The Famous Tradition of Irish Dancing

Irish dancing ireland

Updated On: April 16, 2024 by   Ciaran ConnollyCiaran Connolly

Irish dancing is one of the most famous and much-loved traditions in Ireland. It is a variety of traditional dances composed of solo and group dances.

Not only has Irish dancing become famous in Ireland, but people around the world cherish the unique dancing tradition. There are Irish dancing competitions all around the globe, and this has much to do with the Irish diaspora continuing the traditions wherever they go.

Irish Dance and Heritage

Irish dancing is a massive part of Irish culture and heritage, and over the last decade, the tradition has grown in popularity with new generations. The newfound revival can be related to the success of Riverdance.

However, Irish dancing existed long before Riverdance was a thing. Many people in Ireland took up Irish dancing as a fun activity as children and continued to enjoy it as adults. Irish dance has always been a huge feature in Irish-themed events such as St. Patrick’s Day.

Irish dance is unique because it’s completely different from modern dancing. This unique form of dancing has captivated people for decades. We will explore everything you want to know about Irish dance, starting with its history.

History of Irish Dancing

Although people are somewhat unsure when exactly the origin and roots of Irish dancing came, there is evidence that suggests its links to the Celts and the Druids. The Celts were sun worshippers who had their own folk dances, while many of the religious rituals of the Druids also involved dancing.

The celts would dance within a circular formation of stones, which is similar to the circular formation we see in many Irish dancing sets. At the time, these types of dances were common throughout mainland Europe. However, it’s still very different from the traditions of Irish dancing, but patterns and formations can be seen. For example, the Celts would often repeatedly tap one of their feet, a tradition we see in the steps of Irish dance.

Feis Festival

As you would expect, dancing at the time was accompanied by singing and music, much of which took place on special occasions. One of the special occasions held by the Celtic community was a local celebration known as ‘feis’. It was a celebration of culture, art, music, dancing and a place where people could talk about storytelling, politics and other topics.

A huge feis called ‘Aonach’ (grand festival) takes place on the Hill of Tara once a year. It is believed that the festival began over 1000 years ago. Even in modern times, there are still feis held all around Ireland. Today, there is more of a celebration of Irish dancing and music, where Irish dancers compete to win medals and prizes.

Irish Dancing Inspired by the Normans

Another aspect of Irish dancing’s history comes from the Normans, who invaded Ireland during the 12th century. When they settled in Ireland, they brought many traditions of their home, including dancing.

One of the famous Norman dances was the ‘Carol’, and they soon began to dance in Irish villages and towns. The dance involved a group dancing in a circle with a singer in the middle. It was the earliest reference to recorded dance in Irish history. For many centuries later, in Ireland, dance continued to evolve.

Evolution of Irish Dancing

Popular dances started to emerge in Ireland during the 16th century. These dances were known as the ‘Irish Hey’, the ‘Rinnce Fada’ (long dance), and the ‘Trenchmore.’ Along with the tradition of circular formation, these dances incorporated line formations. The Irish Hay dance involved dancers chaining in and out of each other in a circle. It’s believed that the Irish Rinnce Fada was introduced in honour of the arrival of James II to Ireland.

Dancing continued to be an essential aspect of Irish life and culture; dancing at religious ceremonies was still a thing. It wasn’t unheard of for people to dance around the coffin at an Irish Wake.

The Irish people’s love for dancing has been well documented. An English author called John Dunton once wrote, “On Sundays and Holydays, all the people resorted with the piper to the village green. Where the young folk dance till the cows come home. There was no occasion from which dancing was absent”.

History of Irish Dance in the 18th century

By the 18th century, Irish dance had become more disciplined. The typical styles and formations of Irish dances today were created in this century.

This is most likely due to the introduction of Irish Dancing Masters who travelled around Ireland to teach the unique dance to people. Group dances were at the forefront of these classes as it was easy to involve multiple people in one dance. Only the best dancers from each town or village were given solo dances.

These dancers were given their section to show off their talents and dancing. When they danced, doors would be placed on the floor to provide them a pretend stage and a good performance platform. Soon, a rivalry between the dancers from different areas began, and ultimately, this led to the rise of modern dance competitions in Ireland. These dancing competitions still take place in Ireland and around the world today.

Creation of the Gaelic League

In the late 18th century, the Gaelic League was founded in Ireland. After many centuries of British rule in Ireland, the League’s purpose was to help create a separate cultural Irish nation.

The Gaelic League helped to promote Irish culture in Ireland, and dancing was one of them. With the help of the Gaelic League, they organised formal dancing competitions and Irish dance lessons. They also developed the launch of the Irish Dancing Commission in 1930. The Irish Dancing Commission helped to regulate the popular form of dancing. Once the dance had its organisation, it took off, quickly becoming popular worldwide.

Different Irish Dancing Styles

There are many different styles of Irish Dancing, but for the most part, they are relatively formal and repetitive. Stepdance is a style that was developed from a variety of solo Irish dances. This includes well-known ‘modern’ stepdance, which is mostly performed competitively. Also, there is an old-style stepdance, which relates to the style of dancing that took place during the 19th century.

Much of Irish dancing involves quick foot movement and a strict set of steps. Little upper body movement is involved in the dance.

Modern Step Dance

This is definitely the leading form of Irish step dance, which became very popular with the Broadway show Riverdance. Other Irish dancing stage shows from the 20th century helped to make it a favoured form of dancing.

The main characteristic of modern step dance is its rigid torso, which is mainly performed on the balls of your feet. Again, this style became very distinct from that of the 19th century. Modern step dance is performed competitively in a variety of countries.

Old Style Step Dancing

This form of dancing is a tradition of ‘sean-nos dancing,’ also referred to as ‘Munster-style sean-nos.’ Old-style dancing was first created in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Irish dance masters who travelled around Ireland teaching dance.

The dance masters helped transform both solo and social dances in the country. Modern masters of old-style step dancing can often trace the steps’ lineage back to the dancers of the 18th century.

The Irish dance masters helped refine and arrange Irish dance traditions. Old-style dancing rules include properly using body, arm, and foot placements. Another rule was that dancers had to perform a step twice, once with the right foot and then with the left.

The old-style dance involved loosely placing your arms at your side, as you had limited space. During this century, Irish dance masters also helped choreograph dances to certain traditional music, which created solo traditions. The conventional music included ‘Blackbird’, ‘Job of Journey Work’, and ‘St—Patrick’s Day, which is still used in modern Irish step dancing.

There are two categories for each style of Irish dance: soft shoes and stiff shoes. Soft shoe dances include reels, light jigs, and singles jigs, which are classified by the timing of the music and the steps taken in each dance. Challenging shoe dances include using the hornpipe, treble jib, treble reel and traditional sets accompanied by conventional music sets.

Irish Dancing Costumes

Irish dancing costumes have long been a massive part of the tradition of Irish dancing. Initially, the appropriate clothes for an Irish dance competition were your ‘Sunday best’ clothes, which you would wear to church. Girls would usually wear a dress and boys a shirt and trousers.

As dancers started to excel at competitions and take part in more public performances, they got solo dresses made of their own design with the colours of their team. During the ’70s and ’80s, ornately embroidered designs on dancing costumes became popular and still are today. Solo dresses were created uniquely for each dancer, offering a bit of personality to their costume.

Nowadays, Irish dancing costumes are more extravagant and have Celtic-inspired designs. Most female dancers today also wear wigs or have their hair in a bun with a hairpiece for competitions.

Irish Dancing Shoes

Costumes would come with either soft or hard shoes, depending on the style of dance you were performing. Hard shoes have fibreglass tips and heels to add noise to the dance. Soft shoes are leather lace-ups, also referred to as ‘ghillies.’ The boy’s version of the soft shoes is called ‘reel shoes, ‘ which feature audible heel clicks.

When Irish dancing first started, a trend was to wear white socks with shoes, which is still a tradition today.

Irish dancing costumes have long been an important aspect of Irish dancing culture. Most of the beautiful laces and embroidered designs on the dresses are taken from the Book of Kells.

Irish Dancing Music

Traditional music that would accompany the dancing included harps, bagpipes, or simply singing. The music and the dancing go hand in hand; as Irish dancing evolved, so did the music. As there are many different Irish dancing routines and styles, many kinds of music and instruments accompany each.

Typical instruments include the fiddle, the bodhran, the tin whistle, the concertina and the uilleann pipes. When single dancers perform at competitions, a solo instrument is usually played. Check out some of the typical Irish dance music in the video below:

Dancing Competition

Irish dancing has become one of the world’s favourite styles, and competitions are held worldwide. Attending one of these competitions is one of the best ways to watch and enjoy Irish dancing.

There are a variety of competitions in Ireland alone. Each competition is categorised by location, age group, and expertise, ranging from country to regional and national competitions. The biggest regional competition in Ireland is called Oireachtas. During a competition, dancers will be scored on their techniques, style, timing, and the sounds they make with their footwork.

The Irish Dancing Commission began holding the annual Irish Dancing World Championship. It first took place in Dublin in 1950 but eventually outgrew its location. The World Championships began travelling around North and South of Ireland. From then onwards, the competition continued to grow in popularity and moved worldwide, even today. The competition featured over 6,000 dancers from 30 incredible countries.


A very influential part of the success and popularity of Irish dancing comes from the Broadway show ‘Riverdance. Riverdance is a theatrical show that’s made up of Irish traditional music and dance. The Broadway shows have helped bring the unique style of Irish dancing to a worldwide audience.

It first appeared during an interval performance at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994. It featured the now-famous Irish dancing champions, Michael Flatley and Jean Butler. What simply began as a seven-minute performance became a world-renowned show.

The stage show Riverdance was first performed in Dublin six months after it appeared on Eurovision. The Broadway show toured around the UK, Europe, and New York, selling over 120,000 tickets. For 15 successful years, the Riverdance production travelled around the world before a final farewell tour in 2011. Today, there are small shows of similarity still travelling around the globe that help to keep Irish dancing alive.

More blogs that might interest you:

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