Irish Dancing - A Fun and Fitness-Filled Sport
Irish dancing, or stepdancing, one of the premier forms of cultural expression in Ireland and the United States, originated in pre-Christian Ireland. It is now recognized as both an artistic display of Irish heritage as well as a challenging, energetic, and fitness-filled sport.
Irish dancers may begin the sport as young as four years old, starting with beginner "soft shoes," or "ghillies."
They may later add "hard shoe" dances and styles to their repertoire. Though most dancers begin as solo performers, other forms of Irish dance are also popular; group dances, or "set dances," most commonly contain either four or eight people, who use a specific set of movements depending on their position in the group.
Ceili dancing is less rigid and often more spontaneous than set dancing; common at parties and group Ceilidh dances. A Ceili formation contains anywhere from two to sixteen dancers, often of varying ages and skill levels.
In the more popular category of solo dancing, dancers are further divided into different interests and categories. Sean-nos dancing is known as a division of Irish dance; however, it differs greatly from the rigid guidelines and forms of stepdancing.
Sean-nos originated in the Connemara region of Ireland, and is quite possibly the oldest form of Ireland's dance culture. It is far less dictated than popular stepdancing, in which the performer must hold his or her arms straight against the torso while wearing a usually ornate and stylized costume.
In contrast, a sean-nos dancer wears ordinary clothing and swings his arms and torso as the rhythm dictates.
Nor will a sean-nos dancer concern himself with different styles of shoes for different types of musical accompaniment; instead, the dancer is considered a low-key accompaniment to the music, wearing thick shoes which make a "battering" sound on whatever available surface- a stage, an ordinary floor, an old door- is available.
In contrast, popular Irish stepdancing is much more formulated and precise, with less emphasis on the artist's feeling of rhythm. The emphasis is more on performing or competing in front of an audience.
Though modern Irish dance has roots in the old style of sean-nos, most characteristics differ; for example, the two sets of shoes used here are not seen in the older style. The aforementioned types of shoes, hard and soft, divide dancing into two broad categories.
Soft shoes, or "ghillies," are black in color. They somewhat resemble a ballet shoe, but with a soft toe and less rigid form. Ghillies are only worn by girls; the soft shoes worn by boys resemble a modern jazz shoe, with a hard heel. Soft shoes are worn when dancing to reels, light jigs, and slipjigs. These dances are usually more acrobatic, with high leaps and quick and energetic movements.
On the other side of the spectrum, hard shoes are used to perform the "heavy" dances. Also black in color, hardshoes resemble a bulkier version of tap shoes for both male and female dancers.
The "uppers" are usually comprised of leather, while the tips and heels have evolved from clumsy constructions of wood and nails to lighter materials, such as fiberglass. The fiberglass allows for loud and rhythmic tapping, or "batters," to be heard in dances such as the heavy jig (also called the "hard" or "treble" jig), the hornpipe, the treble reel, and the traditional sets.
Traditional sets are a group of 36 dances with prewritten music and steps; in short, a dancer in Ireland, upon hearing certain traditional set music (such as "St. Patrick's Day," or "Job of Journeywork") would perform almost exactly the same dance routine as any dancer in the rest of the world, regardless of nationality or school.
Each dancing school, or scoil, has its particular steps and characteristics, as well as its own costumes which are used in performances and competitions. In the Irish dancing world, a competition is known as a feis (pronounced Fesh). A feis (plural feiseanna) may last anywhere from a few hours to a few days, in the most advanced circles.
The costumes worn at these feiseanna are simple for small children and beginners: a blouse and skirt for girls, trousers, shirt, and vest for boys. As competitors become older and more advanced, however, costumes become very ornate, with the idea of catching the eye of the judges.
Recently, there has been a huge wave of interest in Irish dancing, due mostly to the dance spectaculars such as "Riverdance," "Lord of the Dance," and "Celtic Tiger." This dancing is usually less traditional, yet still remarkably skillful and energetic.
The high-impact energy of Irish dance is also used by many to stay in shape; indeed, Irish dance is considered one of the most challenging sports as well as a culture-enriching activity.
Many adults as well as young people dance to increase their health benefits, with adult classes being held in many cities and workout tutorials being sold in many venues.
Irish Dancing has remained a multinational sport for many years as a result of its cultural benefits, its cardio advantages, and its entertaining and enjoyable qualities. It will certainly remain an active and growing sport for years to come.