Traditional Irish dancing is tightly choreographed and all attention is directed to the speed and accuracy of the footwork, the spacing of the ensemble, and the precision of the dancers’ movements. The dancers’ arms are held tightly to their sides. Dances are performed in hard shoes (jig shoes) and soft shoes (ghillies) with steps set to traditional reels, jigs and hornpipes. Hard shoe dances, or step dances, are noted for the thunderous beat from the tap-like shoes. In soft-shoe dances, the dancers execute small jumps, quick beats and ankle-twisting crossover steps. These dances are traditionally performed wearing wool costumes adorned with handmade lace and Celtic embroidery.
Irish dance dates back to historical references of ethnic traditions in 16th century Ireland. It is synonymous with Irish independence and cultural identity. Throughout history, these ancient dances were never documented nor recorded due to Ireland’s occupation by England, which controlled the history’s documentation. In Ireland, the British banned all Gaelic cultural traditions during the 400-year period known as the Penal Days. Through this adversity, a beautiful art form was born. Despite England’s attempt to Anglicize the children of Ireland, step dancing evolved behind closed doors. Irish musical instruments were forbidden. Therefore, parents taught children Gaelic tunes with rhythms tapped out by their feet in front of the hearth. Irish music also survived through mouth music, or “lilting,” an art form similar to the African American tradition of “scatting.” Some historians believe that the stiff upper body seen in Irish dancing today came as a result of children being taught the footwork without moving their upper bodies so they couldn’t be seen through the windows while they practiced.
At family gatherings, a sort of “one-upmanship” took place between family members. If the grandpa performed one click, the niece or nephew might show off a double click, and so on. The father and son would often try to out-step each other through a series of complex steps and rhythms. This tradition evolved into what is well known as a challenge in tap and hoofing circles. It was the competitive nature innate in the Irish people that allowed Irish step dance to evolve and survive.
After the Penal Laws were lifted in late 1800s, inspiring the Great Gaelic Revival, Irish dancing gained momentum. The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rise of the dancing masters, who traveled from town to town, teaching Irish dance for about six weeks in one place. Sometimes these masters competed for a teaching spot in a town. The dancer knowing the most dance steps won the position. They often used small spaces, such as the top halves of doors, as their dancing surfaces, frequently soaping the surfaces to make it more challenging. Most likely, these dancing masters were responsible for developing the ceili dances and the set dances.
The Potato Famine of 1845-1850 sent millions of Irish people to America in search of a place where they could make a better life for their families. As they began emigrating from Ireland to the United States, they experienced employment discrimination, meeting “No Irish Need Apply” signs on the doors of most businesses. Many resorted to careers in show business. On Broadway during the days of Vaudeville, the African American boot dancers met Irish step dancers, creating what we now call American tap dancing or “hoofing.” Many of Vaudeville’s earliest starts were Irish step dancers whose lineage ended with performers like James Cagney and Grace Kelly. Cagney’s low-heel, grinding style had much to do with the basics he learned from the Irish step dance tradition.