Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Irish Dancing

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The O’Malley Children Get a Lesson on Irish Dance

After the O’Malley children had finished their Thanksgiving dinner, they all gathered around the fireplace. For them, it was the best part of Thanksgiving Day. Each year the family would sit together and each member would share stories and reminisce of the past. This year as they were looking through the photo album, they came upon a picture of their Great-Great Grandmother. She was on a stage dancing, dressed in a heavy woolen garment with rigid posture and a serious expression. Immediately, they all wanted to know more about her. On this Thanksgiving evening, what they discovered from Grandma O’Malley was the history of Irish dancing.

When many people envision Irish dancing they think of Michael Flatley. What they don’t realize is that Irish dancing can be referenced back to the 1800’s. When Ireland was suffering during and after the Tudor Wars, and the laws forbidding everything Irish came about, a decline in the arts and a lack of oral and written records caused the history of Irish dancing to be lost. A poem, which was written in 1800’s is the first reference known to dancing in Ireland.

Ich am of Irlaunde

Ant of the holy londe

Of Irlande.

Gode Sire, pray ich the,

For of saynte Charite,

Come ant daunce wyth me

In Irlaunde.

Anon. c. 100 (O’Rafferty)

The next reference is a letter that was written by Sir Henry Sidney to Queen Elizabeth, which speaks about the Irish Jigs that were danced by the ladies of Galway. From there, in the period of Charles II, the fair ladies of the Court performed the Hey and the Rinnce Fada dances. The Hey and the Rinnce Fada dances can be connected to the ancient forms of fire-worship that were common in Ireland at the time. The Fire ceremonies involved the moving of cattle between two lines of fire so that they could be purified by the smoke and preserved from disease during the following year. It is from this tradition that the ceremonial line movements could have developed into a dance and continued long after the significance was forgotten.

The central figures of eighteenth-century Irish dancing were the dance masters. They traveled from place to place, usually having some other profession in addition to being a dance teacher. It is thought that the dance masters are the creators of the Step-dance. They would compose new steps, teach them from town to town, from there they would be kept in circulation. One of the teachers from this period, O’Kearing, started classifying the steps that were being taught and put them in order. Around 1800, three schools, Kerry, Cork, and Limerick were developed. Since that time, many of the dances had been forgotten and their revival was part of the Gaelic revival movement, which began at the end of the nineteenth century. With some dances lost, the recovery of many of the others and the revival of Irish dancing can be credited to the efforts of the Gaelic League, founded in 1800. The Gaelic League is also responsible for the revival of the oldest national function, the feis. The first feis was a gathering of chieftains, druids, fili, and ollamhs. They would enjoy three days of hospitality from the reigning monarch, and assemble to inspect the National Records. In modern feis, it is customary to hold a concert and chose prizewinners of different sections that perform. These gatherings have standardized Irish dances, which are classified into several well-defined groups.

The term group or ceilidhe (organized dance gatherings) are applied to the Round, Long and Square dances. The step or solo dances are the Jig, Reel, Hornpipe, the Slip or Hop Jig, and a special class known as “set dances”. Set dances are regarded as the highlight of solo dancing. There are also dances called two-hand, which are performed by couples. The most distinctive characteristic of Irish dancing, whether group or solo, is the neatness and precision demanded in their execution. Irish dance demands rapid foot motion with no upper body movement, with the arms held tightly against the sides and the legs not moving above the waist.

The traditional costume is an attempt to reproduce the beautiful ancient Irish costumes that were worn. The women wear a sleeved, knee-length frock with Celtic embroidery, with a sash or braid at the waist. They also wear a short cloak, sometimes with a Tara brooch on the left shoulder. Different colors are used throughout the costume. The men wear a saffron or green kilt with a short cloak hanging from the left shoulder, or a shirt, trousers, and a sash.

As Grandma continued, the children were getting restless. This story was turning into more of a history lesson than they anticipated. This was nothing like the Irish dancing that they had seen on video. They expressed this to their Grandma and pleaded with her to tell them more about the style of Irish dancing that they were familiar with. This is where Michael Flatley and Riverdance became introduced into the story.

Irish step dancing, unknown and unappreciated outside of Ireland and Irish communities, has become mainstream entertainment around the world, in large part due to the talents of Michael Flatley. He started his career as a choreographer and principal dancer in Riverdance, and has gone on to head his own company, producing Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames. Before Flatley came on the scene, Irish dance was a rigid affair that required performers to hold their arms tightly at their sides.

Michael Flatley is American born, the son of Irish parents. He was born in Chicago, in 1958. With the encouragement of his Grandmother, who was a dance champion, Flatley remembers taking his first steps when he was four-years-old. Even though dancing ran in his family he didn’t start taking lessons until he was eleven-years-old, an age considered too old to become a world-class champion. At age sixteen, Flatley became the first American to win the All-World Championships of Irish dancing. From there, he went on to win over one hundred Irish dance titles in thirteen countries. Flatly is also listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most taps in a second (Baker). In 1974, Flatley was asked to chronograph, with several others, an intermission act at the annual Eurovision Song Contest that was held in Dublin. The seven-minute act was a sensation and has been dubbed “The Seven Minutes That Shook Ireland”. The performance differed from traditional Irish dance. In addition to the lightning fast footwork, the act featured rows of precision dancers, swinging arms, high flying legs, and sultry looks between the two star dancers, Michael Flatley and Jean Butler. The costumes also differed from traditional attire. According to McCourt, the women wore a one-piece outfit that showed their legs and Flatley wore a loose-sleeved shirt with tight pants. From this short performance, called Riverdance, a full-scale, Irish dance stage show was developed with Flatley and Butler commanding the lead roles. The two-hour show, also entitled Riverdance, premiered in Dublin in 1985 and was a huge success. Moya Doherty, who produced the show, defined it as follows “ The first half examines our Irish roots, who we are, our heritage as Celts and our spirituality, while the second half is the journey out, the embracing by the Irish disapora of other cultures and how we, as Irish, are changed culturally when we return to our homeland”. In an article by Duffy, he quoted Doherty as also stating that a resurgent Irish pride has also helped Riverdance thrive. Duffy goes on to say that the brief history of the show coincides with the progress of peacemaking in Northern Ireland. The show went on to prove that they could draw crowds that were not exclusively Irish by a very popular tour of Great Britain, and then eventually touring worldwide. Riverdance appeals to a wide international audience by using other styles of dance, including Tango acts, Russian Ballet dancers, and American tappers. With the enormous success of the show, after touring with Riverdance for only a year, Michael Flatley was fired from the production. In an article by Aloff, he claims that the issues over his dismissal had to do with artistic control and money.

After Riverdance, Flatley went on to create Lord of the Dance, which debuted in Dublin in June of 1996. Unlike Riverdance, which is a variety show that includes Non-Celtic elements, Lord of the Dance is totally Celtic. The story is built around the theme of good vs. evil, with Flatley playing the forces of good and a gang of men in black masks playing the forces of evil. With the popularity of Irish dance, both Riverdance and Lord of the Dance toured the world simultaneously, even without Flatley. They were both huge successes, selling out wherever they performed as well as selling millions of videos.

Michael Flatley announced his retirement in 2001 after finishing the U.S. tour of his show, Feet of Flames. He is retiring from dancing, but has other projects in the works. He has written a book on his life, and has a movie project in the works, based on his life and the world of Irish dance. And if they are anything like his dance productions, they will be a huge success.

As Grandma finished the story, the children were on there feet dancing the Irish jig, as they envisioned it. They had learned a great deal about their Great-Great Grandmother and Irish dance in such a short time. The children also learned about their ancestors as well as traditional versus modern Irish dance style. It helped them appreciate the fact that Michael Flatley, with his dancing and choreographic abilities, had a huge influence on Irish dance and how it is performed today.


Aloff, Mindy. Hot Eire. (Popularity of “Riverdance” and “Lord Of the Dance”). The New Republic.

Baker, John F. Dancing as fast as he can. Publishers Weekly, 46, 14.

Bellafante, Ginia. Mr. Big of the new jig. Time.

Duffy, Martha. Riverdance. Time.

Gale Research. Michael Flatley. Newsmakers.

Jones, Chris. Global coin afoot for step-dancers. Variety.

McCourt, Frank. Gotta Dance. The New Yorker.

O’Rafferty, P., & O’Rafferty, G. Dances of Ireland. London Max Parrish & Company.

Petrikin, C., & Sandler, A. (17, August 18). “Lord” a-leapin” to CAA.

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