Roots of Irish stepdance
Irish dancers at St. Patrick’s Day parade in Fort Collins, Colorado
The dancing traditions of Ireland probably grew in tandem with traditions of Irish traditional music. The very first roots might have been in Pre-Christian Ireland, but Irish dance was also partially influenced by dance forms on the Continent, especially the quadrille dances. Traveling dancing masters taught all over Ireland as late as the early 1900s.
Stepdancing as a modern form is descended directly from sean-ns (“old style”) stepdancing. There are in fact many other forms of stepdancing in Ireland (such as the Connemara style stepdancing), but the style most familiar is the Munster, or southern, form, which has been formalized by An Coimisin le Rinc Gaelacha, which first met in 1930. An Coimisin was formed from a directorate of the Gaelic League during the so-called Modern Revival.
Irish stepdance has very precise rules about what one may and may not do and when, but within these rules leeway is provided for innovation and variety. Thus, stepdance can evolve while still remaining confined within the original rules. The tradition never truly disappeared. In the nineteenth century, the Irish diaspora spread Irish dance all over the world, especially to North America and Australia.
One explanation for the unique habit of keeping the hands and upper body stiff relates to the stage. In order to get a hard surface to dance on, people would often unhinge doors and lay them on the ground. Since this was clearly a very small “stage”, there was no room for the movement of the arms. But perhaps the most likely explanation is a practical one. The solo dances are characterized by quick, intricate movements of the feet. Reportedly, as in “sean ns” (old style) dancing, the arms were kept relaxed or with fists on the hips before the late 1890s.
Another explanation stems from the British occupation of Ireland during the 18th century when many Irish customs were oppressed. Once captive the Irish were locked in a room where the door was only open at its upper half hinge to allow soldiers to view their captives. To keep themselves occupied despite their oppression, Irishmen and Irishwomen would dance from the waist down appearing that they have not moved at all. Today, the stiff upper body is in honour of the oppression of the Irish culture, in language, dance and song.
Still another explanation suggests that dancers kept their arms down to avoid touching each other, which might suggest, or lead to, conduct disapproved by the conservative Catholic church in Ireland. Dancers who did not touch could not be accused of immoral behavior. This explanation may be apocryphal, however.
Dance teachers will often place a bent clothes hanger around the back of the dancer and have them hold it in place with their arms during practice so that they will be trained to keep their arms in this rigid position.
Sometime in that decade or the one following, a dance master had his students compete with arms held firmly down to their sides, hands in fists, in order to call more attention to the intricacy of the steps. The adjudicator approved by placing the students well. Other teachers and dancers quickly followed the new trend. Movement of the arms is sometimes incorporated into modern Irish stepdance, although this is generally seen as a hybrid and non-traditional addition.
Irish solo stepdances fall into two broad categories based on the shoes worn: hard shoe and soft shoe dances.
“Reel”, “slip jig”, “hornpipe”, and “jig” (soft shoe and hard shoe) are all types of Irish stepdances and are also types of Irish traditional music. Reels are in 2/4 or 4/4 time. Slip jigs are in 9/8 time, and are considered to be the lightest and most graceful of the dances. Hornpipes can be in 2/4 or 4/4 time, and are danced in hard shoes. There are three jigs danced in competition, the light jig, the single jig and the treble jig (also called double jig). Light and single jigs are in 6/8 time, and are soft shoes dances, while the treble jig is hard shoe, danced in a slow 6/8.
The actual steps in Irish stepdance are usually unique to each school or dance teacher. Steps are developed by Irish dance teachers for students of their school. Each dance is built out of the same basic elements, or steps, but the dance itself is unique, and new dances are being choreographed all the time. For this reason, videotaping of competitions is forbidden under the rules of An Coimisiun.
Each step is a sequence of foot movements, leg movements and leaps, which lasts for 8 bars of music for the “right foot” and is repeated for the “left foot” of the step. Hard shoe dancing includes clicking (striking the heels of the feet against each other), trebles (the toe of the shoe striking the floor), stamps (the entire foot striking the floor), and an increasing number of complicated combinations of taps from the toes and heels.
There are two types of hard shoe dance, the solo dances, which are the hornpipe and treble jig, and the traditional set dances, also called set dances, which are solo dances, despite having the same name as the social dances. There are approximately thirty solo set dance tunes, mostly jigs and hornpipes. These tunes vary in tempo to allow for more difficult steps for higher level dancers. Teachers choreograph the contemporary non-traditional sets their dancers dance to these special tunes. An unusual feature of the set dance tune is that many are “crooked”, with some of the parts, or sections, of the tunes departing from the common 8 bar formula. The crooked tune may have a part consisting of 7 1/2 bars, fourteen bars, etc. For example, the “St. Patrick’s Day” traditional set music consists of an eight-bar “step,” followed by a fourteen-bar “set.”
The music and steps for each traditional set was set down by past dance masters and passed down under An Coimisin auspices as part of the rich history of stepdancing, hence the “traditional.” There are about 30 traditional sets used in modern stepdance, but the traditional sets performed in most levels of competition are St. Patrick’s Day, the Blackbird, Job of Journeywork, Garden of Daisies, King of the Fairies, and Jockey to the Fair. The remaining traditional set dances are primarily danced at championship levels.
The cil dances used in competitions are bouncier and more precise versions of those danced in pubs and church basements. There is a list of 30 cil dances which have been standardized and published in An Coimisiun’s “Ar Rinncidhe Foirne” as examples of typical Irish folk dances; these are called the “book” dances by competitive stepdancers. Most cil dances in competition are significantly shortened in the interests of time; many stepdancers never learn the entire dance, as they will never dance the later parts of the dance in competition.
Many CLRG dance schools place as much emphasis on ceili dancing as on solo dances, meticulously rehearsing the dances as written in the book, striving for perfect interpretation. In local competition figure dances may be competed included 2 or 3 dancers. These are not traditional book dances and are choreographed similar to solo dancing. Dances for 4, 6 or 8 dancers are also often found in competition, but the book dances for 16 dancers are rarely offered. The Figure Choreography competition at Major Oireachtasi must be for more than 8 dancers and is a chance for teachers to show off interesting and intricate group choreography. A winning team at an Oireachtas gains a reputation for their school, and is thus an important part of competition.
Some of the footwork of softshoe dances is echoed in the footwork of Scottish country dancing, though the two styles are distinct. American tap dance was also influenced by Irish Stepdancing.
Three types of shoes are worn in competitive step dancing: Hard shoes and two kinds of soft shoe. The hard shoe (“heavy shoe”, “jig shoe”) is unlike the tap shoe, in that the tips and heels are made of fiberglass, instead of metal. The first hard shoes had wooden taps with metal nails. It was common practice in the 17th and 18th century to hammer nails into the soles of a shoe in order to increase the life of the shoe. Dancers used the sounds created by the nails to create the rhythms that characterize hard shoe dancing. Later the soles were changed into resin or fiberglass to reduce the weight and increase the sounds of the footwork.
Each shoe has eight striking surfaces: the toe, bottom, and sides of the front tap and the back, bottom, and sides of the back tap (the heel). Hard shoes are made of black leather with flexible soles. Sometimes the front taps are filed flat to enable the dancer to stand on his or her toes, somewhat like pointe shoes. The same hard shoes are worn by all dancers, regardless of gender or age.
A legend about hard shoe dances is that the Irish used to dance at crossroads or on the earthen floors of their houses, and they removed and soaped their doors to create a resonant surface for hard shoe dancing. (The more common actuality was that dancers “battered” on a stone laid in the floor with a space underneath; in the case of set dancing, the head couple of the set would claim the stone.)