The Early history of Irish dance reveals a constant shifting of population through migration. Everyone brought their preferred types of dance and music. Amongst the first practitioners of Irish Dance was Druids, who danced in religious rituals honouring the oak tree and the sun. Traces of their circular dances survive in the ring dances of today. When the Celts arrived in Ireland from Europe over 2000 years ago, they brought their own folk dances. Around 400AD after the conversion to Christianity, new priests used the pagan style of ornamentation in illuminating their manuscripts, while peasants retained the same qualities in their music and dancing.
The Anglo- Norman conquest in the 12th century brought Norman customs to Ireland. The Carol was a popular Norman dance in which the leader sang and was surrounded by a circle of dancers who replied with the same song. This dance was performed in conquered Irish towns.
There are 3 principal Irish Dances often mentioned in 16th century writing:
- The Irish Hey (female dancers wind in around their partners)
- Rinnce Fada (long dance)
- Tenchmore (old Irish peasant dance)
“They are very beautiful, magnificently dressed and first class dancers.” – Sir Henry Sydney to Queen Elizabeth 1 (1569) when the saw the girls dance Galway. He also described the dance formation as dancers dancing in 2 straight lines, which suggests an early version of the long dance.
During the mid 16th century, dances were performed in the great halls of newly built castles. Some dances were adapted by English Invaders and brought to the court of Queen Elizabeth. One of these was the Trencmore.
When royalty arrived in Ireland, young women performing native dances greeted them at the shore. Three people stood abreast, each holding ends of a white handkerchief and they advanced to slow music, followed by dancing couples, each holding a handkerchief between them. The tempo increased and dancer performed a variety of lively figures.
Irish dancing was accompanied by music played on bagpipes and the harp. In the houses of Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the master often joined servants in some dances.
Dancing was also performed during wakes while mourners follow each other in a ring around the coffin to bagpipe music.
The Irish Dance Master
During the 18th century, the dancing master appeared in Ireland. He was a wandering teacher who travelled from village to village in a district, teaching dance to peasants. Dance Masters were flamboyant characters who wore bright clothes and carried staffs.
Young pupils did not know the difference between left and right so the dance master would tie straw or hay to his pupils’ left or right foot and instruct them to “lift hay foot” or “lift straw foot”
Group dances were developed by masters to hold the interest of their less talented pupils. The standard of these dances were still high. Solo dancers were held in high esteem and often doors were taken of hinges and placed on the ground for the soloists to dance on.
Each master had his own district and when masters met at fairs, they challenged each other to a public dancing contest that only ended when one of them dropped with fatigue.
Many versions of the same dance were found in different parts of Ireland. Today jigs, reels, hornpipes, sets, half sets, polkas and step dances are all performed. Solo dancing or step dancing first appeared in the 18th century.
Costumes worn by Irish dancers today commemorate the clothing of the past, based on Irish peasant dress worn 200 years ago. Most are hand-embroidered with Celtic designs and copies of the Tara brooch are often worn on the shoulder, which holds a cape that falls over the back. Male dancers’ clothes are less embellished but steeped in history. They wear a plain kilt and jacket with a folded cloak draped from the shoulder. Both male and female dancers today wear hornpipe shoes, and for reels and jigs, soft shoes, similar to ballet pumps.
Today, both adults and children compete in separate competitions for titles and prizes and there are dancing championships in all four provinces of Ireland. Winners of the provincial competitions qualify for the All Ireland Championships. The world Championships are held in Dublin at Easter, where dancers from England, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, compete for the World title.
The Irish word céili originally referred to a gathering of neighbours in a house to have an enjoyable time, dancing, playing music and story telling. Today it refers to in informal evening of dancing and Céilis are held in large towns where young and old enjoy group dances. In the olden days, a fiddler seated on a 3-legged stool with an upturned hat beside him for collection often performed music.
The worldwide success of Riverdance and more recently Lord of the Dance has placed Irish dance on the international stage. Dancing schools in Ireland today are filled with pupils, keen to imitate and learn the dancing styles, which brought Jean Butler and Michael Flatley international acclaim.
© Vanessa van Rensburg