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There is very little documentary evidence of dance being practiced in Ireland prior to the 17th century. Scholars have hypothesized that this may result from the integral and consequently unremarkable nature of dance in pre-modern Irish society, or from the non-literate nature of the Irish cultural tradition. Indeed, the modern Irish words for "dance", rince and damhsa did not develop until the 16th century. The scant evidence available is primarily that of visitors to Ireland, such as a fourteenth-century song written in the South of England, where the poet invites his listeners to "come ant daunce wyt me in Irlaunde". The first native Irish documentary evidence of dancing is an account of a Mayor of Waterford's visit to Baltimore, County Cork in 1413, where the attendees "took to the floor" to celebrate Christmas Eve. However, the Norman invasion of Ireland in the twelfth century is likely to have brought with it the round dance tradition, as it was contemporaneously performed in Norman strongholds.
Accounts of dancing in the seventeenth century suggest that dancing was by that time extremely widespread throughout Ireland. A report from 1600 mentions that Irish dances were group dances similar in form to English country dances, and later references mention the "rinnce fada", also known as the "long dance" or "fading". This dance, performed to a jig tune though not to any particular piece of music, became the customary conclusion to balls held in Ireland towards the end of the seventeenth century. At this time, dancing was commonly accompanied by musicians playing bagpipes or the Jew's harp.
By the 1760s, the distinctive hornpipe rhythm of the Irish dance tradition had developed, and with the introduction of the fiddle to Ireland from the European continent, a new class of "dancing master" began to emerge.
The dancing traditions of Ireland probably grew in association with traditional Irish music. Although its origins are unclear, it was later influenced by dance forms from the Continent, especially the Quadrille. Travelling dancing masters taught across Ireland as late as the 18th and early 19th centuries. Because local venues were usually small, dances were often demonstrated on tabletops, or even the tops of barrels. As a result, these early styles are characterized by the arms held rigidly at the sides, and a lack of lateral movement. As larger dance venues became available, styles grew to include more movement of the body and around the dance area.
A variety of forms of solo Irish dance have developed which are described as step dance. These include the well-known "modern" step dance performed competitively; old-style step dance, which is closer in style to the dance practiced by 19th-century travelling dance masters; and festival dance, which separated from modern step dance over stylistic and administrative disputes in the mid-20th century.
The most predominant form of Irish step dance is that popularised by the Broadway show Riverdance, and other Irish dancing stage shows since the late 20th century. Characterised by a rigid torso and dances performed high on the balls of the feet, this style became distinct from the late 19th century when the Gaelic League began efforts to preserve and promote Irish dance as part of a broader nationalist movement concerned with Irish culture. Although a rigid torso may be the initial characterization of Irish dance, modern soft shoe Irish ballerinas commonly gracefully use their arms in flowing movements, abandoning the traditional form. It is not uncommon for hard shoe dancers to utilize their arms in strict hand formations other than arms at sides. In 1929, the League formed An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (CLRG, The Irish Dancing Commission) in order to codify and standardise stepdancing competition and education. Over the following decades, CLRG expanded globally, and promoted this particular form of stepdance by developing examinations and qualifications for teachers and competition adjudicators. Today, stepdance in the style codified by the Gaelic League is performed competitively in a number of countries, and under the auspices of a number of organisations which have at various times broken away from CLRG to create Open Platform Organisations. Rince Tuath Nua "RTN" Irish Dance is the largest open platform organization in the USA!
Irish solo stepdances fall into two broad categories based on the shoes worn: 'hard shoe' (or heavy shoe) and 'soft shoe' (or light shoe) dances.
There are four soft shoe dance styles: the reel, slip jig, light jig and 'single jig' (also referred to as 'hop jig'). Reels have a 4
4 (or sometimes 2
4 or 2
2) time signature. Slip jigs are in 9
8 time. Light and single jigs are in 6
8 time, with different emphasis within the measure distinguishing the music.
Hard shoe dances include the hornpipe in syncopated 2
4 or 4
4 time, the treble jig (also called the 'heavy jig' or 'double jig') in a slow 6
8, the treble reel (hard shoe dance done to reel music) and 'traditional sets', which are a group of dances with set music and steps. Many traditional sets have irregular musical phrasing. There are also more advanced "non-traditional sets" done by advanced dancers. These have set music, but not steps. There are multiple traditional sets, including St. Patrick's Day, Blackbird, Job of Journeywork, Three Sea Captains, Garden of Daisies, and King of the Fairies.
Competitive dancers generally dance two or three steps at a time, depending on their dancing level. Each step lasts sixteen bars of music. 8 bars per step. They are each danced starting with the right foot for eight bars, then repeated with the left foot for the last eight bars, doing the same movements with the opposite feet. Set dances, however, have a different format. The dancer usually dances one step, which is limited to eight bars, and is then repeated, resembling the steps of other dances. Then the dancer usually dances a "set" which is not repeated. It is a highly sought after and competitive feat to dance this "third round" — at regional, national, and world competitions, only a small percentage (typically the top half of dancers graded after the first two rounds) of dancers are invited back to perform.
The Céilí dances used in competitions are more precise versions of those danced in less formal settings. There is a list of 30 Céilí dances which have been standardised and published in An Coimisiún's Ar Rinncidhe Foirne as examples of typical Irish folk dances; these are called the "book" dances by competitive step dancers. Most Irish dancing competitions only ask for a short piece of any given dance, in the interests of time.
Old Style Step dancing
Sean Nos Dancing
Irish Ceili Dancing
Irish Set Dancing