Interesting Facts About Irish Step Dancing

by Hallie Engel
Step-dancing costumes often bear Celtic symbols, a reminder of Ireland's past.

Step-dancing costumes often bear Celtic symbols, a reminder of Ireland's past.

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Dating back hundreds of years, Irish step dancing has become famous the world over thanks to the success of productions like Riverdance. However, step dancing has been popular in America since the 1840s, when Irish immigrants brought their culture across the Atlantic. Modern step dancing is performed with the arms kept still as the feet move to lively music; it was also a major influence on the development of square dancing.

Early Roots

Steeped in ancient rites and rituals, the roots of Irish step dancing are entrenched in the country's pagan history. The first dances performed in Ireland were devised by Druids for use in important ceremonies. Such dances were performed to worship animals and trees; others to prepare for war, courtship or marriage. The Celts, who came to Ireland in 500 B.C., also influenced dance with their pagan culture. Christian leaders who converted them also tamed their dances in an attempt at civilizing them.

Welcoming Royalty

Hundreds of years ago, Irish dancers performed to welcome royalty visiting the country. According to Ireland's Eye, young women dancers would line up at the shore to greet the ships of visiting monarchs, performing in time to traditional music. King James was met with dancers when he landed in County Cork in 1780 and dancers linked themselves together by holding white handkerchiefs. The first rows of dancers moved slowly before moving away to reveal couples performing fast and lively step-dancing routines.

When and Where

Uniting people of different classes and in times of hardship, Irish step dancing has long strengthened spirits and been enjoyed by rich and poor alike. In the wealthy houses of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, masters would join their servants in step dancing, which was accompanied by the harp and bagpipes. During a wake, a traditional Irish gathering of funeral mourners, people would form a ring around the coffin and step dance while moving in a circle.

Hands and Arms

In modern Irish step dancing, performers keep their arms and hands still, holding them rigidly in place, particularly when performing solo dances. The Historical Boys Clothing website states that this was not always the case and that arms used to be held in a relaxed position and hands were often placed on the hips. Some historians theorize that Catholic priests may have suggested dancers keep their arms still to encourage self control or to make dancers appear less provocative.

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