Irish Step-Dancing: A Living Tradition
by Pat Friend
When Riverdance hit the world stage in 1995 it brought to public attention an aspect of Irish culture which had been largely confined to St. Patrick's Day celebrations, cultural events and dance competitions: Step-Dancing. Riverdance, and Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance, have added modern twists to a traditional art form.
A less well-known tribute to Irish dance took place in a program called Celts, in which the Boston Ballet integrated some aspects of the Irish style into a program choreographed by Irish-American Lila York. To learn the techniques she wanted to include in her program, Lila attended Irish step-dancing classes in New York. What she found were few similarities between classical ballet and Irish dancing. Her choreography is a work that incorporated the Celtic music that all dancers could appreciate.
What is this Irish Step-Dancing? How did it evolve?
Don Haurin and Ann Richens have published "Irish Step Dancing, A Brief History", online. In it they point out that the modern form of Irish dancing dates back to the appearance of Dance Masters about 1750. Forerunners of today's Irish dancing teachers, they typically traveled within a county, teaching their repertoire of dance steps and participating in competitions with other Dance Masters. Each step is eight measures or bars of music, hence the term step dancing.
Beginning dancers first learn the soft shoe dances. Girls and women wear soft shoes, or gillies, which resemble black ballet slippers with intricate lacing. Boys and men usually dance the soft shoe dances in shoes with hard soles. All dancers use hard shoes with a sort of tap on the toe and heel for hard shoe dances.
Starting with the "down-two-threes" and "sevenses" which are basic techniques used in many steps, students soon learn two steps for the reel and two more for the light jig. Both women and men dance the reel to music in 4/4 time. As students advance and learn more complicated steps, the dance takes on lots of kicks and leaps. The light jig, and another soft shoe dance, the single jig, are danced to music in 6/8 time. The graceful slip jig, danced only by girls and women, is in 9/8 time. In the tradition of the dancing masters, each Irish dancing school develops its own steps to be used in each of the dance types. (As an aside, it is interesting to watch two dancers from different schools dancing side-by-side to the same music. Usually the sight is two quite different dances!)