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Irish Dance
by Arthur Flynn

Over the past decade Irish dancing has experienced an astonishing rise in popularity. One of the main contributing factors has been the worldwide phenomenal success of Riverdance and Lord of the Dance.

In 1994 Riverdance began as a short interval act during the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin. The performances of Michael Flatley and Jean Butler received such an enthusiastic reception that the producers developed an entire dance show that has played to critical acclaim around the world.

Set dancing is another aspect of Irish culture which has undergone a recent revival with regular sessions in pubs, hotels and clubs. With its intricate steps set dancing serves as a social outlet and meeting place for mature people with a love of Irish dance. They travel long distances to attend dancing sessions, festivals and workshops.

From earliest times in Ireland there was a changing balance of population through invasions and migration. Although there is little early reference to dancing there is evidence that among the first practitioners were the Druids, who danced in religious rituals worshipping the sun and the oak. Traces of their circular dances survive in the ring dances of today.

In the twelfth century, at the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion, a popular dance in Normandy was the Carol, in which the leader sang and the remainder replied as they danced around him. Later this dance was performed in the towns the Normans conquered.

Royal Ambience
In sixteenth century writing three principal Irish dances are frequently mentioned: the Irish Hey, the Rinnce Fada ("Rinkeh fodda", Long Dance) and the Trenchmore. In a letter written in 1569 by Sir Henry Sidney to Queen Elizabeth appears one of the first references to dance. 'They are very beautiful, magnificently dressed and first class dancers' Sydney wrote of the girls that he saw dancing enthusiastic Irish jigs in Galway.

From around this period dances were performed in the great halls of the newly built castles. The sixteenth century English invaders adapted some of these dances and brought them to the court of the Queen. One of these was the Trenchmore which was, in turn, an adaptation of an old Irish peasant dance. Another style of dance to appear around this period was the popular Hey. In this females wound in around their partners in what may have been a forerunner of the present day Irish Reel.

In the middle of the eighteenth century the Dancing Master first appeared in rural Ireland. Country people were then so poor that they had to create their own entertainment. From this background the Dancing Master emerged and would travel from village to village with a blind fiddler or piper. He would be paid a few pence, or given a chicken, to teach the children to dance.

Left or Right
Dancing Masters were flamboyant figures who wore brightly coloured clothes and carried a staff - a long walking aid. One difficulty they encountered was that many of the children did not know their left foot from their right. To overcome this problem a master would tie straw or hay to his pupils' feet and give the orders 'lift hay foot' or 'lift straw foot.'

The Dancing Master developed rounds of group dances to hold the interest of their less successful pupils. It also gave them an opportunity to enjoy themselves. The standard for solo dancers was high. They were held in such esteem that often doors were taken off their hinges and placed on the floor for them to dance upon.

In 1897 the Gaelic League was quick to realise the importance of Irish dancing in Irish culture. That year they organised the first ceili in Bloomsbury Hall, London. Its members worked enthusiastically to restore dancing to a place of honour in the social life of the nation.

The costumes of Irish dance today reflect the clothing of the past. Girls' dresses are styled after Irish peasant dress of old. Many are adorned with hand-embroidered Celtic designs, while copies of the famous Tara Brooch are worn on the shoulder. These clasps hold a cape which falls down over the back. Boys' costumes are considerably less embellished, but no less steeped in history - they wear a plain kilt and jacket, with a folded cloak draped over the shoulder. Modern dancers now wear specially made hornpipe shoes, and for reels and jigs soft shoes akin to ballet pumps. Recently there has been a trend to introduce a plain dress for girls and black shirts and pants for boys.

Competitions
Today there are many organisations dealing with dance. For a long period the Feis ("Fesh" - competition) has been an important part of the cultural life of rural communities. Dancing championships range from the four held in each of the Provinces, to the All-Ireland and World Championships, where upwards of a thousand competitors are common. The World Championships are held at Easter and attract competitors from England, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. Standards are extremely high and dancers must qualify by winning one of the other championships.

Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann provides a number of cultural facilities at their headquarters in Belgrave Square, Monkstown, Co. Dublin - from dance and music classes to the staging of regular shows to informal music sessions. Their Friday night ceilis are a popular event. Dancing is an integral part of the Fleadh Cheoil competitions which attract enormous crowds at both regional and national levels.

With the great revival of set dancing and the success of Riverdance many young people are joining dancing schools. They are proud to display their skills. Boys, in particular, are coming more to the fore. Irish dancing is now regarded as being on a par with music and acting.

During the summer months there are many opportunities to watch and enjoy Irish dancing. Hotels and clubs provide organised entertainment in which dancing is widely featured. Irish dancing still forms a regular part of social functions and many set dancing sessions are preceded by a teaching period in which novices are shown the initial steps. Visitors are encouraged to participate and should quickly master the basic moves.

 

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