Irish dance is not all the same!

A guide to 6 different Irish dance styles

I was reminded yet again this week that most people are only aware of one style of Irish dance- Irish step dancing, brought to world fame by the Riverdance production. However, there are many other Irish dance styles –  at least six that I am aware of. The biggest difference in style is being whether the dance is balletic – with pointed toes and high on the balls of the feet – or a relaxed, flatter, gliding style with more use of the heels. 
Have a look at the videos below and see if you can spot the difference? Whatever the style, the essence is that they all use Irish music, are very rhythmic and should be fun to do!

1. Irish Set Dancing– FLAT DOWN STYLE
Social dancing with four couples in a set of eight dancers; feet flat, gliding style, relaxed body and arms, having fun!
Set dancing is a vibrant and fresh style of dance, based on dancing Quadrilles, which originally came from France. The Irish have added their own unique steps and music to this dancing to make it energetic, rhythmic and great fun.The style is with the feet very low and flat to the floor, sometimes silently pushing and swishing around the floor, and other times making a rhythmic tattoo on the floor that is hypnotic. Set dancing uses the whole body in a relaxed stance.  Irish set dancing has similar roots to American square dancing, although sets have a more disciplined structure determined by the structure of the music.


2. Old-style Sean Nós Dancing- FLAT DOWN STYLE
Solo dancing of individual steps; often an intimate performance working closely with musicians; feet flat and close to the floor, gliding style or sometimes danced on the balls or front of the feet, always relaxed and loose body, hips and arms.
Sean nós (say sha-nose) literally means “old style”, and this beautiful gentle style is danced by individuals to their own steps, and their own rhythm – most often traditionally by men. The steps are not defined rather they are suggested, copied and picked up by others as they learn and they are not sequenced into recognisable structured dances, as is the case all the other styles of dance outlined here.
These lovely steps have been integrated over time into Irish set dancing, that can give Irish sets a unique look and sound when compared with other dance based on Quadrilles – English country dancing, Scottish country dancing, renaissance dancing.

3. Irish Step Dancing-Traditional-DOWN FLAT STYLE
Solo dancing, occasionally with partner; usually for performance with a small group. Can be either a flat sliding style or danced on the balls or the front of the feet.  A bit more relaxed body stance than with modern Irish step dancing but not as loose and free flowing posture as Irish sean nós dance.
Traditional step dances are usually fully formed dances with specific steps, unlike sean nós dancing, which is more individual steps that are usually not danced in any specific order. Michael Tubridy, ex-Chieftain and Award winning Irish musician, has written a beautiful book called A Selection of Irish Traditional Step Dances with 10 dances, including The Priest in His Boots, which he is dancing here with Maureen Culleton:

4. Irish Step Dancing-Modern– UP BALLET STYLE
Solo dancing, occasionally with partner; usually performance or competition; pointed toes dancing on the balls of the feet, skipping style, erect stance. High kicking and leaping is also a signature of this dance style, using either soft shoes (as in the video below) or hard shoes, depending on the dance.
This style is the best known style of Irish dance and is extremely popular, with huge numbers of young people attending weekly classes and competing to a very high standard. There many Irish dancing schools around the world and almost without exception, they only teach Irish step dancing and céilí dancing.

5. Irish Céilí Dancing-UP BALLET STYLE
Céilí (say kay-lee) dancing is usually social dancing with a partner and as part of a group, and can also been done for performance and competition. Style is with pointed toes and dancing up on the balls or front of the feet, rather than flat feet to the floor, like those for set dancing.  They will often have hands held high, rather than low as for many Irish set dances.
The dances are in many forms, for couples or threesomes, in lines, squares and circles, including several in four-couple sets. Popular céilí dances would be The Siege of Ennis, The Waves of Tory and The High-Cauled Cap.

6. Irish Two-Hand Dancing-DOWN FLAT STYLE
Couples dancing as part of a larger group, usually dancing the same steps together in a repeatable pattern dance, mostly to Irish waltzes, jigs, polkas and hornpipes.
Some popular two hand dances include The Peeler and The Goat, Pride of Erin Waltz, The Circle Waltz and Shoe the Donkey. Irish two-hand dances are often danced at céilís in between sets and were always more popular in Co.Donegal than sets and céilí dancing.

 … And Just For Fun/ For The Craic….!
Why the Irish dance that way…a short humorous look at why the Irish dance the way they do – enjoy!

Isn’t that what it’s all about?

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss
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