Irish Dancing - Ceilidh and Set Dancing

Roman Province of Gaul

In the early part of the period, the Roman province of Gaul gives way to the Frankish kingdoms, led for some 250 years by the Merovingian kings. Even under the Merovingians, the region remains recognizably Roman, preserving Roman administrative structures, language, learning, and many artistic practices. Christianity assumes ever greater importance as the nobility converts, founding large numbers of monasteries. The network of churches and monasteries built in the Merovingian period provides Charlemagne with an administrative infrastructure that will allow him to create his great empire in the ninth century. Charlemagne’s descendants, known as the Carolingians, will rule the region until almost the end of the period. Metalwork remains an important art form throughout the period. Highly accomplished examples of ivory carving and manuscript painting emerge under Carolingian rule. Though relatively few survive, many stone buildings—particularly in the form of churches, monasteries, and palaces—are built.

909 William I the Pious, duke of Aquitaine, donates land in Burgundy for the building of a Benedictine monastery dedicated to saints Peter and Paul. Hence the monastery of Cluny, which will become the largest in the West, is born. In the foundation charter, William renounces all rights to the monastery, allows for the free election of the abbot by the monks, and places the monastery directly under the control of the Papal See.

The Normans

911 The Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte between Charles the Simple, king of the Franks, and Rollo (Hrolf), Viking leader of the Normans, is concluded. The Franks hand over the central piece of land that will become Normandy to the invaders from the north in an attempt to stop their attacks.

The Normans are largely responsible for bringing the culture of dance and music to England and Scotland in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Scots-Irish immigrants to America

Scottish immigrants to Ireland, in turn, brought dance forms, musical instruments and certain traditions to Ireland over subsequent decades and centuries. Irish settlers and slaves carried some of these traditions with them to the New World, Australia, the slave markets in the south, and the Canadian Maritimes.

Alan Lomax, in "The Folk Songs of North America", notes how important these traditions were to early Americans, and largely responsible for "American" genres including Country music, Bluegrass, Roots, Americana, Rock and Roll and many more.

It's not clear exactly when the tradition of dance became popular in Ireland. Up until the 19th century, any form of Gaelic tradition including practicing the arts, language or culture, was punishable by death during the Penal laws (1695-1829). There was a period of respite for almost a century, before the Catholic League clamped down on all forms of dance through The Public Dance Halls Act of 1935. All traditions and forms of dancing ceased.

Meanwhile, In America, Irish-American culture was alive and well. The tradition of dance became almost an anthem of protest against oppression. Irish 'dance' schools popped up all over in the 20th century, in places like Holyoke, Boston, Chicago, New York and other places with strong Irish-American populations. These traditions became known simply as "Irish dancing, or Irish dance".

Irish dancing or Irish dance is a group of traditional dance forms which can broadly be divided into social dance and performance dances. Irish social dances can be divided further into céilí and set dancing. Irish set dances are quadrilles, danced by four couples arranged in a square, while céilí dances are danced by varied formations (céilí) of two to sixteen people. In addition to their formation, there are significant stylistic differences between these two forms of social dance. Irish social dance is a living tradition, and variations in particular dances are found across the Irish dancing community; in some places, dances are deliberately modified and new dances are choreographed.

The Original "Riverdance" 1995

Irish dancing, popularized in 1994 by the world-famous show Riverdance, is notable for its rapid leg and foot movements, body and arms being kept largely stationary.

Most competitive dances are solo dances, though many stepdancers also perform and compete using céilí dances. The solo stepdance is generally characterized by a controlled but not rigid upper body, straight arms, and quick, precise movements of the feet. The solo dances can either be in "soft shoe" or "hard shoe".

The dancing traditions of Ireland probably grew in close association with traditional Irish music. Although its origins are unclear, Irish dancing was later influenced by dance forms from the Continent, especially the Quadrille. Travelling dancing masters taught all over Ireland, as late as the 18th and early 19th centuries. During this time, places for competitions and fairs were always small, so there was little room for the Dance Masters to perform. They would dance on tabletops, sometimes even the top of a barrel. Because of this, the dancing styles were very contained, with hands rigid at the sides, and a lack of arm movement and travelling across the stage. As time went on, larger places for dance competitions and performances were found, so styles grew to include more movement, more dancing across the stage as seen, for example, in Riverdance.

Irish social, or céilí /ˈkeɪli/ dances vary widely throughout Ireland and the rest of the world. A céilí dance may be performed with as few as two people and as many as sixteen. Céilí dances may also be danced with an unlimited number of couples in a long line or proceeding around in a circle (such as in "The Walls of Limerick", "The Waves of Tory", "Haymakers Jig", "An Rince Mor" or "Bonfire Dance"). Céilí dances are often fast and some are quite complex ("Antrim Reel", "Morris Reel"). In a social setting, a céilí dance may be "called" – that is, the upcoming steps are announced during the dance for the benefit of newcomers. The céilí dances are typically danced to Irish instruments such as the Bodhran hand drum or fiddle in addition to the concertina (and similar instruments), guitar, whistle or flute. The term céilí dance was used in the late 19th century by the Gaelic League. Céilí as a noun differs from the adjective céilí. A céilí is a social gathering featuring music and dance. Céilí dancing is a specific type of dance. Some céilithe (plural of céilí) will only have céilí dancing, some only have set dancing, and some will have a mixture.

If this subject interests you, please consider joining my podcast, Thursday nights at 7pm on Google Meet, where I discuss these topics with friends and colleagues online, read excerpts from articles I've written on the topic, play some of the traditional dance forms and music, and more! Bookmark my Events page to follow them. I started a Facebook Group a few years ago for discussions related to this topic. If you use Facebook, you might like to join! And once the pandemic is over and it's safe to meet in person again, I will be holding the Celtic Music Group Class again at my Studio in Granby, MA.


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