Dance Tidbits – Irish Dances

Everyone knows that March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a festive cultural and religious holiday where Irish people in the United States celebrate with food and drink. It is a custom in our country to wear the color green. Did you know on St. Patrick’s in Ireland, the Irish do not wear any green with the exception of a live three leaf clover (Shamrock) on their left lapel. They do it for religious reasons, as the Shamrock represents the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

One thing about Ireland that is wonderful is all the dancing that came from there. Many of the dances started centuries ago and are still part of Irish culture today. It seems like there are more Irish dances than there are Irish beers. You may have heard of the Irish Jig, it is derived from the term giga, which means to jump in Italian. The Jig is a lively folk dance done in a fast paced meter to music. It was developed in the 16th century in England. From there, the entire European continent embraced this fast paced dance, particularly France, Italy and Spain.

Of course in Ireland the Jig was more than just a dance. It became part of their celebration ritual up until 1843. The Jig was performed at joyous occasions and parties everywhere. It involved a lot of swift leg movements and stomping of the heels. It was frequently performed in pubs on tables surrounded by people dancing hand in hand. A lot of stamina and energy is needed to perform the Jig. In the old days it was believed the person who could out last all the others and keep up with the pace of the music was considered the best dancer. Today the Jig is mostly associated with Irish dance music and Scottish country dances.

Irish solo dances fall into two categories based on the shoe type: hard shoe and soft shoe. Another name of the shoe is called Jig shoe. They are black leather shoes with fiberglass heels and tips with taps to create rhythmic sound that makes Irish dancing so much fun to watch and listen to. The soft shoe also known as Ghillies, which is a black lace-up shoe, is only worn by girls. Boys wear black leather shoes called Reel Shoes. This shoe resembles black jazz shoes with a hard heel. Boys who do soft shoe dancing will have heels you can hear click. The newest trend is adding white laces to the soft shoes and white tape to the straps giving the illusion of longer legs.

One dance that is not totally Irish but largely associated with Irish dancing is Clogging. It started in Wales and England in the 15th century. Although it has Irish influence, Clogging is mainly a mixture of Irish, Scottish, English and Canadian countries. Clog dancing in the U.S. and England was influenced by the Irish Jig. Clogging is a type of folk dance in which the dancer’s footwear is used musically by striking the heel, the toe or both against a floor or each other to create audible percussive rhythms. This musical rhythm is done by the dancer’s heel keeping time with the downbeat of the music. Clogging has been considered the first form of street dancing because it evolved in urban communities of Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution.

Competitive Clogging is widely known in the U.S. The longest running organization is the National Clogging and Hoedown Council, established in 1974. It hosts an annual grand championship at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee each Labor Day weekend. Modern competitive Clogging is inspired by traditional styles and performed using a wide variety of music such as bluegrass, modern country, rock, pop and hip hop.

Clogging shoes are often black, white, or black and white and have double taps. There are four taps on each shoe, two on the toe and two on the heel. One tap is securely fastened to the shoe, while the other tap is more loosely fastened and hits both the floor and the fastened tap while dancing or simply walking around. Cloggers with this type of tap can be heard on carpet as well as hard surface floors.

The main Irish steps in most of the dances are: Reel, Light Jig, Heavy Jig and Single Jig. Here is the name of most of the Irish dances: Whiskey In A Jar, Cry of the Celts, Thunderstorm, Breakout, Hornpipes, Set, Hauf Sets, Polkas and Step dances. Irish dances most done in competitions are: Light Shoes: Reel, Light Jig, Slip Jog and Hop Jog. Hard Shoes: Hornpipe, Heavy Jig, Treble Reel and Set Dances (there are many different kinds). There is also an Irish social dance called Cêili. Cêili is an Irish social dance that can have as few as two people and as many as six people.

In the olden days, dance attire consisted of your “Sunday best” clothes. Irish dance schools generally have school dresses. When dancers are advanced in competitions or star in public performances, they may get a solo dress of their own design and colors. In the late 1970s and 1980s, ornately embroidered dresses became popular. Today it is common for more elaborate ornamentation to be used in girls’ dresses. Solo dancers can pick unique designs. It is also common today to see women and girl dancers wear a wig or hairpiece in competitions. They can also style and curl their own hair. The men wear a shirt, vest and tie with black pants.

There is a lot of history and custom in Irish dancing which gives it a unique flair and style unto its own. And one thing is for sure, among other amazing things about Ireland, it is certainly a country rich in dance!

Thought Of The Week:

Strong people don’t put others down, they lift them up! – Michael P. Watson


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Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website