Irish performance dancing is traditionally referred to as stepdance. Irish stepdance, popularized in 1994 by the world-famous show "Riverdance," is notable for its rapid leg movements, body and arms being kept largely stationary. Most competitive stepdances are solo dances, though many stepdancers also perform and compete using traditional set and céilí dances. The solo stepdance is generally characterized by a controlled but not rigid upper body, straight arms, and quick, precise movements of the feet.
The dancing traditions of Ireland probably grew in close association with Irish traditional music. Originating in Pre-Christian Ireland, Irish dance was later influenced by dance forms from the Continent, especially the Quadrille. Travelling dancing masters taught all over Ireland as late as the early 1900s.
The tradition of step dancing in Ireland grew from an indigenous form of percussive dance that developed alongside traditional Irish music. The current incarnation of this tradition is known as sean-nós dancing (damhsa ar an sean-nós or rince sa sean-nós). The strongest tradition of sean-nós dancing persists in the Connemara Gaeltacht in the West of Ireland, although sean-nós dancers can be found throughout Ireland.
Sean-nós, which literally means 'old style' or 'old way' in the Irish language (Gaeilge), is a form of old-style solo step dancing. Characteristics of sean-nós dancing include percussive steps, relaxed arms and upper body, steps danced close to the floor, self-expression, improvisation, and an emphasis on the relationship between the steps and the music. Most sean-nós dancers prefer to dance to one musician. The melodeon or accordion is a popular choice for the accompaniment of sean-nós dance.
Sean-nós dancing is generally non-competitive, and sean-nós dancers can be found performing in homes, in pubs, and at céilís. The largest gathering of sean-nós dancers occurs at An Oireachtas na Gaeilge, an annual festival which celebrates the Irish language (Gaeilge) and includes the most prestigious competitions in sean-nós dancing and sean-nós singing.
Sean-nós dancing has experienced a revival asses in the past ten years with increasing participation by people of all ages learning the steps through classes and workshops. Fledgling sean-nós dance communities are appearing outside of Ireland in the United States and Australia.
(Also termed Munster-style sean-nós dancing.)
Old-style step dancing (a tradition related to but distinct from sean-nós dancing) evolved in the late 18th and early 19th century from the dancing of traveling Irish dance masters. The dance masters slowly formalized and transformed both solo and social dances. Modern masters of old-style step dancing style can trace the lineage of their steps directly back to 18th century dancers.
The Irish dance masters refined and codified indigenous Irish dance traditions. Rules emerged about proper upper body, arm, and foot placement. Also, dancers were instructed to dance a step twice -- once with the left foot and once with the right. Old-style step dancers dance with arms loosely (but not rigidly) at their sides. They dance in a limited space. There is an emphasis on making percussive sound with the toes.
The Irish dance masters of this period also choreographed particular steps to particular tunes in traditional music creating the solo set dances such as the Blackbird, St. Patrick's Day, and the Job of Journey Work, which persist in Modern Irish Step Dancing.
The term céilí dance was invented in the late 19th century by the Gaelic League to distinguish non-quadrille dances from the quadrille-based set dances, which were thought to be a British or foreign import to Ireland.
Céilí as a noun differs from the adjective céilí. A céilí is a social gathering featuring Irish music and dance. Céilí dancing is a specific type of Irish dance. Some céilithe (plural of céilí) will only have céilí dancing, some will only have set dancing, and some will have a mixture.
In various parts of Ireland on St. Stephen's Day, December 26th, Wrenboys (mummers) celebrate Wren Day (also pronounced as the Wran) by dressing up in straw masks and colorful clothing and parading through towns and villages accompanied by traditional céilí music bands. This tradition also exists (or existed) in various parts of Britain, especially Wales.
Irish set dancing is popular throughout Ireland as well as in Canada, the United States, Australia, Europe and other countries. Social set dancing is not usually competitive, but Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann does hold competitions.
Stepdancing as a modern form is descended directly from old-style step dancing. There are several different forms of step dancing in Ireland (including sean-nos dancing and old style step dancing), but the style most familiar to the public at large is the Munster, or southern, form, which has been formalised by An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha—the Irish Dancing Commission.
Irish stepdancing is primarily done in competitions, public performances or other formal settings.
Soft shoe dances include the reel, slip jig, light jig, and single jig. Reels have a 4/4 (or sometimes 2/4 or 2/2) time signature. Slip jigs are in 9/8 time. Light and single jigs are in 6/8 time, with different emphasis within the measure distinguishing the music. Hard shoe dances include the hornpipe, in 2/4 time, the heavy jig, in a slow 6/8, the treble reel, and traditional sets, which are a group of 36 dances with set music and steps. Many traditional sets have irregular musical phrasing. There are also more advanced "non-traditional sets" done by advanced dancers. These have set music, but not steps.
The céilí dances used in competitions are more precise versions of those danced in less formal settings. There is a list of 30 céilí dances which have been standardised and published in An Coimisiún's Ar Rinncidhe Foirne as examples of typical Irish folk dances; these are called the "book" dances by competitive stepdancers. Most stepdance competitions only ask for a short piece of any given figure dance, in the interests of time.
Several generations ago the appropriate dress for a competition was simply your "Sunday Best". In the 1980s ornately embroidered dresses became popular. Today even more ornamentation is used on girls' dresses, including lace, sequins, silk, extensive embroidery, feathers, and more. Irish Dancing schools have team dresses, but dancers, once they reach a level decided by their school, may get a solo dress of their own design and colors. Today most women and girls curl their hair or wear a wig for a competition or feis (feis pronounced fesh). Today in competition, most men wear a shirt, vest, and tie assigned by their school paired with black pants. But when they get into the higher levels, as the girls do, they get to pick their own vest, shirt and tie.
An annual regional Championship competition is known as an oireachtas (/oʊˈrɒktəs/). Dancers from each age group may qualify for the World Championships. Qualifying for the World Championships, Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, (roughly translated to Irish Dance Championship of the World) varies slightly due to the competition or region. In the United States, dancers may qualify at either a Regional Oireachtas, or the North American Championships, which includes the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The World Championships have in years past only been held in Ireland, Northern Ireland, or Scotland, however in 2009, for the first time they will be held in the United States in Philadelphia.There is also a championship in ireland and the one in ireland is one of the most challenging competitions.