There is little concrete fact known about the early origins of Irish dancing, which has developed over many hundreds of years into its’ different forms that we have, worldwide, today.
Right back in the 3rd Century BC, a Celtic tribe called the Gaels spread across Western Europe, and they established a strong presence in Ireland where many small Kingdoms were formed. While the Gaels were over turned in many countries over the next few hundred years, they remained in Ireland, and they formed a strong culture and identity with a heavy focus on music and dance. Religious rituals which incorporated dancing, were developed and these are often referred to as Druid rituals.
By the 5th century AD, Christianity was becoming prevalent in Ireland, and over the next 500 years or so the culture continued to develop, especially with regard to the Celtic art forms and designs. The Book of Kells, (an intricately illustrated manuscript of the four gospels), was written around 800AD. These designs still influence costumes today.
During this time dancing continued as a mainly social activity, although there are a number of theories relating to the distinctive posture of Irish Dancing where arms are held by the side, that derive from this time. One theory is that dancing was considered vulgar by priests in that time and stationary arms were considered more reserved. A slightly more far fetched theory along the same lines is that dancers held their arms and bodies still so that they could dance behind hedgerows without passing priests being aware they were dancing!
By the 11th century AD Feiseanna began to exist. To begin with these were predominantly political and trade gatherings which then evolved to include cultural activities as well.
Over the next 600 years or so there was a mergence and sharing of different cultures across Europe and there were many new influences on dancing.
The Dancer Masters
In the 18th century ‘Dancer Masters’ began to appear in Ireland. They were travelling teachers who taught dance in a village for several weeks before moving onto the next. They were often colourful, exciting characters and they taught dancing to all levels and abilities, with Long and Round dances being choreographed by the masters.
Alongside the traditional Irish jig, French Quadrilles or formal court dances, English Hornpipes and Scottish reels all influenced the development of the dances during this period. The special admiration of the villagers were often reserved for the talented individual dancers who would dance the new, more complex dance, sometimes on doors or boards laid on the ground. When Dance Masters met they would challenge each other to dancing contests, which were often exhausting!
A famous dancing contest during this time was the 'cake dance' where dancers would compete for a prize of - a cake!
Formalisation of Irish Dancing
In the 1890's the newly created Gaelic League began to organise dancing competitions and encouraged a revival of Irish dancing and culture, which had been suppressed by the English. In 1929 the Irish Dancing Commission (An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha) was formed to formalise teaching, judging and the structure of Irish dancing. Irish dancing also developed as a competitive activity in other areas of the world, particularly those where there was a significant Irish immigrant population such as England, America and Australia.
Modern Developments of Irish Dance
In 1994 Irish Dancing was catapulted onto a World stage when a 7 minute interval performance at the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin took the World by storm - and introduced a new term, frequently misused, Riverdancing!. Many people who were previously unaware of Irish dancing now wanted to be a part of this vibrant and exciting dance form, and Irish dancing enjoyed new popularity in many countries.