A brief history of Irish Dance
November 16, 2015
At the turn of the last century dancing in Ireland was declared ‘Irish Dance’ by the founding members of the Gaelic League whose mission was to promote and preserve the Irish language, sport, and dance.
Theirs was a nationalistic mission and part of a larger Gaelic Revival which challenged/countered the growing Anglicization of the country before Irish independence in 1922.
Irish Dancing fell under the auspice of An Commission Rinci la Gaelica, a separate ruling body of the League, whose agenda was to decide what steps were Irish and what were not.
Though an invented tradition with many borrowings from popular European forms of the day, most notable the French Quadrille, Irish Dance, became symbolic of how the Irish wanted to present and differentiae themselves being “other.”
The distinguishing stylistic hands held at one’s side and straight spine that is now codified into the lexicon of Irish Dancing began as a gesture of defiance, overturning the pre-held misconception of the English that the Irish were uncivilized, unruly, and of questionable character.
The Great Dance Masters of the day traveled the length of the country promoting a style of deportment and civility. It was believed the best dancer would be light of foot, graceful, and elegant. The itinerant Masters traveled most often with a musician, a fiddle player, and were put up in the “big house” of the village for the duration of their stay.
Local competitions, or feisennaa, which is the Gaelic word for festival, were organized by An Commission and an elaborate system of adjudication and teaching was put into place, which is now exemplified by the global network of commission-style competitive dancing that exists today.
Other forms of dance in Ireland did and still do exist. Mainly social forms including set dancing, ceile and group dancing were part of the rural fabric of life and took place in local halls, barns, and indeed at the crossroads. Sean Nos, which translates to “old style” is yet another form of Irish Dancing. Improvisational in nature, Sean Nos Dancers do not adhere to any ruling body or codified ideal. Thus the straight spine, hands held at one’s side, and foot placement of Commission style dancing is far less visible, and in its place is a looser, more relaxed way of moving, with an emphasis on the relations between dancer and musician.
However, musicality and the act of stepping unite all forms of Irish dancing. The very essence of Irish Dance includes music; it cannot exist without it.
– Jean Butler