The History of Irish Dance


The roots of Irish Dance reach back to the Celts. Although there are hardly any records of this period, one thing is for sure: music and dance played an important role in the Celtic culture. Influences from these ancient times can still be found on dance costumes that are used at Feis (pronounced: Fesh) or Oireachtas (pronounced: oh-rec-tas). They are made of velvet and often Celtic designs like knotwork can be found on them.

The first traditional Feis (short for Feisiana) emerged about 1000 AD. The first Feis were political and trade gatherings, but there was also dance and music. After a while politics and trade disappeared and music and dance began to dominate the Feisiana. An important role for the developement of Irish Dancing as we know it today played the suppression of the British occupants. They tried to suppress the Irish culture as much as possible and prohibited cultural events. Also that´s why Irish Dance was practiced in secret. Among the dances in that period of time (15th century) were the Rince Fada, Irish Hey and Trenchmore, but also Jigs (in a group). All these dances are predecessors of some dances that we know today.

In the middle of the 18th century the so called "dance masters" travelled arcoss the country. They would give dance lessons for the inhabitants of the village where they stayed  - especially for those who paid them well. Every dance master had his own steps that he taught, but they always developed new steps. They were also the first people who founded dance schools. At this time there were also the first competitions among the dance masters. The winner was not the dancer with the best technique, but the one who knew the most steps. Dance master are also considered to be the inventors of Set and Ceili Dancing.

With the foundation of the Gaelic League (1893) and the Irish Dancing Commission (1929) first standards were introduced. Those standards especially affected judging or dance costumes. At the time around 1930 more and more female dancers started to participate in competitions, whereas before that time mainly male dancers were to be found. Now there are mainly female dancers.

Many who have already seen Irish Dancing probably first noticed the rigid position of the arms.This was not always so. In the early days of Irish dancing they were more relaxed or even placed on hips. It is not quite clear why there was a change. Some say that the Church found the arm movement provocative and wanted to increas the dancers' self control. Also the shoes were undergoing some changes over the years. 1924 the soft shoes were intruduced for girls and were later adopted by the boys, but were dropped again in the 1970s. At the beginning nails and also coins were used to produce the "clicks" of hard shoes. Modern hard shoes use fiber glas tips and hollow heals to increase the loudness of "clicks".

Those who think that Irish Step Dance was only danced at Feis and was only brought to stage by shows like Lord of the Dance or Riverdance are wrong. Big stars like Michael Flatley or Jean Butler successfully toured with groups like the Chieftains before Riverdance ever happened. Also troupes like the Trinity Irish Dancers existed before the Eurovision song contest. There is no denying the fact though, that Riverdance finally brought Irish Step Dance to millions of people at the Grand Prix d'Eurovison de la Chanson in Dublin in 1994.


(c) Philipp Hayer
Graphics by Cari Buziak








This is a very comprehensive overview of Irish Dancing:
Celtic Traditions: All About Irish Dance
Thanks to Samantha and Alyssa for suggesting it :-)

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