Irish culture has a rich variety of beautiful dance forms, from solo dances, to couple dances, to group dances.
Originally published 1998
Since so much of Irish music is geared towards dancing, it makes sense to take a look at the different forms of Irish dancing — because here is not just one form. There are many. This section provides a quick introduction to them.
There are also styles of dance. Each dance form has its own regional styles, that developed back in the days when people didn’t travel much, and there were no mass communications. In those days, every county, and sometimes every village had it’s own stylistic variations on the music and dance, each as deeply rooted and traditional as those of the next town over. As in golf, local rules apply. Whereever you are, however they are doing the dance in that vicinity, that is the right way to do that dance!
Styles of Dance
- sean nós (“shayn-ohss”) dancing
- Seanos dancing is the old time, traditional step dancing of Ireland. This is a percussive style of dance that uses normal dress shoes, though possibly slightly enhanced. (Patrick O’Dea adds an additional leather toe piece for better action. Mick Mulkerrin adds a narrow metal tap maybe as much as 1/2″ wide at the outside corner of his heels, for more sound.) Because this style does not use metal or fiberglass taps, the percussion is muted, so it goes well with a single player, or a few in a session.
In Seanos dancing, the arms hang loose and swing freely as the body moves about. (The loose body and swinging arms makes it probable that this was style that was the precursor to American tap dancing.) There is a lot of intricate footwork, with the dancer landing a heel, and then putting the toe down, or landing on the toe and the putting the heel down. Other moves include standing on both heels and clicking the toes together, standing on both toes and clicking the heels, or clicking one toe against the other heel.
The steps stay close to the floor in Seanos dancing. There are no high kicks or jumps, and the dancer tends to stay in one place rather than moving all over the floor. No particular costuming is used for this style dance. You wear whatever you would wear to a social dance.
The point of this style is the percussion, rather than having a a strict look. And the conservation of energy makes it possible to dance for long periods of time. Patrick O’Dea said the old Seanos dance masters knew the tunes, and they accompanied each one, using different steps for different tunes. Mick Mulkerrin’s take on the matter was that you have to feel the music, and interpret it. In his view of things, you play as you would a bodhran. You may not play the same thing, but you “play your feet” in a way that fits the music. And one student reported that when Joe O’Donovan taught a class on hornpipes, he provide a collection of individual moves, saying that it was now up to the students to go put them together in ways they liked. He didn’t teach “set patterns” at all!
- ceili (“kay-lee”) dancing
- Ceili dancing, like contra dancing (literally, “country dancing”), is a social form of dance with easy figures, where you and your partner(s) generally dance with one set of folks, and then move down the line to the next couple and repeat the figure. You work your way up and down the line that way, so by the end of the evening you’ve generally found yourself face to face with most everyone, at one time or another. The big difference between Ceili dancing and the contra forms I’m familiar with (English, Scottish, and American) is that the latter tend to have steps that resemble walking. To me, ceili dancing seems more vigorous, and you spend a lot more time being light and graceful on your toes — but that may only because I’ve had Valerie Deam giving me expert instruction in the matter when she was teaching in Palo Alto, California.
- set dancing
- The word “set” means fixed, in Irish dancing. There are “set” dances in the step dance tradition, which means that some of the parts of the dance are set. (Those parts are called the “set”, while the parts in which the dance instructor is free to choreograph something new is the called the “step”.) But the term “Set Dancing” refers to a particular form of dancing that most closely resembles Square Dancing. (Again, though, my thoroughly personal opinion is that Set Dancing is a lot more complex, vigorous, and challenging.)
Most all Set Dances are done with 4 couples dancing in a square. Unlike Ceili dancing, where you move on and repeat a figure, in Set Dancing you do each figure only once (although parts often repeat within a figure), and you stay in your set the whole time. Set Dances tend to have 4 or 5 different figures. You might dance the first 4 figures to jigs, or reels, and frequently dance the last figure to a polka (definitions of these terms are coming up!).
But what really makes Set Dancing unique is the addition of battering. Battering steps are Seanos-style dance moves that are performed at the same time that you are doing the complicated figures! The steps you are supposed to perform are “set” for each dance, as well, but you would not ordinarily dance them all the time. Instead, you might do a simple version of a particular move in the figure (say “advance and retire” or “dance at home”. Common moves like those tend to repeat 3 or 4 times in a single figure, so you might add more complex steps on subsequent repeats.
Set Dancing is enormously popular in Ireland, where huge auditorium will be filled from one end to the other with sets of 8 people, all doing the set dances. And when you hear some of those old-timers battering, it gets your heart beating. Those folks might look old but. man, can they dance!
- step dancing
- “Step Dancing” refers to modern, Irish dance form. Although it is originally based on seanos, it uses fiberglass taps for the hardshoe dancing (although there are lots of soft shoe dances, typically performed in “gillies” — gloves for your feet. Step dancing utilizes a lot of jumping and high kicks, and has the dancer moving about and using the whole stage.
At the championship levels, women’s costumes are very traditional, and they can be very ornate and expensive. But at entry levels, costumes are much less expensive, and are easily resold.
In step dancing, the emphasis is on the footwork. The body is held erect, and the arms are held at the sides. Neither the body or the arms move for the duration of the dance. Because of its emphasis on the feet, step dancing has the most complex footwork in the world. (Seanos dancing runs a close second — some of the weight shifts are darn tricky!)
I once took a flamenco class, and found the steps extremely easy to master. But then we had to move our arms at the same time! Suddenly, I found the dance to be very challenging, once again. Restricting the arms, it appears, makes it possible to perform the incredibly intricate footwork that is modern Irish step dancing.
- stage dancing
- This is a new art form pioneered by Michael Flatley’s innovations in RiverDance, Lord of Dance, and Feet of Flames. It’s still looking for a name. I’ll call it “stage dancing” for now, although other names have been suggested.
In stage dancing, you are free to use arms, to do lifts, and to mix hard shoe and soft shoe dancers in the same choreography. You are also have more freedom in your choice of your costuming (which, being a matter of the stage, is a big part of the whole thing.)
The All Ireland dance competition held in Dublin in 2000 marked the second time that a stage dancing competition was part of the event. There were five entries in all, each composed of some 20 dancers. They were all spectacular and great fun to watch.
The Feis (“fesh”) is a big part of Irish culture. A Feis is a competition for dancers and for solo instruments, at all levels. Like sports programs here in the U.S., they provide a venue for people to challenge themselves and gain recognition for their efforts in the form of trophies, medals, and “bragging rights”. As a result, they tend to bring out the best of a person’s ability, as a result of their working long and hard to succeed.
There is actually a fair amount of money to played for playing dor the dancers at a Feis, because it is musically quite demanding, and not that many people can do it. (You have to play at strict tempos, for long periods, and do it all day.) It is also possible to get paid to play at a Ceili, although the sums are more modest. And although it is not as popular here, playing for set dances in Ireland is big business!
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