Irish dancing HISTORY: How Irish DANCING began

With its jigs and reels, Irish dancing is a traditional dance form that originates in Ireland; here is the fascinating history of where it all began.

Irish dancing history: How Irish dancing began.

With its iconic footwork, intricate choreography, and enchanting music, traditional Irish dancing has gained well-deserved global recognition over the years, most notably when Riverdance performed during Eurovision 1994. 

While many of us have seen, heard, and even performed Irish dancing, we might not know the history behind the tradition, so we will explore where Irish dancing began. 

Here is the captivating story of Irish dancing history, where it began, what it involves, and what makes it so prominent in today’s culture. 

Ireland Before You Die’s interesting facts about Irish dancing: 

  • Irish dancing has a rich Celtic influence, and the Celts were said to hold dancing in high regard, believing it had spiritual and social significance. 
  • A defining feature of Irish dancing is that dancers use their feet to create rhythms.
  • Irish dancing was traditionally performed during religious festivals and played a significant role in honouring various Irish saints. 
  • There are two main styles of Irish dancing, known as the hard shoe and soft shoe, plus there are many regional variations which can be found around the country
  • In the 19th century, Irish dancing experienced a decline due to various factors. However, in the 20th century, there was a revival to bring it back and preserve an integral part of Irish culture, which is still apparent today. 

Irish dancing history– where it all began

Female dancers wear bespoke dresses.
Credit: Flickr/ James Jordan

Irish dancing history began with the Celts over 2,000 years ago. Since the Celts believed that dancing had both spiritual and social significance, dances were performed at religious events, festive occasions, rituals, social gatherings, and celebrations. 

One of the main reasons the Celts included dancing in their culture was that they thought it connected them with the divine world. The lively footwork and intricate movements also brought communities together. 

So it is thanks to the Celts that this style of dancing was introduced onto the island and remains a focal point of Irish culture to this day, even if it has changed over the years.

WATCH: Irish dancers’ fantastic performance along the Wild Atlantic Way.

The evolution of Irish dancing – how much has it changed?

Irish dancing history: How Irish dancing began.
Credit: Flickr/ Stephen A. Wolfe

Over the years, Irish dancing has been influenced by other cultural groups, not just the Celts, which has led to its continuous evolution and, finally, the style we know and love today. 

During the Middle Ages, for instance, the Normans and the English settlers in Ireland influenced the dancing style, which began to shape the dance even further. 

The Celts put their detailed movements to the sound of the harp, fiddle, and pipes, and as the centuries changed, the style of dancing began to include more details but with the same Celtic traditions. 

This fused style of dancing saw dancers maintaining an upright position with their upper body, and it laid the foundation for the Irish dancing that we are all familiar with today. T

he extended dance was one popular style of Irish dancing that took off during this time and included these characteristics. 

The 17th and 18th centuries was a turbulent time in Irish history, with many political battles and colonisation. However, perhaps in a stoic show of patriotism, Irish dancing somehow thrived.

Sadly, the 19th century was blighted by more social and political unrest, and the Great Famine led to mass immigration and mass death. The decline in Ireland’s population led to a decline in the practice of Irish dancing.

However, many Irish émigrés took this cultural trait with them, which is why we see many communities worldwide still practising Irish dancing.

RELATED READ: The IB4UD guide to the best places to see Irish dancing in Ireland.

Irish dancing today – the tradition we all know and love

Riverdance was performed at the Eurovision Song Contest.
Credit: Ireland’s Content Pool/ Donal Cawley

Luckily in the 20th century, as Ireland found its feet again, and things were looking up, Irish dancing was undergoing a remarkable revival, with many dance masters aiming to preserve it. 

During the interval of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, Riverdance was performed for the first time. The performance captivated Europe and the world and put Irish dancing in the international spotlight.

Today, it is not uncommon for many kids and adults to practise Irish dancing as a fun hobby or as part of the school curriculum. Many Irish dance competitions also take place worldwide each year. 

In addition, Ireland is filled with Irish dancing schools known as feis schools or dancing academies, where many young talented dancers are encouraged to enter competitions, master their art, and can go on to make it a career. 

HAVE A GO: Our guide to the best places to learn Irish dancing in Dublin.

Notable mentions

Irish dancing history: How Irish dancing began.
Credit: Ireland’s Content Pool/

Riverdance: Composer Bill Whelan created this 1994 Eurovision interval performance, which is why Irish dancing was shot to fame. 

Soft shoes: Known as ghillies for female dancers and reel shoes for male dancers, soft shoe dances include reels, slip-jigs, and light jigs. Made of black leather, they are similar to ballet shoes.

Hard shoes: Hard shoes or heavy shoes are also called jig shoes. Hard shoe dances include the hornpipe, treble jig, and treble reel.

Soft shoes are known as Ghillies.
Credit: Flickr/ Dave Dugdale

The Irish Dancing Commission: The official governing body oversees everything related to Irish dancing globally. The commission was founded in 1929.

Feiseanna: Irish dancing is well known for its competitive events and great festivals, such as the feiseanna, where Irish dancers showcase their skills and compete with others. 

Costumes: Regarding costumes for dancing routines, female dancers tend to wear specially made colourful blouses and dresses. Male dancers usually wear a shirt, with a vest and tie and black trousers.

Music: Traditional Irish instruments used for the music for Irish dancing include the fiddle, the bodhrán (a type of drum), the uilleann pipes (similar to bagpipes), the tin whistle, and the concertina.

Your questions answered about Irish dancing history

If you still have some questions, you’re in luck! In this section, we answer some of our readers’ most frequently asked questions about Irish dancing history, along with some that often appear in online searches.

Irish dancing history: How Irish dancing began.
Credit: Ireland’s Content Pool/ Donal Cawley, Merry Ploughboy Pub

Who are some famous Irish dancers? 

Michael Flatley, Jean Butler, and Joanne Doyle are notable Irish dancers recognised worldwide as some of the best dancers. 

What are Irish dancers called? 

They are often referred to as step dancers or Irish step dancers. However, the term Irish dancer is just as common. 

Who invented Irish dancing? 

You could say the Celts developed the first style of Irish dancing; however, the modern Irish step dancing we know today comes from years of influence and evolution. 

Irish dancing history began with the ancient Celts and has significantly evolved over the years, making it a well-rounded tradition that has drawn on many influences from Ireland’s history.

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