of the footwork of softshoe dances is echoed in the footwork of Scottish country dancing, though the two styles are distinct. American tap dance was also influenced by Irish Stepdancing. Unlike softshoe dancing, hardshoe dancing involves rhythmic and very fast striking of the floor with the tips and heels of the shoes.

Three types of shoes are worn in competitive step dancing: hardshoes and two kinds of softshoe. The hardshoe ("heavy shoe", "jig shoe") is unlike the tap shoe, in that the tips and heels are made of fiberglass, instead of metal. The first hard shoes had wooden taps with metal nails. It was common practice in the 17th and 18th century to hammer nails into the soles of a shoe in order to increase the life of the shoe. Dancers used the sounds created by the nails to create the rhythms that characterize hard shoe dancing. Later the soles were changed into resin or fiberglass to reduce the weight.

Each shoe has eight striking surfaces: the toe, bottom, and sides of the front tap and the back, bottom, and sides of the back tap (the heel). Hardshoes are made of black leather with flexible soles. Sometimes the front taps are filed flat to enable the dancer to stand on his or her toes, somewhat like pointe shoes. The same hardshoes are worn by all dancers, regardless of gender or age.

A legend about hardshoe dances is that the Irish used to dance at crossroads or on the earthen floors of their houses, and they removed and soaped their doors to create a resonant surface for hardshoe dancing. (The more common actuality was that dancers "battered" on a stone laid in the floor with a space underneath; in the case of set dancing, the head couple of the set would claim the stone.)

Softshoes, often called "ghillies" (or "gillies"), fit more like ballet slippers, but they are of black leather, with a leather sole and a very flexible body. They lace from toe to ankle and do not make sounds against the dance surface. They are worn by female dancers for the light jig, the reel, the single jig, the slip jig, and group dances with two or more people. They also can be worn for céilí dancing, though social céilí dance doesn't have rules about the sorts of shoes worn.

The second kind of softshoe is worn by male dancers; these are called "Reel Shoes" and are similar to oxford or jazz shoes in black leather, with fiberglass heels that the dancers can click together. Some male dancers do not have fiberglass heels. The men's steps may be choreographed in a different style to girls' in order to take advantage of the heels.


In public performances, dancers wear costumes appropriate to the show. The costumes are frequently fanciful interpretations of traditional Irish styles of dress. In competitions, there are various rules and traditions which govern the choice of a dancer's costume.

Judges at competitions critique the dancers primarily on their performance, but they also take into account presentation. In every level of competition the dancers must wear either hard shoes or soft shoes, and white poodle socks or tights. In commission schools, female dancers either curl their hair or wear a curly wig, although most dancers these days wear wigs. In more festival schools the hair is often worn down and loose. Boy and girls wear very distinctive costumes. The girls wear dresses with stiff pleated skirts which are embroidered. The boys used to wear jackets and kilts, but now more commonly perform in black trousers with a colourful shirt and tie. Costumes can be more simple for the beginning female dancer; they often wear a simple dance skirt and plain blouse.

A beginner dancer can be any age, including adults. In the Advanced Beginner and Novice levels the dancers begin to wear their dancing school’s costume. The certain colors and emblem that is used on the dresses represents the dance school to differentiate it from other dance schools. These are in the style of a solo dress, but are simple with only a few colors, while are still more complex than the beginner’s outfit. Many North American schools allow their students to select a personal, or "solo" dress, at Prizewinner Level.

Competition dresses have transformed in many ways since Irish Dance first appeared. Several generations ago the appropriate dress was simply your "Sunday Best". In the 1980s ornately embroidered velvet became popular. Other materials include gaberdine and wool. Today many different fabrics are used, including lace, sequins, silk, embroidered organzas and more. The commission dresses have a stiffened skirt pleated into panels which are stiffened with Vilene. Dresses can weigh several pounds, depending on the fabric, and require some getting used to. Again the festival style differs, styling more towards simple designs and flowing, un-stiffened materials.

Preliminary and Open Championship are levels where dancers can qualify for Major competitions. At these levels, solo costumes help each dancer show their sense of style, and they enable them to stand out among a crowd. The dancers can either have a new solo dress made specially for them with their choice of colours, fabrics, and designs (some dancers will even design the dress themselves) or they can buy second hand from another dancer. Championship dresses often have expensive, sequined fabrics, and it is becoming popular for only two or three colors to be used. Since the dresses are hand made with pricey materials, unique designs, and are measured to each dancer’s body type, the dresses cost between $600 and $4,000. When each dancer grows out of the dress she can sell it on at competitions or via the internet.

Along with having the hand crafted sequined dresses, championship commission dancers have wigs and crowns. Dancers in lower levels have the choice to wear either a wig or curl their hair, but usually in championship, girls choose to wear a wig, as wigs are more convenient. Dancers get synthetic ringlet wigs that match their hair color (some go a shade lighter or darker). The wigs can range from $20.00 to $150. Usually the crowns match the colors and materials of the dresses, but some dancers choose to wear tiaras, or tiaras with a fabric crown. The championship competitions are usually danced on a stage with a lot of lighting. To prevent looking washed out, dancers often wear stage makeup and tan their legs. A ban was put in place in January 2005 for Under 10 dancers forbidding them to wear fake tan, and in October 2005 it was decided that Under 12 dancers who were in the Beginner and Primary levels would not be allowed to wear fake tan/make up.

Competition structure

Modern Irish stepdance can be taught anywhere. Teachers must be certified with one of several separate organizations such as "An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha" ("The Irish Dancing Commission") or "Comhdháil Múinteoirí Na Rincí Gaelacha" ("The Congress of Irish Dancing Teachers"), in order for their students to be eligible for competitions (dancers may only enter competitions run by the organization the teacher is registered with).

Each organization has a certification process which consists of a written and practical exam in the applicant's ability to teach Irish dance. In "An Coimisiún" these certificates are the T.M.R.F. (gives permission to teach céilí dances), T.C.R.G. (gives permission to teach solo dances) and A.D.C.R.G. (gives permission to judge at "feiseanna").

Competitive step dancing has grown steadily since the mid 1900's, and more rapidly since the appearance of "Riverdance". An organized step dance competition is referred to as a "feis" (pronEng|ˈfɛʃ, plural "feiseanna"). The word "feis" means "festival" in Irish, and strictly speaking is also composed of competitions in music and crafts. Féile ("faila") is a more correct term for the dance competition, but the terms may be used interchangeably. Many annual competitions are truly becoming full-fledged "feiseanna", by adding competitions in music, art, baking, etc.

Participants in a "feis" must be students of an accredited step dance teacher. Dance competitions are divided by age and level of expertise. The names for "feis" competition levels vary around the world:
* UK and Europe: beginner, primary, intermediate, open
* Ireland: "Bun Grád", "Tús Grád", "Meán Grád", "Ard Grád", "Craobh Grád" (translates as "bottom", "beginning", "middle", "high" and "trophy" grades)
* North America: Beginner, Advanced Beginner (or "Beginner 2"), Novice, Prizewinner/Open, Preliminary Champion, Open Champion
* Australia: Novice, Beginner, Primary, Intermediate, Open
* South Africa: Bun Grád, Tús Grád, Meán Grád, Ard Grád, Craobh Grád (Ungraded section is also offered for dancers 7 years old or younger. Dancers who win this section do not grade.)

Despite a competition structure and culture that almost exclusively supports children, many "feiseanna" offer competitions for adult Irish dancers. At the beginner level, an adult Irish dancer is someone who did not dance as a child and is over the age of 18. Past beginner level, there is no restriction. Adult competitions, when offered, are held separately from children's competitions, and adults may advance only to Prizewinner level. If they wish to attempt higher levels, then they must switch over to competitions for young adults and may no longer compete as "Adults." This is referred to an "And Over" level, such as Ages 18 and Over.

In North America, the [ Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America] has recently changed its rules to restrict adult Irish dancers to the simpler, traditional speed hardshoe dances. Adult dancers capable of dancing the more complex, non-traditional speed hardshoe dances must have the support of their teacher before they can compete in the "And Over" age categories where they may perform the more complex dances.

Rules for "feiseanna" are set by the Organisation, not a particular feis. In "An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha" (the largest of the "official" organizations), dancers are judged by adjudicators certified by An Coimisiún. This certification is known as the A.D.C.R.G., meaning Ard Diploma Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (in English - Highest Diploma in Gaelic Dancing.) It is awarded to those who have passed the exams set by the An Coimisiún and have also been certified as T.C.R.G. Local organizations may add additional rules to the basic rule set. The Irish Dance Teacher's Association of North America (IDTANA) is the largest body of dance teachers associated with An Coimsiun le Rince Gaelacha. There are seven CLRG regions in North America.

An annual regional Championship competition is known as an oireachtas (pronounced|oˈrɑktəs). Regional Oireachtas are normally held in November and December. Up to 10 dancers from each age group may qualify for the World Championships - the exact number is worked out with a formula and is based on the number of dancers competing. National championship competitions are held annually in Ireland (known as the All-Ireland competition), North America (including Canada and the United States, called North American Irish Dance Championship, or sometimes the North American Nationals, or "NAN's"), the UK ("Great Britans" and "British Nationals" - there are two), South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Annual World Championship competitions have been held in The Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The 2007 competition was held in Glasgow. The 2008 competition will be held in Belfast. In 2009, they will take place in Philadelphia

External links

General information

* [ The History of Irish Dance]
* [ Irish Step Dancing]
* [ Beginners Guide to Irish Dancing ]
* [ ÁR RINNCIDE FOIRNE - Thirty Popular Figure dances ("Download as WORD-file)"]

International, National, and Regional Irish Dance Organizations

* [ Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha / The Irish Dancing Commission]
* [ An Comhdháil Múinteoiri na Rincí Gaelacha / The Congress of Irish Dance Teachers]
* [ Cumann Rince Náisiúnta / National Dance Association of Ireland]
* [ North West Regional Council]
* [ Midland Regional Council]
* [ Southern England Regional Council]
* [ Nordic Society of Irish Dancers]
* [ Registered Teachers of Mainland Europe]
* [ North American Feis Commission]
* [ Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America]
** [ Irish Dance Teachers Association of Canada – Eastern Region]
** [ Western Canada Irish Dance Teachers Association]
** [ Irish Dance Teachers Association of New England]
** [ Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America – Mid-Atlantic Region]
** [ IDTANA Southern Region]
** [ Irish Dance Teachers of Mid-America]
** [ Western U.S. Region – The Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America]
* [ Japan Irish Dancing Association]
* [ Traditional Irish Dancing Association of New Zealand]
* [ Australian Irish Dancing Association]
*Irish Dancing Association of South Africa ( [ Contact information.] )
* [ World Irish Dance Association]
* [ American Association of Irish Dancers & Teachers]

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