Types Of Irish Dancing

Here goes: Úna’s low-down on the high kicks of Irish dancing.

1. Sean-nós dancing

“Come ant daunce wyt me in Irlaunde” says a song from the 1300s … so we have been boogie-ing here in Ireland for quite some time. “Sean” is the Irish for ‘old’ and ‘nós’ is the Irish for ‘way’… so ‘sean-nós’ is ‘old way’. Sean-nós dance started in the west of Ireland, and is still strongest in that area. It’s low to the ground, percussive, and totally improvised … dancers choose their steps, in the moment, responding to the live musician. Their whole body posture is really relaxed. Sean-nós is usually performed in a very small space, sometimes on a door laid flat or on a table-top. (!) Dancers wear street clothes and normal shoes, sometimes with a few nails in the heel or toe to give added volume to their foot tapping. Here’s 2 of my fave sean-nós dancers, muintir Uí Dhuibheannaigh.

2. Old-style step dancing

Irish dance seems to have been pretty chillaxed and informal until the 17th-18th century, when Irish dance masters started to define and refine Irish folk steps and dances. Conventions arose regarding posture (upper body, arm and foot placement) and steps for specific dances, e.g. The Blackbird. This body of pre-arranged routines, and particular style of dancing, is now called ‘old-style step dancing’. These dances can be solo or group; they are usually low to the ground, danced in street clothes, and with normal shoes; the dance is percussive, and in a small space. Old-style step dancing is usually done in a social context, for fun, rather than in competition. Here’s an example of the legend Michael Tubridy.

3. Set dancing

In the 19th century, the Irish saw some French quadrilles, put them to Irish tunes, inserted Irish folk steps, and voila! A new Irish dance genre was born! Set dancing is social dancing; hundreds of people gather in halls, get into groups of 8 people, and dance to live bands (somewhat confusingly called ‘céilí bands’). You’ll recognise set dancing from the position of the dancers: the format is always four couples facing each other to make a square. Each dance has three to six sections (called figures), with little breaks between each section. A ‘set’ takes between 10 and 30 minutes. Set dances from county Clare are percussive; the dancers improvise steps to sound good with the live band. People go out for the night to dance sets for fun (although a small percentage of people dance sets competitively). Set dancing is really vibrant in Ireland and globally … you can find thousands of events here: https://sets.ie

4. Céilí dancing

At the beginning of the 1900s, the Gaelic revivalists collected, formalised and promoted 30 group dances, and called them ‘céilí dances’. ‘Céilí dances’ have only two to three simple steps, and are not percussive. The essential goal of céilí dancing is participation … ideally without injuring a fellow dancer! 🙂 In their basic form, these are the easiest of all Irish dances; sometimes with cues called out by a live ‘caller’. They are frequently ‘progressive’, e.g. at the end of one cycle of the dance, the couple / group proceeds to dance the same steps with a new couple / group. Examples include the Walls of Limerick, the Siege of Ennis, and the Haymaker’s Jig. Céilí dancing happens in both social and competitive contexts: Irish kids learn céilí dancing at school, teenagers attend céilí dances every night at Irish-language immersion courses, and there’s usually one céilí dance at an Irish wedding … while on the competitive step-dancing circuit, there’s usually a céilí dance competition.

Just to clarify: ‘céilí dancing’ is the specific genre of Irish dance, detailed above. BUUUT a ‘céilí’ is a social gathering with Irish music and dance. A céilí might have céilí dancing only; a céilí might have set dancing only; a céilí could have a mixture of céilí dancing, set dancing, instrumentals and a few songs.

5. Competitive step dancing

In 1927, the Gaelic League founded An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (‘The Irish Dancing Commission’), dedicated to the organisation and standardisation of Irish dance. CLRG created certifications for dance teachers, began to hold competitions (‘feiseanna’), and examinations for adjudicators of competitions. A number of conventions evolved … for example, dancers holding arms firmly down by their sides, with hands in fists, which supposedly calls more attention to the intricacy of the steps. From the 1940s onward, a style with balletic influence and high elevation on the toes became popular. Costumes became more and more elaborate, with brightly coloured dresses featuring Celtic imagery, tightly-curled hair (now mostly replaced by wigs), and thick ribbed white socks (… which are commonly stuck to the leg with glue. !) Take a deep breath: these dresses can cost between €500 and €4,000. Feiseanna are held all over the world – at local, provincial and international levels; from 400 to over 1000 competitors; with solo and group dance competitions, male and female categories (although the vast majority of contestants are female). Competitions include hard shoe (percussive) and soft shoe (silent) categories. Dances include the double jig, hornpipe, slip jig, reel, and ‘set dance’. Each school or teacher creates their own choreography for the the double jig, hornpipe, slip jig, and reel. However, a ‘set dance’ is one of 30 dances, approved by the CLRG, which have their own pre-arranged choreography common to all schools and dancers … examples are ‘The Blackbird’, ‘St. Patrick’s Day’, and ‘The Job of Journey Work’. In this context, ‘a set dance’ is one single, specific, choreographed dance, not the social dance genre called ‘set dance’ / ‘set dancing’.

6. Riverdance

On the 30th April 1994, Irish dance was changed, changed utterly 🙂 Ireland was hosting the Eurovision, and during the interval premiered a 7-minute commission featuring Irish dancers, vocal ensemble Anúna, and newly-composed music on Irish traditional instruments by composer Bill Whelan. With varying time signatures, unconventional form, whole-body movements, groundbreaking group choreography, minimalist costumes and full theatrical lighting, ‘Riverdance’ broke every single convention in the Irish dancing world, – and was a massive success. The ‘Riverdance’ score instantly became a No. 1 hit, and the dancers were invited to perform at the Royal Variety Performance. Producers John McColgan and Moya Doherty expanded ‘Riverdance’ into a stage show, which has since been seen by 25 million people, making it one of the most successful dance productions in the world1. ‘Riverdance’ has had a massive influence on the choreography and presentation of Irish step dance in both competition and and public performances. Since 1994, there’s been a tendency towards more daring innovations in Irish step dance, such as dancing with hard shoes to music traditionally associated with soft-shoe dances, as well as a trend toward simpler costumes and natural hairstyles.

… In case you’re ever at a surprise ethnochoreology quiz, below are the features of each type of Irish dance listed in a table. 🙂 (If you have a different opinion on any of the characteristics listed here, you’re welcome to share them with me on www.una.ie/contact ) Aren’t we lucky to have this wealth of dance tradition to choose from? Pick one of the 6 dance genres, put on those dancing shoes, go forth and boogie!

Types of Irish Dance

Irish dance genreGroup / soloPostureHeight of leg movementsFloor area requiredPercussiveShoesChoreographed / improvisedPerformance contextPresentation
Sean-nós dancingSoloRelaxedBelow shinApprox. 1m squaredPercussiveShoes with nails in heel / toe, or tap shoesImprovisedCollaborative community performanceStreet clothes
Old style step dancingMostly soloRelaxedBelow shinApprox. 1m squaredPercussiveNormal shoesChoreographies common to all, up to centuries oldCommunity performanceStreet clothes
Set dancingGroups of 8RelaxedMostly below kneeApprox. 2m squaredBattering in Co. Clare is percussiveNormal shoesThe figures of a set are choreographed. In the Clare style, percussive battering is improvised by each individual dancerMostly socialStreet clothes
Céilí dancingGroups of 2-4RelaxedKnee-high kicksA hallNon-percussiveNormal shoesChoreographies common to all, up to centuries oldMostly socialStreet clothes
Competitive step dancingSolo and groupRigidAs high as you can go!A stageHard shoe dances are percussive, soft shoe dances are silentHard shoe, ghilliesChoreographed by dance teacher, except for 30 set dances common to all dancersCompetitiveElaborate stage costume and wigs
RiverdanceSolo and groupRigid / choreographedAs high as you can go!A stageHard shoe dances are percussive, soft shoe dances are silentHard shoe, ghilliesChoreographed by a professional on a show-by-show basisStage performanceModern stage costumes


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