The History of Irish Tap Dancing
Written by William Clark
The origins of Irish tap dancing or step dancing are lost in the mists of time. It is pleasing to imagine that in the ancient courts of the Irish Kings boys and girls were dancing and tapping their feet to the sound of handmade flutes or whistles.
The practice of dancing with the body and arms held still can be seen in hornpipes and jigs danced by sailors. This might have been useful in a crowded ship or as a test of the dancers ability to remain upright without using their arms for balance in a pitching ship.
Would it be too fanciful to imagine that the dances might have been a test for a drunken person to remain upright whilst showing their skill at fast dancing? In the absence of music the tapping of clogs would enhance the performance. No doubt, most ships would have someone who could play a pipe or whistle. The energetic dance would be an excellent way for sailors cramped in their vessels to get some badly needed exercise.
In the 16th century dancers could be found entertaining in castles accompanied by bagpipes and harps. Hard shoes known as ?heavy shoes? ?jig shoes? had wooden taps with nails. The sound produced i.e the tapping gave rise to the rhythms associated with step dancing. Modern shoes use fibreglass for a lighter and more resonant effect.
Irish dances are divided into two categories: social dance and performance dance. Social dance subdivides into céilí and set dancing. In Sean-nós (old style), the dancers usually danced to one musician. In the 19th century dance masters traveled around Ireland teaching step dancing and they standardized many movements.
A stone was often set in the floor and this acted as a platform so that shoes would make a loud click. The nails in the shoes would cause sparks as they hit the stone. It is also said that people would sometimes remove doors and use them to dance on. Tables, stools and barrels have also been used to demonstrate the prowess of the dancer.
Irish dancing has borrowed from other countries such as France but the Irish diaspora has taken Irish style to many other countries. In America, Irish step dancing and African rhythms combined to form "buck and wing dancing" the forerunner of modern tap dancing.
Competitive dancing is popular in Ireland and wherever Irish people have gone. ?Feis? is the Irish Gaelic name for a dance competition or festival. There are different levels based on age and expertise. Boys and girls compete up to open championship level and then they are separated. Judges look for skilful footwork, good style, and rhythmic competence. World championships attract dancers from all over and provide a great spectacle.
Most people have seen and heard of Riverdance. This exciting modernization of traditional Irish step dance was first seen as part of the Eurovision Song Contest when it was held in Ireland. Lines of dancers using rapid footwork combined with stirring music thrilled the audience. The music of Riverdance is rooted in baroque-influenced traditional music known as "Timedance" It is now a popular theatrical show touring the world. Dancing in a limited space and making good percussion effect with the feet creates great energy and excitement that quickly communicates to the audience.
Irish step dancing has a long history and looks set to have an as equally long future.
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The Importance of Understanding History
Ireland has a long history and it is important that we have a respect for the past and make some efort to learn its lessons.
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