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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Irish Dance--the mechanics!

by Beppie Harrison
Irish Dance—the mechanics!

So today is St. Patrick’s Day, which is and isn’t a most appropriate day to talk about what it takes to put Irish dancing together.

As we discussed in last month’s blog, no one can say for sure how long there has been Irish dancing, but although we assume the ancient ancestors of the Irish danced. From earliest history all around the world, people have danced, and since there is very early Irish music, and worldwide dancing came before music, it is likely that the Irish were dancers from the beginning.

Of course, whether or not they danced as they do now is unlikely. For one thing, Irish dancing has been shaped by the experience of the people in Ireland, just as other countries shaped different kinds of dance shaped on their experience. What is unique about Irish dancing—and what captured the attention of the world audience first with the Eurovision Song Contest demonstration which gave birth to Riverdance and its followers—is that Irish step dancing is unique in that the dancers have a controlled and rigid upper body, straight arms and back, and quick intricate steps with the legs and feet. How this happened has given birth to many a tall tale, but it seems most likely it came from the reality that neither the Catholic church nor the ruling British approved of dancing. The church ruled against it on grounds of immodesty and immorality. The British wanted to stamp out anything that was distinctive of Ireland, starting with their religion, with the goal of turning the people into Englishmen and –women, to the extent that was possible.

The reality was that Irish dancing was shaped by traveling dancing masters, who went from town to town and village to village of Ireland beginning in the 1750’s and continuing until as late as the 19th century, earning their pay from people wanting to learn to dance, or to dance better with more remarkable steps. The space available to the dance master was seldom very large, and sometimes as small as a tabletop or top of a barrel, which ruled out sweeping motions or dancing across wide areas. The dancing styles became very contained, with the feet and legs performing intricate maneuvers while the arms were held firmly at the sides.

Now, as Irish dance has swept worldwide, although much of the fascination remains in that very containment, dancers do move more freely than they were able to do then. In general, there are two types of Irish dance: the céilí dance, done by as few as 2 dancers, or as many as 16, when the dancers are dancing in a square, the style probably adopted from the French quadrille. Or a céilí dance can be danced by an unlimited number of couples in a row, or a circle. These dances are often fast, and can be very complex, when danced by experienced dancers.

It’s important to note that a céilí, which is a social gathering that includes dancing, is not the same as céilí dancing, which is a specific type of Irish dance.

Irish stepdancing is a performance style, also derived from tradition. Stepdancing has two main types of dance which vary in the type of shoe worn. There is soft shoe, in which a shoe made of soft leather like a ballet shoe is worn, with ties across the foot and up the leg or down the sole. These dances are done either with black tights or with what are called poodle socks: white socks that go to the knee and have ribs that keep the ties in place. Different dance schools have different costumes often using Gaelic designs, like those taken from the Book of Kells, and these days the dancers often wear curly wigs the color of their own hair, to give a more old-time appearance. Soft shoes are als called ghillies. Men wear black leather shoes with a hard heel with the fiberglass pad, called reel shoes. Even when wearing soft shoes, men’s dancing features hard heel clicks.

Hard shoes are those worn when the rhythm of the steps is the important part of the dance. These shoes are worn by both men and women, with a heel. Originally hard shoes had taps made of metal or leather with metal nails, but now dancers have fiberglass taps on the toes and heels, both to be lighter and to make the most of the sound.

Now most Irish dancers take part in the competitions, which have strict rules. An organized dance competition is called a feis (pronounced fesh), which means “festival” in Irish, but has come to apply mainly to these competitions. See if you can find one locally: they are great fun to watch as they move up through the levels, from very young beginners up to experts who have been dancing for years.


Barbara Bettis said...

What a great explanation of Irish dance. I've always been fascinated by the grace, energy, and athleticism of the professional Irish dance groups I've seen. What talent.

Beppie Harrison said...

I have a wonderful children's book showing two dancing masters competing to teach dance at a village, moving from the ground to a table top to a chair on the table top and eventually up to a roof and at end on a board laid across the chimney. No wonder all the action and skill is in the feet!

Donna Hatch said...

I saw an Irish dancing group at a local fair last summer and really enjoyed watching them. They looked like they were having so much fun, too!

Katherine Bone said...

Whenever I see Irish dancers or hear the music they dance to, I can't help being drawn in and mesmerized. It takes a lot of athleticism to perform. Thanks for sharing this great post, Lady Beppie! ;)