The History of Irish Step Dancing
It is the month of March and spring is so close, yet so far. The month of March this year has a few holidays but one in particular comes to mind. St. Patrick’s Day, the one day in the year where everybody is Irish. One of my many nationalities is Irish, so this day is special to me. I not only get to celebrate my nationality, but I get many opportunities to perform a dance that I have been doing since 2003; Irish Step Dance. I have been doing this style of dance for many years, and I have been teaching it to students since 2009. However, I never knew the history of the dance. I knew what I was supposed to do, and I knew what I need to make sure my students were doing, but I didn’t know why we needed to do these things. I am currently enrolled into a Dance History class, and learned about the history of Irish Step. I found it so fascinating and now I understand why I dance a certain way, and I feel that makes me a better teacher. I am going to share that history with you; not just the story of Irish Step but this involves the story of Ireland as well.
When people find out what type of style I specialize in I automatically get the “Wow, you Riverdance!”, “You have to do all those crazy foot movements?”, “Can you do a little jig for me?”. Well, yeah I do all those “crazy foot movements”, and yes I can do a Jig but there is so much more to that. “Riverdance” isn’t actually a style of Irish Step, it’s a show. There is a reason why we have “crazy foot movements” and never use our hands. It all started during the 16th century in England. This was the time period when the Renaissance was starting in Italy. People from England were traveling to Italy, saw this new lifestyle, enjoyed it, and brought it back with them to England. However, it wouldn’t be until the 17th century that the jig would travel to Ireland. If you never noticed, Irish Step Dancers keep their arms very tight at their side, keep their feet very close together. Up until recently, I just accepted this as a something I had to do. I never questioned it. I teach my students this technique, and they too never questioned what I was telling them was the right thing to do. Now I know why; places to dance in Ireland were very limited and very small. The British banned the Irish from dancing, forcing them to do it in secrecy. The Irish decided they weren’t going to let the British stop them. They danced on top of tables, on top of bars, and on top of barrels. By keeping their feet close together, and their arms tight meant there was a less likely chance of them falling off of these objects and getting hurt.
Jigs are actually the 2nd most popular dance in Ireland, followed by the Reel. What most people don’t know is that Jigs are actually broken down into 4 categories; light, slip, double and treble. Treble Jigs are performed in different types of shoes, (the shoes that make noise), hard shoes. Treble Jigs are broken down even further into Set Dances; yes I know how to do some of these set dances. Slip Jigs are know as the “Ballet of Irish Dance” and these are performed in soft shoes. The movements in this tends to be a bit more graceful than other Jigs.
People tend to not realize that Irish Step can be performed socially as well as be a performance. Most people think of it as a performance and would never think to do dance it socially. You most certainly can though. There are two types of social dances; Set and Ceili. Set dances are danced by 2 couples in a square. Ceili dances can be performed by up to 8 couples and have a variety of different shapes.
Jigs have come a long way, since the 16th century. Most people don’t realize the history of the dance, including myself until recently. Now I am able to share the history of this wonderful dance with everyone.