Irish Dance Soft Shoes: Worn by females - they are often called Ghillies, Pumps, or Soft Shoes. They are constructed of very soft kid leather - similar to ballet shoes in texture. Their laces crisscross across the top of the feet and are tied up either around the ankle or under the arch of the foot. Some dancers have the normal laces in the shoes and others prefer to replace the laces with black elastic - very handy for a quick change over when competing or performing in a show. These shoes are to be worn extremely tight fitted on the foot, which enhances the dancers arch and also toes when she is performing. A good way to test the fitting of your shoe is to point your toes, when you have the shoe properly laced up. If you see a gap at the tip of your toes whilst your foot is pointed --- then the shoe is too big. When the shoe is too big the dancer's point does not look as strong and accentuated ---- this could loose the dancer valuable points whilst competing.
Irish Dance Hard Shoes: Often called Jig Shoes, Heavy Shoes, Hard Shoes and they are the used to create the beautiful rhythmical percussions of Irish Dancing. These shoes are unique to Irish Dancing. They are made of black leather with fiberglass heels and taps on the tip of the shoes. You can buy the shoes with a leather strap across the top of the foot - which keeps the shoe firm on your foot whilst dancing.
These shoes should also be firm fitting in length and width, this will prevent your foot from sliding around inside the shoe and causing blisters and also preventing you from falling down inside the shoe - when and if you are able to do toe-stands.
Men & Boy's Reel Shoes: these are simply called reel shoes and they look much like a jazz shoe. They come in a gloss leather look or can be made in a shiny pebbled leather. They have a hard heel which allows the male dancer to perform clicks throughout their soft shoe dances. Unlike the females soft shoe, the sole of this shoe is very flexible which enables males dancer to produce sound whilst performing their soft shoes dances i.e.: trebles and shuffles.
Irish Dance Hard or Jig Shoes are in constant evolution. Manufacturers and designers bring out newer versions of this shoe in an effort to create the perfect shoe for Irish Dancers, that require minimal 'breaking in'. Gone are the days of nails in the heels and toes to create that sound. Also gone are the days of having to 'wear-in' the souls of the shoes making them flexible enough to dance in. Now we have the Ultra Flexi Split Soled Shoes, which enable a dancer to perform exciting dance tecnicals almost immediately.
Irish Dancers And Their Shoes Are Inseparable From the first a dancer struggles with tying her ghillies or a boy tries to click his reel shoes, shoes become an integral part of their dance. Irish dance shoes have their own little "subculture" in the Irish Dance world. The shoe vendors at any Feis have the most crowded tables as dancers vie for sizes between competitions. Many large Irish Dance schools have "Shoe Ladies" who do the group ordering and fitting for their schools. Even small Irish import shops have now found a lucrative market in selling Irish dance shoes with the use of internet shopping services. The Irish Dance shoemaking business has grown in leaps and bounds in the past few years bringing Irish dance shoes to every part of the globe.
The four types of Irish music and associated dances are the jig, reel, hornpipe, and the set dances. First, some basic music definitions are needed. The "time" of a tune is shown at the beginning of the music; for example, a jig is in 6/8 time. The second number is the basic unit for a beat (4 for quarter note, 8 for eighth note), and the first number is the number of beats per "measure" or "bar." The "tempo" of the music determines the speed of the beat. In a fast tempo, beats occur rapidly. The hornpipe may have a slow or fast tempo. Beginning dancers at a feis may be asked whether they want the music to be slow or fast, often confusing them. Metronomes measure tempos precisely; thus you can observe advanced dancers requesting their set dance in a particular tempo (e.g., Planxty Drury at 68). Slower tempos allow dancers to "pack" more movements into a particular dance. During the age of the dance masters, some would refuse to compete at a feis if the musician insisted on playing a tune at too fast of a tempo.
Just as costumes are evolving, dances are also evolving because of the development of new movements. Examples of recent innovations include the butterfly and toe stands. These developments are sometimes controversial because they conflict with maintaining the authentic or traditional aspect of step dancing. However, highly skilled dancers are always pushing the limits and innovating.
[A note on metronomes: it is jokingly reported that, in the past, musicians when asked to play faster, just played louder and when asked to play more slowly, just played more softly, never changing the tempo. With the coming of the portable electronic metronome, dancers now are comforted that the tempo is correct. However, rumor has it that musicians' solution is to secretly turn off the metronome and substitute their own ticking sound into the microphone, adding an occasional ping for effect!]
Jigs There are references to the jig in ancient Ireland. A number of variations of the jig are performed including the single (or soft), double, treble, and slip jig. The music is 6/8 time (the emphasis on beats in a jig is: ONE-two-three four-five-six). Slip jigs are in 9/8 time (ONE-two-three four-five-six seven-eight-nine). Dancers perform single or soft jigs in soft shoes. Solo competitions only occur at the level of beginners, advanced beginners, and at some feisianna, Open. Competitions at all levels also occur in the treble jig which has a slower tempo, but dancers triple beats in hard shoes. The slip jig (soft shoes) is the most graceful of Irish dances and features light hopping, sliding, skipping and pointing. Only women dance the slip jig. In the Richens Academy, the first dance learned is the soft jig.
Reel The reel originated around 1750 in Scotland and the Irish dance masters brought it to full development. The music is 4/4 time and it is danced at a relatively fast tempo (ONE-two-three-four). Both men and women dance the reel. For women, it is a light, rapid soft shoe dance that allows for plenty of leaping and demands an energetic performance from the dancer. Men often dance the reel in hard shoes.
Often a feis will include a special competition in the treble reel. Here, dancers in a single line have two chances to display their best efforts in a competition matching boys and girls from multiple age groups. Usually, audiences are extremely enthusiastic in their appreciation for this exciting performance.
Hornpipe The hornpipe began around 1760, evolving from English stage acts. It was originally danced exclusively by males in hard shoes, but now, both men and women compete. It is reported that the ladies of Cork were the first to brazenly perform the hornpipe in the male style. The hornpipe is in 4/4 time, reminiscent of a slow reel with accents on the first and third beat (ONE-and-a two-and-a three-and-a four-and-a). A notable feature is the frequent use of a rocking motion with the ankles.
Perhaps the history should begin with the Celtic peoples, also known as the Gaels. These peoples spread over Western Europe including France, Northern Spain, and the British Isles, spreading to Ireland in the 3rd century BC. They shared a common language (Gaelic) and tended to establish small kingdoms (150 were in Ireland). Roman and Germanic peoples later conquered the Gaels in Europe with the exception of Ireland where the Gaelic culture was preserved. (The Druids were priests and learned men in this culture.) Saint Patrick introduced mainstream Christianity into the country in the 5th century AD.
Although little is known about the dancing in this period, the artwork survived and has influenced Irish dance costumes. The most impressive Celtic Christian art was produced from the late 7th to the early 8th century, both in Ireland and in Irish missions in Europe. Manuscripts of books of the Bible were embellished, or "illuminated," with decorative borders and lettering of astonishing intricacy and inventiveness. Complex, twining geometric designs predominated. The masterpiece of this period is the Book of Kells (mid-8th Century), which is unsurpassed for its illumination. Other art of the period includes large stone crosses and carved ceremonial religious objects such as the Armagh Chalice (early 8th Century).
Viking raiders destroyed most books from this period, thus there are few written records of any dances. However, it is certain that one aspect of the sophisticated Gaelic culture was music and dance. An interesting note is that the Viking, Erik the Red, took two Irishmen with him on his voyage discovering North America and they were the first explorers of the new land. However, he did not report any dancing upon the occasion of the discovery! The Viking raids of Ireland ended in 1014 after the victory of the Irish king Brian Boru at Clontarf.
Feisianna date from this period. They were a combination trade fair, political gathering, and cultural event with music, sporting events, storytelling, and crafts. Over time, the cultural aspect came to dominate feisianna. These events continued through time to the present. While the politics are gone, they continue to have music, dance, crafts, and trade (the vendors!).
The Celtic tradition in Ireland declined rapidly during the 12th century. Increasing foreign influences weakened traditional arts, and the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland occurred in 1170. However, over the next two hundred years, the conquerors became closely associated with traditional Irish culture. To counteract this assimilation, the Anglo-Irish Parliament passed, in 1366, the Statute of Kilkenny, decreeing excommunication and heavy penalties against all those who followed the custom of, or allied with, the native Irish. It took another 128 years before they enforced the statute.
History records a variety of dances done by the Irish in the mid-1500s. These include Rinnce Fada or Fading where two lines with partners faced each other, Irish Hey (possibly a round or figure dance), jigs (likely in a group), Trenchmores (described as a big free form country dance), and sword dances. It is not clear whose dances influenced whom among the Irish, English, and French, but it was characteristic that Irish dances had a faster tempo and included side steps. English suppression of Irish culture continued, exemplified by the banning of piping and the arrest of pipers. However, Queen Elizabeth I was "exceedingly pleased" with Irish tunes and country dances.
Power struggles between the Irish and English continued during the 1600s. The Penal Laws enacted in the late 1600s crushed Irish commerce and industries. The laws also banned the education of Catholic children leading to hidden (hedge) schools. Traditional Irish culture was practiced with some degree of secrecy. This period of severe repression lasted for more than a hundred years, explaining some of the initial secrecy of teaching Irish step dancing. Country dancing continued, one description being that on Sundays "in every field a fiddle and the lasses footing it till they are all of a foam"; another being "the young folk dance till the cows come home." Dancing continued during the 1700s, often during holidays, weddings, christenings, and wakes. However, the Church sometimes condemned dancing, "In the dance are seen frenzy and woe."
A major influence on Irish dance and Irish culture was the advent of the Dance Masters around 1750, beginning a tradition that you could argue continues today. A dance master typically traveled within a county, stopping for about six weeks in a village, staying with a hospitable family (who were honored by their selection as host). They taught Irish dancing (male teachers) in kitchens, farm outbuildings, crossroads, or hedge schools. Students would first learn the jig and reel. Sometimes, the teacher had to tie a rope around a student's leg to distinguish right foot from left. Besides dancing, they also appear to have given instruction in fencing and deportment. Some teachers had other skilled trades that were used on occasion by the villagers, helping to explain dance masters habit of traveling from town to town. Having an eminent dance master associated with your village was a cause for pride and boasting by the community.
Each dance master had a repertoire of dance steps and he created new steps over time. (Eight measures or bars of music are called a "step," hence the term step dancing.) Sometimes the masters danced competitively at feisianna, the winner being the one who knew the most steps, not the one with the best execution. The loser of a competition might have to concede a town in his territory to the winner. These men were the creators of the set and ceili dances and they carefully guarded their art of step creation. Dance masters created the first schools of dancing, the best known being from Counties Kerry, Cork, and Limerick. One dance master described himself as "an artificial rhythmical walker" and "instructor of youth in the Terpsichorean art." Villagers paid dance masters at the end of the third week of teaching at a "benefit night." They paid the accompanying musician a week later. Sometimes, the dance master was both musician and dancer simultaneously! Apparently the level of pay for the dance masters was relatively high for Ireland and it included room and board.
The suppression of Catholics continued during this time, but ways were found to avoid control. One story is that Catholics posted a child as a lookout for meetings or Masses that they held in the cellars of pubs. The child danced a particular beat to warn those below of approaching soldiers.
During the 1800s, a popular event was a cake dance. A cake would be placed on a stand in the center of a field, it being the prize for the best dancer. The winner would, of course, "take the cake." Attempts by the parish priests to suppress dancing were frequent, but appear to have been mostly ineffective.
This period begins in 1893 when the Gaelic League was founded (Conradh na Gaeilge). This group encouraged the revival of Irish culture, a culture that the English had suppressed for centuries. In 1929, the Irish Dancing Commission was founded (An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha) to establish rules regarding teaching, judging, and competitions. It continues in that role. Prior to 1929, many local variations in dances, music, costumes and the rules of feisianna existed. Part of the impact of the Commission was standardization of competitions.
During the 20th Century, Irish dance has evolved in terms of locations, costumes, and dance technique. For example, during the period of the dance masters, stages were much smaller including table tops, half doors, and sometimes the "stage" was simply a crossroad. (An old poem called dancing "tripping the sod.") Tests of dancing ability involved dancing on the top of a barrel or on a soaped table! As stages became larger, the dance changed in at least two ways. The movement of dancers across a stage increased greatly (a judge would now subtract points if a dancer did not "use the stage"), and dance steps that require substantial space became possible (e.g., "flying jumps"). The location of competitions also changed over time from barns or outdoors where flat bed trucks were (and still are) used as stages, to predominately indoors in hotels, schools, or fairgrounds. (Note that fairgrounds are particularly appropriate in a historical context of where ancient feisianna were located.)
Irish dance has evolved in other ways during the 20th Century. Instruction is beginning at a younger age. Who is instructed has also changed from mostly males to mostly females (the turning point was before 1930). Girls dancing solos in competition were rare before the 1920s. Dance styles have also changed; for example, arms and hands were not always held rigid during solo dances. Previously they were sometimes more relaxed and were even placed on hips. It seems that the influence of parish priests led to the lack of arm movement; some argue that stiff arms were less provocative, others argue that the Church was trying to increase dancers' self control. Hand movements still occur in figure (group) dances.
The dance costume has changed greatly from traditional garb. In the 1800s, dance masters wore hats, swallowtail coats, knee breeches, white stockings, and black shoes with silver buckles probably similar to today's hard shoes. (The expression "cover the buckle" seemed to mean crossing your feet so rapidly while dancing that the shine of the buckle covered the entire area.) After 1893 with the revival of Irish culture, the quest for a traditional Irish costume began. Pipers adopted the kilt which older male dancers later adopted in the 1910s and 1920s. Ironically, little evidence supports the argument that the kilt originated in Ireland; however, it is clearly Celtic. Today, male dancers wear either kilts or pants.
In the 1800s, it is likely that female dancers wore ordinary peasant dresses or perhaps their "Sunday best" and ribbons formed into flowers or crosses. After 1893, the typical dance costume consisted of a hooded cloak over a white dress with a sash. An alternative to the cloak was a shawl. By the 1930s the cloak was dropped and the shawl evolved into the current "shawl" worn on the back of costumes; this shawl linked to the traditional Irish "brath" which was rectangular and attached to the outfit by brooches or pins. Until the 1980s, a cord was often worn around the waist, dangling to the knees, ending with a tassel. Dancers also might wear a small coat or vest.
Colors were predominately green, white and saffron on early costumes; they avoided red because of the association with the English. However, due to the availability of local dyes in ancient Ireland, red likely was a traditional color. In recent time, all colors have come into use. Males' costumes are more subdued.
Embroidery was relatively minimal on costumes in the early 1900s. However, it has steadily increased in use and complexity. Designs were originally of traditional Irish origin, obtained from the Book of Kells, Irish stone crosses, and chalices. The interlocking and continuous lines in the pattern on the costume symbolize the continuity of life and mankind's eternity. Designers are now introducing modern interpretations and patterns. Another relatively recent innovation is the use of silver and gold thread in the embroidery. Interestingly, there is a justification for this because women's clothing in pre-Norman Ireland contained silver and gold thread embroidery.
Early descriptions of dancers sometimes note they were barefoot. Soft shoes were introduced around 1924 for girls dancing reels, jigs, and slip jigs. For a while, boys adopted their use also, but had dropped them by the 1970s. Hard shoes have also evolved in style and technology. Dancers have adopted fiberglass toe tips and hollow heels. This change in materials allows dancers' "clicks" of their heels to become much louder, thus changing the emphasis and content of many dances. (Previously, nail heads were used and dancers inserted coins between sole and toe tip to increase loudness.) Bubble heels were invented around 1985 to augment clicking, but they are now prohibited at feisianna. (Feis rules also require "authentic Gaelic dress" but it is likely that neither current boys' nor girls' costumes would have been seen in Celtic Ireland.)
North American History The Irish Dance Teachers Association was founded in 1964. There are more than 500 certified instructors in North America. Rules regarding competitions in the U.S. and Canada are regulated by the North American Feis Commission, founded in 1968.