Celtic Week: Irish Dance

It’s dance time on Celtic Week!
If you love dance, want to see a demonstration of Irish dance, or just want to know more about Irish dance from the tiaras down to the shoes, this is the post for you! I am an Irish dancer and am in love with it. I’m still a beginner, but I wanted to share with you some of the traditional dancing.
Let’s start with the crown of the head. Traditional Irish dancers wear crazy curls! I’m talking Shirley Temple and Curly Sue kind of curls! Of course, those kinds of curls can take a lot of time to curl before ever dance show and also be damaging to the hair. So, instead, Irish dancers purchase wigs. And not cheap wigs either. Those pretty puppies can cost on average $100. I currently do not own one of the wigs, so I just curled my hair with an iron.
On top of the curls goes a crown! The tiara I am wearing is one that beginner dancers usually wear. As dancers work their way up through the competition circuits, they normally purchase a wide, stiff fabric crown that comes with and matches the dancing gown. They look spectacular, in my opinion! I’ve also seen a few customized wire crowns, following the traditional shape of the fabric crowns but bent into a whimsical and simple shape.
The dress itself is an elaborate ordeal. Typically there are class dresses and solo dresses. The dress I am wearing is a class dress – which means everyone else in my Irish dancing school has the same dress. Solo dresses are typically purchased by student who go to a lot of competitions.
Irish dancing dresses are very expensive, as a seamstress has to be commissioned to make them. Each dress is heavily embroidered, and the more unique and original the dress, the higher the cost. (I bought my class dress used; I was told that a new one would cost $550. Solo dresses can get up into the thousands of dollars very easily!) There is a ton of embroidery – each school typically has its own unique design. The fabric is sturdy, and the skirt fabric is very stiff to hold the permanent pleats in place. And the dress is HEAVY – I don’t have exact weight measurements, but all that thick fabric causes weight. On the other hand, despite the weight and the thickness of the fabric, the dress are very cool. I have no idea how, but the fabric does breathe.
The neckline and cape:
Every dress has a cape. Some are different than others, but for mine it attaches at both shoulders and falls past the waist. The cape fabric is stiff and unyielding like the skirt. On my dress, the cape is attached with velcro on each shoulder and is attached with a small cord tied around the waist. (Some dresses are attached with beautiful custom pins and brooches.)
Dress details:

For competitions and shows, the dresses are worn with special knee-high ribbed white socks. And said socks are held up with – can you guess? – sock glue. Yup, sock glue. Imagine my surprise when I discovered such a thing existed!
For this video and all past shows I’ve done outside of class, I have worn black tights. 1) Because my knee socks do not come all the way up to my knees, and 2) It’s nice to be wearing black tights when you do the high kicks and not show off your panties! Dancers on Riverdance and Lord of the Dance wear black tights, so it seems to be a popular adjustment with adult dance groups.
THE SHOES
If you are a dancer, I know you’ve been waiting all this time for me to just tell you about the shoes already!
There are two types of shoes: Hard Shoe and Soft Shoe.
Hard Shoes:
They differ from tap shoes – tap shoes have metal pieces attached to the bottoms which make the sound when struck, but Irish hard shoes have two sections that are made from a hard material to create the sound – the entire tip of the shoes and the heels. The arch of the shoes is supple leather and has a break in the support from between the toe and heel sections. The toes are flat so you can stand easily on your toes!
Hard shoes typically range from $150-175.
Soft Shoes:
Soft shoes are supple leather with an interesting tie pattern! You can see the white “poodle” socks in this picture too.
Soft shoes usually range $45-75.
(If you are interested in purchasing shoes, I highly reccommend buying them online from Rutherford: http://www.rutherfordshoes.com/ )
The full dress:
DANCES
Okay, that’s enough about the dress and the shoes. Now, let’s talk THE DANCE!
Why do Irish dancers always have their arms held down stiffly at their sides?

Yep, that’s right! Irish dancers always have their fists balled and their arms held stiffly at their sides. Also, they are allowed to put their hands on their hips as they dance. And that’s it with the arms folks!

Shows like Riverdance and Lord of the Dance have had some Americanization happen to it, so sometimes you will see an Irish dancer moving their arms all around, but traditionally that is a No-No. Why? Well, it goes back to their Druid roots. When Christianity came to Ireland, for some reason the priests felt that moving the arms was sexual, so the dancers held their arms at their sides. I don’t know if that’s true, but hey, that’s the word on the street!
There are different types of dances for Hard Shoe, and there are different types of dances for Soft Shoes.
Hard Shoes dances:
-Treble Reel
-Treble Jig
-Hornpipe
Soft Shoe dances:
-Reel
-Jig
-Slip Jig
So what are the major differences between the dances? Mainly, the music count. For example, a slip jig is in 9/8 time (for you musicians out there) and as you dance, you dance to a count of 5 (one-two-three-four-five). A reel is in 2/4 or 4/4 time, and is danced by the count of 8. There are other choreography differences as well, but mainly it’s divided by music. (Check out this webpage for a more detailed breakdown of the music for the different dances: http://ashleyirishdances.com/music/types-of-irish-dance-music/)
The easiest way to tell you about dance is to demonstrate it to you. Below is a video I made demonstrating a few of these dances. Also, be sure to search youtube for each of the dance types. I am just a beginner, but there are some incredible dancers out there!

THE COMPETITION
So how do all those dancers get onto Riverdance and Lord of the Dance? Do they just audition?
Um, nope. They have to become World Champions first!
An Irish dance competition is called a Feis – pronounced like Fesh. (How do you say that plural? Feiseanna.) It’s an extremely organized system, full of multiple levels divided by age groups and dance types. I don’t know all the steps and levels myself as I did not get into the competition end, but you can visit the North American Feis Commission website (http://www.northamericanfeiscommission.org/) to find out more. The world championship is held in Dublin every year.
A great documentary the World Championship is Jig: The Great Irish Dance Off. You can watch it on youtube here: http://youtu.be/8EQpCHvKS4U 
If you want to become a teacher and own your own studio, you have to take tests and become certified. If you teach Irish dance without that certification, then your students will not be eligible to compete. (http://www.irishcentral.com/news/entertainment/so-you-want-to-be-a-certified-irish-dancing-teacher-157037555-238134841.html)
DANCE LESSONS:
Are you interested in taking Irish dancing lessons? If you are in the Pittsburgh area, there are only three schools that I am aware of:
Bell School of Irish Dance: http://www.bellschool.com/
If you are outside of the Pittsburgh area or outside of the United States, you can search online for schools by region. For example, here are all listing for the Mid America Region: http://www.midamericaregion.com/

Happy dancing!

Stephanie Oplinger
http://www.soarts.net

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me
with gladness. Psalm 30:11

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