Thursday, February 16, 2017
Dance Like The Irish
I’m sure I’m not the only person who suddenly discovered Irish dance through the magical show Riverdance. I’d never seen anything like it: the thundering rhythmns, the swiftly moving feet, the immobility of their arms and shoulders. It was amazing.
I’ve come to learn that Irish dancing has been around for a long time. Nobody really knows when it started, but it’s said that the first music in Ireland was brought by the Tuatha De Danann (the skilled workers) who came to Ireland from the River Elbe area in Germany around about 1600 BC. Dance is usually thought to start before music, so Irish dance is probably older than that. What it was like no one can say.
The Celts (or Keltoi) came much later, in BC 500, bringing their dances and ritual with them, later to be labeled pagan at the time of St. Patrick (ca. AD 431) and general Christianization, but the basic pagan movements remained a part of the developing Irish dance. Then there were the Vikings (1169) and the Anglo-Normans (1169-1172), the Normans introducing round dances. Little by little the stew that became Irish dance was assembled.
What exactly those elements looked like we don’t know. How Irish dancing came to have its distinct character of intricate steps and stillness of the head and shoulders, with the clatter of sound from the feet is a matter for discussion. Some say the contrast between the body and feet of the dancers was a result of the British prohibition of Irish traditional dancing because it interfered with the British goal of forcing the Irish to become English (and Protestant) as swiftly as possible. So the Irish, the story goes, did their dancing behind curtains that came halfway up the window. Thus passing British soldiers saw only people moving around the room, never guessing that feet were tapping and skipping behind the curtain.
A more likely explanation is that when the dancing masters who were traveling all over Ireland in the 18th century (before that, most of the dance was in the northern half of the island), they had to teach wherever space was available, and between British and church disapproval, there wasn’t much space for them. The Catholic Church did not approve of dancing, least of all when both sexes took part. They taught that women, in particular, who participated in dance gatherings were evil and enemies of the Lord. So dancing was hidden away. Sometimes the only space the dancing masters had to demonstrate was a table top. Given that space, intricate footwork became the focus, with arms held at the side. Dancing across the room was clearly impossible until later when, in large part thanks to those dancing masters, dance gained enough importance to take more space and Irish dance was able to reach the height of its perfection in the solo or step dances.
Partly thanks to Riverdance and Lord of the Dance Irish dancing which had already made its way to the United States with the flood of Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century, Irish dancing is now danced internationally, often competitively. Next month I’ll talk about some of the kinds of dance—the shoes the dancer wears often shows which dances will be performed—and the music and costumes.