Irish dance basics: How going backwards can help you go forward

MOST Irish traditional music is very lively, and it really makes you want to tap, hop, skip and generally jump for joy. I share that feeling but those steps are not always in keeping with the traditional flat style of set dancing, particularly in Clare, Kerry, Galway and surrounding areas.

It’s another contrary fact about Irish set dancing that what makes you want to go up, actually asks you to come down.

The style of Irish set dancing is subtle and I have had great difficulty over the years putting my finger on what it is, what it’s not and how best to explain it simply. I have found it most tricky explaining the style to dancers who already dance many other styles because it can seem counter-intuitive to them.

Some basics for set dancing style & steps:

1. Keep your feet close to the floor – some say “dancing from the ankles down”
2. Take small steps
3. Listen to the rhythm of the music to keep time

Let’s start with the jig step, sometimes also called a polka step. (ThesIrish Jig Music timinge terms are used loosely and can be a bit confusing when learning.)

1. Jig step has only 3 steps, using alternating feet for each step continuously- simple enough.

2. Jig rhythm – Dancing those three steps has an uneven rhythm – the first step has a slight pause after it, quick 2,3 steps after it.

SINK/FALL Down- 2, 3

The rhythm of jig music sounds like the nursery rhyme Teddy Bears Picnic-“If you go down in the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise”. You can practice while singing this tune.

3. The way you dance the jig step – UP or DOWN?
Jig steps can be done either UP (skip on the ball of your foot) or DOWN (sink).
Most people find UP skipping relatively easy for short periods, and this is very similar to what is used in many other styles of folk dancing.

The sinking/ falling DOWN aspect of this step is what  usually needs more attention.

Stand up, close your eyes and imagine the following:Backwards down stairs with arrow

Imagine you are standing at the top of a set of stairs, with your back to the stairs behind you.

Now imagine you are taking one step backwards and down to stand on the step behind you- SINK DOWN. You have to bend down at the knee to do this.

The other foot then steps down to meet the first one (2), and then the first foot steps again beside it (3), and so on with each foot alternately.

That’s all there is to it.

4. Practice – And finally, to ensure you get plenty of practice, switch your brain on when you are dancing a jig and engage your mouth, and ask if it’s an UP jig or a DOWN jig.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter (it’s not defined by the dance) and in that case, for a smooth ride, do what you partner is doing!

Tune in next week for more about Irish dance style basics- the heel of the reel.

Happy dancing!
Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

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3 thoughts on “Irish dance basics: How going backwards can help you go forward

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