Irish dancing has evolved over many centuries. There are different forms of Irish dancing – social and performance.
Step Dancing: The most easily identified, due mainly to the success of Riverdance. It is mostly done with the feet and the legs, with the arms kept straight and by the side.
Sean Nos Dancing: A more relaxed form: most of the work is done by the feet and the arms are moved freely.
Set Dancing: Social dancing based on the quadrille, with four couples dancing set steps.
Ceili Dancing: Danced by varied formations of couples in groups of 12 to 16 people.
The solo stepdance is generally characterized by a firm upper body, straight arms, and quick, precise movements of the feet. The solo dances can either be in “soft shoe” or hard shoe”. This is the style popularised by Riverdance. In 18th century Ireland, dance masters travelled the country teaching the steps. As cultural nationalism emerged in the early 20th century, strict rules were drawn up governing dress, arm postition, teaching, judging, and competitions.
The shoes are either soft or hard. Early dancers often danced barefoot. Soft shoes were introduced around 1924 for girls and boys, but boys have not used them since the 1970s. Hard shoes with fibreglass tips have changed the style and content of many dances. Wigs and over-ornate dresses are a matter of taste and not to the liking of everybody.
Sean Nos Dancing
A near extinct traditional style of Irish dancing that underwent a big revival in Connemara in the 1970s. The feet stay close to the ground and the arms may move freely. Related to American tapdance (See article). Dress and footwear is informal and self-expression – though not exhibitionism – is encouraged. Growing in popularity.
(Sean nos dancing had all but died out in Ireland, except in the south Connemara Gaeltacht where old men might do a few steps at house parties or in pubs near closing time. As a spin-off from Gaeltacht civil rights activities and renewed cultural awareness in the 1970s, competitions and interest were encouraged. Soon the younger generation in the form of Roisin Ni Mhainin and later Seosamh O Neachtain took up the style and popularised it among a wider and younger audience.)
Set dancing has been popular in Ireland for over 150 years. Sets are danced by four couples in a square, and usually consist of three to six figures. They are descended from the French quadrilles, which were brought to Ireland by the British army in the 19 century. Irish dancers adapted the figures to Irish traditional music and devised theirn own steps to form dances with great energy and enjoyment. After a period of decline in the 1960s, sets are very popular today in Ireland and among Irish exiles. Dress is informal.
Large-scale social dancing has a long tradition in Ireland, but he term ‘ceili’ was borrowed from the Scots in the 1890s by the Gaelic League. A ceili dance may be performed with as few as two people and as many as 16. It may also be danced with an unlimited number of couples in a long line or proceeding around in a circle (such as in “The Walls of Limerick”, “Haymakers Jig”, or “Bonfire Dance”).
A Ceili night may include some set dances. From it came the term Ceili Band. Declining in popularity in Ireland.