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Everything you Need to Know about Irish Dancing 

While the tradition of Irish Dance has been around for centuries, it has just recently come into the limelight. Thanks to dancers like Michael Flatley and his Riverdance, and Lord of the Dance theatricals, Irish dance has now become a worldwide phenomenon. People love the rhythm, the discipline, and the joy of the traditional styles. So much so, that, wherever you go, be it China or Zimbabwe, you’re sure to find Irish Dance fans.

Types of Irish Dance:

Ceili Dancing

Pronounced “Kay-lee”, this is a form of social or party dancing. In typical Ceili style, several couples dance together in a set pattern of memorized steps which are usually performed in a line or a circle. The dances often have intriguing names such as The Waves of Tory, or The Siege of Ennis, and tell the stories of Irish traditions, and history.

Step Dancing

This style emerged around 1750, when Irish dance masters began traveling throughout the country. Step dances are performed solo or in a group, where dancers in a line do the same synchronized steps. This style of dance focuses entirely on footwork Sean-Nos Unlike step dancing these dancers are free to move their arms and upper body. Sean-nos means low to the ground, and the movements of this dance are low and often improvised. The steps are similar to tap dance.

Set Dances or Quadrilles

Performed by four couples arranged in a square, this type of dance was inspired by the 18th century French “Quadrille”. Irish dance masters blended French and Irish dance forms to create a new style, set to Irish music. Set dancing resembles ballroom dancing and employs steps such as the waltz, polka and swing.


The tradition of Irish dance grew in direct relation to Ireland’s music. The bouncy jigs and reels perfectly matched the fast stepping, high kicking style of dance. It said Ireland’s unique style originated with travelling dance masters who, due to lack of dance floor space often performed on table tops or even the tops of barrels, thus requiring the contained form of flying feet, but rigid upper body and arms.

Another story has it that when British soldiers banned dancing, Irish citizens rebelled by shutting the bottom half of their doors and dancing enthusiastically while keeping the top half of their bodies still.

Today no one wants to ban Irish dance, just the opposite in fact. Irish Dance theatricals, and dance musical shows travel the world, and sell out at every stop. Irish dance schools proliferate, offering classes for everyone from toddlers to senior citizens. Touted as a great source of mental and physical exercise, it’s also just plain fun. Check out your local Irish dance school. Before you know it, you too could be dancing a jig – table tops are optional.


Historically the traditional accompaniment for Irish dancing was a harp, bagpipe, or just singing. As the dances got more complex however, so did the music. Nowadays, Irish dancing and traditional Irish music go hand in hand, and in the same way that there are a variety of different dances and routines, there is a variety of music and instruments to go with it. Some typical Irish instruments include the fiddle (pretty much a violin, just played differently), the bodhran (a hand held drum made of goatskin and played with a special wooden beater called a tipper), the tin whistle, the concertina (similar to an accordion), and the uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes). When solo dancers take to stage, a solo instrument will also generally play with them.


Ornate and sometimes ostentatious costumes can be common in overseas Irish dancing competitions and showcases, but in both historic and modern Irish dancing, more modest and flexible costumes are used. Soft or hard shoes are used depending on the style of dance; hard shoes have tips and heels of fiberglass to add percussion noises and rhythm, while soft shoes are leather lace ups, also known as ghillies. Boys have their own version of the soft shoe, known as ‘reel shoes’, which still have a hard heel and produce noises, but not to the same extent as the hard shoes do.

Male dancers generally just wear a shirt, vest and tie with dark trousers, while female dancers wear specially made dresses. Each Irish dancing school has their own specific dress uniform. The dresses are just above the knee and pleated, with long sleeves and more often than not some sort of Celtic-inspired design or embellishment on the chest and back. In the past girls were required to curl their hair into ringlets or wear wigs, but this is slowly becoming less common. Dresses have become more and more flexible and breathable compared to decades past, when tough material and elaborate decoration was the name of the game. Outside of competitions you’re more likely to see dancers in simple, plain dresses with straight hair, so that the footwork and movement of the dance is given complete focus.


Outside of performances, the best way to see some Irish dancing is by attending a competition or feis. In Ireland there are several levels of competition divided by age and location, ranging from county to regional and national competitions. The annual regional championship is known as the Oireachtas, which also happens to be the name given to the Irish government! Dancers are scored on technique, timing, and sounds made from their shoes. All contests have very rigid regulations and criteria for qualifications, and the whole process is very competitive between both dancers and teachers.

The Irish Dancing Commisson began holding an annual World Championship in 1970, and they still take place each year in a different corner of the globe. They feature over 6,000 dancers from 30 countries all over the world.

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