Whatever your individual image of ‘Irish Dancing’, it remains a global phenomenon , from its humble formal beginnings in the latter part of the 19th Century to the jaw dropping shows that continue today around the World.
Indeed, Irish Dancing wasn’t always as auspicious as it is today. The Irish people fought against the repression of the penal laws in the 17th Century ensuring that Irish education, Culture and dancing survived for future generations. It is to their credit that the sense of national pride was nurtured during these very difficult times often practicing in secret and following the tragedy of the Irish famine in mid 1840’s, a stoic sense of national pride needed to be fostered. Despite this draconian past, Ireland’s culture, traditions coupled with the strong sense of nationalism ensured that language and dance survived.
The ‘Dance Master’ was a predominant feature from the mid to late 18th century where usually a colourful individual would earn his living by teaching the children of the local gentry deportment as well as traditional Irish steps and was usually accompanied by a musician. The Dance Master also taught peasant children during the era of the hedge schools in Ireland when there was prohibition on the practice of Irish Culture and tradition and dance. The Dance Masters varied in their levels of accomplishment with some teaching only the basic rudiments of the craft in the form of the rising step, while the level of intricacy employed by others involved team dances and difficult footwork.
With similar etiquette to that which exists today amongst Irish Dance Teachers, Dance Masters seldom encroached on another Dance Masters territory and overall they were widely esteemed by the Community.
Outlets for this new founded skill began to emerge with small sessions engaging in communal dance instruction and open air displays when the weather permitted. Thus in this way, dancing at the Crossroads was born and following the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 Irish tradition had had its reprieve.
This practice continued well on into the late nineteenth Century with Dance Masters surviving in more isolated areas into the early twentieth Century. However, the devastating famine of the 1840’s which resulted in mass emigration and the deaths of almost a million people had far reaching effects on the emphasis towards the Irish Language and Culture.
Towards the end of the nineteenth Century as the Country struggled to rebuild it’s sense of nationalism the grip of the Catholic Church tightened with crossroads dancing and such informal gatherings as had become common being denounced from the pulpit as ‘sinful’.
The Gaelic League was set up in 1893 to encourage the renewed interest in Irish Culture and the first ‘Ceili’ was organised in London in 1897 by the Irish Diaspora residing in London who wished to keep a stronghold on their own traditions. It was highly successful with many high profile members of the Gaelic League attending and it created a blueprint for encouraging the same in Ireland.
These ‘Ceili’ were encouraged in Ireland by the Catholic Church who wished that any socialising between men and women be supervised and with the introduction of the ‘Dance Halls Act’ in the 1930’s it seemed that dancing at the Crossroads had come to it’s inevitable end.
Thus the first Irish ‘Feis’ was held in Macroom , Co. Cork on 20th March 1898 with Irish Dancers competing in Reel, Jig and Hornpipe and Irish Dance Schools were set up to fulfil the growing demand for tuition.
Irish Dancing continued to flourish throughout the 1930’s and 40’s with the introduction of ‘An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha’ which was set up by Conradh na Gaeilge in 1929 to promote and preserve the skill of Irish Dancing and to aid in the running of Feiseanna. Feiseanna were organised competitions and proved hugely popular. Developing on the Tailteann Games, the nature of Irish Dance Costumes began to change with individual Schools creating their own costume embellished with Celtic Designs most of which were hand embroidered with Collar and Cuffs hand crocheted.
Then in April 1994, during the interval of the Eurovision Song contest in Mill Street, Co. Cork the history of Irish Dancing was re-written.
‘Riverdance’ as it was named, was a line up of uniformly clad Irish Dancers fronted by the American Duo, Jean Butler and Michael Flately in a piece created by the team of Moya Doherty, John Mc Colgan with Music by Bill Whelan.
They took to the stage with such force and energy that the dynamics of Irish Dance changed forever with Irish step dancing being transported into the 21st Century overnight.
Classes immediately saw huge influxes of eager students wishing to emulate the dancers they had seen with Butler and Flately becoming overnight sensations.
‘Riverdance’ the Show was launched in 1995 to Worldwide acclaim and has been instrumental over the last fifteen years in setting trends not only within Irish Dance footwork but with Irish Dance Costumes becoming lighter, shorter and more embellished with exotic fabrics being used in dazzling creations and spawning countless dancing shows.
The future of Irish Dancing is as strong as it has ever been, since the beginning of the 20th Century, Irish Dance has changed from a rural preoccupation of the working classes to the global phenomenon with exponential increases in Eastern Europe, South Africa and USA. In these challenging times where Tradition and Culture are often looked on as the staples in peoples lives, Irish Dancing has become synonymous with a deeply rooted sense of National pride.