We can divide dance into two broad categories, social and exhibition. Within these we have a diverse patchwork of dance forms, including set dance, céilí dance and solo (or step) dance.
Set Dance – Half sets of four and full sets of eight, where all types of music are used – polkas, slides, reels, jigs and hornpipes…
Céilí Dance – Danced in line forms and circles, where the music used is slower – single reels and jigs are popular…
Solo (step) dance – Associated with feis and festival forms, traditional solo step dancing, and the sean nós solo form…
Modern set dancing as we know it has its roots in the old court dances and military-influenced quadrilles and lancers that date from the mid-late eighteenth century. These dances in turn came from France, and perhaps a local desire to emulate such society dances might well have prompted the new dance steps in Ireland. Dancing masters would often adjust these new dances to fit the traditional music available and, in doing so, they laid the basis for much of today's traditional Irish dance - set, céilí and step. The dance masters taught steps in 8-bar units, because most Irish traditional dance music is constructed thus. The steps involved both the movements needed for various dances and the foot percussion, called battering, used for rhythmic emphasis. Every county in Ireland would have its own particular set of steps or patterns. The Gaelic League’s opposition to set dancing (it being 'foreign') resulted in it being largely dormant from the start of the 20th century until the 1980s, when its revival spread like wildfire throughout Ireland and further afield.
Style and Structure
Set dances are usually danced by four couples, generally (but not always) arranged on the sides of a square. They are generally divided into several (usually 5 or 6, but ranging from 2 to 9) 'figures'. Set dances are danced flat on the feet. Unlike céilí dances, set dances retain and feature strong regional variations in the style of the dance. Sets from Cork and Kerry lean heavily on the jigs and polkas while the sets from Clare feature reels. Sets like the Clare Lancers from North Clare are danced with a smooth, gliding style while those from other parts of Clare are danced with rhythmic battering.
A Set Dance
Steve Cooney (guitar) and Seamus Begley (box) listen to the ryhthm of the dancers and accompany a set dance
Young dancers perform an original version of the dance from which set-dancing originated
An old style of dancing still found in many Orange and church halls today, both in the north and in Scotland
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Gaelic Revival movement felt that such foreign-influenced (quadrilles/lancers) dancing was not true 'Irish' dancing and so commissioned steps they felt were more authentic. The Church promoted the new style of dancing and those under the Church’s influence were actively discouraged from dancing the quadrilles and lancers. The first such céilí was held on October 30, 1897 in London’s Bloomsbury Hall. Céilí bands, incorporating fiddles, flutes, pipes, accordions, piano, drums first began to emerge in the late 1920s.
Style and Structure
Ceili dances are a collection of dances – round dances, long line dances and long column dances. Thirty of these are described in books 1, 2 and 3 of the Irish Dance Commission’s Ár Rincí Fóirnethat dates from around 1930.Where many ceili dances (e.g. The Walls of Limerick, The Waves of Tory) have a uniformity around the country, set dances vary widely from place to place. Set dancing survived best in those parts of the country that held most strongly to their traditions. Today, we can count approximately 100 different sets gathered from localities in all parts of Ireland, although it has been said that only a few dances remain unchanged.
Solo (step) Dance
Traditionally, solo step dancing has always had a place in the north, and although its popularity has waned in recent years, there is something of a revival in progress at present. It differs largely from Connemara sean-nós style in that the northern style favours a set of steps, whereas Connemara solo dancing is much more an improvised and freestyle form, based on a fundamental rhythmic pattern.
Style and Structure
The early dance style for steps promoted a close form and posture - legs kept together, no high kicks, little or no turning, arms pinned chastely to the sides and, obviously, little travelling. Space was limited - half-doors were sometimes used to dance on, as were barrels, so movement had to be restricted. The preferred style for competition step-dancing changed through the 1950s and 1960s - the availability of lorries, then small stages in halls, and then larger stages made it possible to perform the travelling steps, circular lead-ins, sevens-and-threes and turns, all of which we see as characteristic of modern step-dance.
Joe and Siobhan O'Donovan with Patrick O’Dea
Discuss the origins of dance with Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, and Joe and members of his family dance a hornpipe with voiceover by Catherine Foley<
Feis Style Hornpipe
Two girls dance a hornpipe to music from The Chieftains
Sean Nós with Ray McBride
Talks to Micheal O Suillebahin about the many variations of the sean nós style, illustrated with some archive footage of competitive sean nós dancing