Article on the Origin of Irish Step Dance

About Irish Step Dance

History: Step dances evolved as the creation of Irish dancing masters, subsequent to their appearance in the late 18th century.  Dancing masters would often travel from town to town, teaching basic dancing steps to those interested and able to pay for them.  Since the basic folk dances had been done for centuries in their absence, one must suspect that their appearance was motivated by a desire to learn the “upscale” dance styles then beginning to be introduced from France.  The dance masters often paraphrased these dances to fit the traditional music available and, in doing so, laid the basis for much of today’s traditional Irish dance – ceili, step, and set.  The dance masters taught steps, the 8-bar units out of which most Irish traditional dance is constructed.  The steps involved both the movements needed for various dances and the foot percussion, called battering, used for rhythmic emphasis.  Competitions were often held in which the demonstrations of steps by masters were performed on a table-top or similar small stage.  In fact, dancing in a limited space was viewed as such an important aspect of the style that one of the greatest tributes to be paid to a dancer was to note that they could “dance on the top of a plate”.
Structure:  The codification of style that defines modern step dance took place in the 1920’s and provided a basis for judging of competitions.  Although none can deny the great response and popularity induced by competitions, they also tend to push style into emphasizing extremes in preferred characteristics rather than overall balance of effect.  The preferred style for competition step-dancing changed through the 1950’s and 1960’s.  The availability of lorries, then small stages in halls, and then larger stages, especially in the larger cities made it possible to perform the traveling steps, circular lead-in’s, sevens-and-threes, and turns we see as a characteristic of modern step-dance.
Nowadays, Irish Step Dance has evolved to a powerhouse form, emphasizing athletic as well as artistic attributes. Leaps, clicks, and traveling is artfully interlaced with intricate movements and footwork.  Dancers stay on the balls of their feet with their knees straight (or nearly so) at all times.  Their posture is erect and unmoving without rigidity and the competitive demands are even more extreme. It’s beautiful, challenging and can be enjoyed throughout most of a dancer’s life.

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