History of Irish Dance
The Vikings destroyed most books from the 7th and 8th century. So little is known about Irish dance history before then. The Viking raids ended in 1014 when Feisianna began. A Feisianna was the combination of a trade fair, political gathering and cultural event. It also had sporting events, story telling, crafts, music and dance. During the 12th century Celtic traditions declined. In 1366 the Statute of Kilkenny was decreed imposing heavy penalties against anyone practicing Irish customs. Dance declined for a while then continued on in secret.
During the 16th and 17th centuries “crossroads dancing” became very popular. The clergy condemned “crossroads dancing” so the Gaelic League introduced the first Ceili in 1697. This let dancers dance indoors under supervision. The Ceili was not held in Ireland but in London. Traditional Irish culture continued in secrecy until the 1700s. Around 1750 less strict attitudes allowed Irish dance to flourish. Dance was taught by Dance Masters. A Dance Master would travel around the country staying in villages to teach dance steps. Having a dance teacher staying in your village was cause for pride and boasting by the community.
In 1929 the Irish Dancing Commission was founded to make rules in teaching, judging and competitions. It is still around today. In the 1930s and 40s enthusiasm was low due to immigration and unemployment and interest in music was down.
In the 20th century dance instruction begins at an early age. Girls rarely danced solos before the 1920s. Dance styles also changed, arms and hands were not always held rigid during solo dances. Hands were more relaxed and usually on their waists. It was said that Parish priests considered rigid arms less provocative and were said to increase a girl's self control.
Soft shoes were introduced in 1924 for girls. Boys used them for a while but quit in the 1970s. Hard shoes have also changed in style and technology. Dancers now use fiberglass toe tips and hollow heels. Previously, nails were used to make sound. Bubble Heels were invented around 1985 and were prohibited at the Feisianna.
In the time of the Dance Masters and secrecy, dancers performed on tables and barrel tops. By the 20th century, stages were being built for competitions. New steps like flying leaps requiring more space were introduced.
An Irish dance competition is called a feis. One can be found somewhere in the United States every month of the year. Spring and summer months are usually the busiest. Regional competitions are called Oireachtas (pronounced uh-roc-tas). The best dancers qualify for the national competition and then the world competition. The All World Championships are held every year in Ireland at Easter time.