Irish Step Dancing
A Brief History

By: Don Haurin & Ann Richens
Richens Academy of Irish Dancing (Ohio)

Step dancing is distinctively Irish, combining artistry, grace, and physical ability. It has followed the Irish and Irish missionaries wherever they traveled including North America, Australia, New Zealand, Brittany France, Singapore, and Africa. This brief history hopes to add to your enjoyment of the cultural aspect of Irish step dancing. Your input is welcome.

Ancient History

Perhaps the history should begin with the Celtic peoples, also known as the Gaels. These peoples spread over Western Europe including France, Northern Spain, and the British Isles, spreading to Ireland in the 3rd century BC. They shared a common language (Gaelic) and tended to establish small kingdoms (150 were in Ireland). Roman and Germanic peoples later conquered the Gaels in Europe with the exception of Ireland where the Gaelic culture was preserved. (The Druids were priests and learned men in this culture.) Saint Patrick introduced mainstream Christianity into the country in the 5th century AD.

Although little is known about the dancing in this period, the artwork survived and has influenced Irish dance costumes. The most impressive Celtic Christian art was produced from the late 7th to the early 8th century, both in Ireland and in Irish missions in Europe. Manuscripts of books of the Bible were embellished, or "illuminated," with decorative borders and lettering of astonishing intricacy and inventiveness. Complex, twining geometric designs predominated. The masterpiece of this period is the Book of Kells (mid-8th Century), which is unsurpassed for its illumination. Other art of the period includes large stone crosses and carved ceremonial religious objects such as the Armagh Chalice (early 8th Century).

Viking raiders destroyed most books from this period, thus there are few written records of any dances. However, it is certain that one aspect of the sophisticated Gaelic culture was music and dance. An interesting note is that the Viking, Erik the Red, took two Irishmen with him on his voyage discovering North America and they were the first explorers of the new land. However, he did not report any dancing upon the occasion of the discovery! The Viking raids of Ireland ended in 1014 after the victory of the Irish king Brian Boru at Clontarf.

Feisianna date from this period. They were a combination trade fair, political gathering, and cultural event with music, sporting events, storytelling, and crafts. Over time, the cultural aspect came to dominate feisianna. These events continued through time to the present. While the politics are gone, they continue to have music, dance, crafts, and trade (the vendors!).

The Celtic tradition in Ireland declined rapidly during the 12th century. Increasing foreign influences weakened traditional arts, and the Anglo-Norman conquest of Ireland occurred in 1170. However, over the next two hundred years, the conquerors became closely associated with traditional Irish culture. To counteract this assimilation, the Anglo-Irish Parliament passed, in 1366, the Statute of Kilkenny, decreeing excommunication and heavy penalties against all those who followed the custom of, or allied with, the native Irish. It took another 128 years before they enforced the statute.

History records a variety of dances done by the Irish in the mid-1500s. These include Rinnce Fada or Fading where two lines with partners faced each other, Irish Hey (possibly a round or figure dance), jigs (likely in a group), Trenchmores (described as a big free form country dance), and sword dances. It is not clear whose dances influenced whom among the Irish, English, and French, but it was characteristic that Irish dances had a faster tempo and included side steps. English suppression of Irish culture continued, exemplified by the banning of piping and the arrest of pipers. However, Queen Elizabeth I was "exceedingly pleased" with Irish tunes and country dances.

Power struggles between the Irish and English continued during the 1600s. The Penal Laws enacted in the late 1600s crushed Irish commerce and industries. The laws also banned the education of Catholic children leading to hidden (hedge) schools. Traditional Irish culture was practiced with some degree of secrecy. This period of severe repression lasted for more than a hundred years, explaining some of the initial secrecy of teaching Irish step dancing. Country dancing continued, one description being that on Sundays "in every field a fiddle and the lasses footing it till they are all of a foam"; another being "the young folk dance till the cows come home." Dancing continued during the 1700s, often during holidays, weddings, christenings, and wakes. However, the Church sometimes condemned dancing, "In the dance are seen frenzy and woe."

A major influence on Irish dance and Irish culture was the advent of the Dance Masters around 1750, beginning a tradition that you could argue continues today. A dance master typically traveled within a county, stopping for about six weeks in a village, staying with a hospitable family (who were honored by their selection as host). They taught Irish dancing (male teachers) in kitchens, farm outbuildings, crossroads, or hedge schools. Students would first learn the jig and reel. Sometimes, the teacher had to tie a rope around a student's leg to distinguish right foot from left. Besides dancing, they also appear to have given instruction in fencing and deportment. Some teachers had other skilled trades that were used on occasion by the villagers, helping to explain dance masters habit of traveling from town to town. Having an eminent dance master associated with your village was a cause for pride and boasting by the community.

Each dance master had a repertoire of dance steps and he created new steps over time. (Eight measures or bars of music are called a "step," hence the term step dancing.) Sometimes the masters danced competitively at feisianna, the winner being the one who knew the most steps, not the one with the best execution. The loser of a competition might have to concede a town in his territory to the winner. These men were the creators of the set and ceili dances and they carefully guarded their art of step creation. Dance masters created the first schools of dancing, the best known being from Counties Kerry, Cork, and Limerick. One dance master described himself as "an artificial rhythmical walker" and "instructor of youth in the Terpsichorean art." Villagers paid dance masters at the end of the third week of teaching at a "benefit night." They paid the accompanying musician a week later. Sometimes, the dance master was both musician and dancer simultaneously! Apparently the level of pay for the dance masters was relatively high for Ireland and it included room and board.

The suppression of Catholics continued during this time, but ways were found to avoid control. One story is that Catholics posted a child as a lookout for meetings or Masses that they held in the cellars of pubs. The child danced a particular beat to warn those below of approaching soldiers.

During the 1800s, a popular event was a cake dance. A cake would be placed on a stand in the center of a field, it being the prize for the best dancer. The winner would, of course, "take the cake." Attempts by the parish priests to suppress dancing were frequent, but appear to have been mostly ineffective.

Modern History

This period begins in 1893 when the Gaelic League was founded (Conradh na Gaeilge). This group encouraged the revival of Irish culture, a culture that the English had suppressed for centuries. In 1929, the Irish Dancing Commission was founded (An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha) to establish rules regarding teaching, judging, and competitions. It continues in that role. Prior to 1929, many local variations in dances, music, costumes and the rules of feisianna existed. Part of the impact of the Commission was standardization of competitions.

During the 20th Century, Irish dance has evolved in terms of locations, costumes, and dance technique. For example, during the period of the dance masters, stages were much smaller including table tops, half doors, and sometimes the "stage" was simply a crossroad. (An old poem called dancing "tripping the sod.") Tests of dancing ability involved dancing on the top of a barrel or on a soaped table! As stages became larger, the dance changed in at least two ways. The movement of dancers across a stage increased greatly (a judge would now subtract points if a dancer did not "use the stage"), and dance steps that require substantial space became possible (e.g., "flying jumps"). The location of competitions also changed over time from barns or outdoors where flat bed trucks were (and still are) used as stages, to predominately indoors in hotels, schools, or fairgrounds. (Note that fairgrounds are particularly appropriate in a historical context of where ancient feisianna were located.)

Irish dance has evolved in other ways during the 20th Century. Instruction is beginning at a younger age. Who is instructed has also changed from mostly males to mostly females (the turning point was before 1930). Girls dancing solos in competition were rare before the 1920s. Dance styles have also changed; for example, arms and hands were not always held rigid during solo dances. Previously they were sometimes more relaxed and were even placed on hips. It seems that the influence of parish priests led to the lack of arm movement; some argue that stiff arms were less provocative, others argue that the Church was trying to increase dancers' self control. Hand movements still occur in figure (group) dances.

The dance costume has changed greatly from traditional garb. In the 1800s, dance masters wore hats, swallowtail coats, knee breeches, white stockings, and black shoes with silver buckles probably similar to today's hard shoes. (The expression "cover the buckle" seemed to mean crossing your feet so rapidly while dancing that the shine of the buckle covered the entire area.) After 1893 with the revival of Irish culture, the quest for a traditional Irish costume began. Pipers adopted the kilt which older male dancers later adopted in the 1910s and 1920s. Ironically, little evidence supports the argument that the kilt originated in Ireland; however, it is clearly Celtic. Today, male dancers wear either kilts or pants.

In the 1800s, it is likely that female dancers wore ordinary peasant dresses or perhaps their "Sunday best" and ribbons formed into flowers or crosses. After 1893, the typical dance costume consisted of a hooded cloak over a white dress with a sash. An alternative to the cloak was a shawl. By the 1930s the cloak was dropped and the shawl evolved into the current "shawl" worn on the back of costumes; this shawl linked to the traditional Irish "brath" which was rectangular and attached to the outfit by brooches or pins. Until the 1980s, a cord was often worn around the waist, dangling to the knees, ending with a tassel. Dancers also might wear a small coat or vest.

Colors were predominately green, white and saffron on early costumes; they avoided red because of the association with the English. However, due to the availability of local dyes in ancient Ireland, red likely was a traditional color. In recent time, all colors have come into use. Males' costumes are more subdued.

Embroidery was relatively minimal on costumes in the early 1900s. However, it has steadily increased in use and complexity. Designs were originally of traditional Irish origin, obtained from the Book of Kells, Irish stone crosses, and chalices. The interlocking and continuous lines in the pattern on the costume symbolize the continuity of life and mankind's eternity. Designers are now introducing modern interpretations and patterns. Another relatively recent innovation is the use of silver and gold thread in the embroidery. Interestingly, there is a justification for this because women's clothing in pre-Norman Ireland contained silver and gold thread embroidery.

Early descriptions of dancers sometimes note they were barefoot. Soft shoes were introduced around 1924 for girls dancing reels, jigs, and slip jigs. For a while, boys adopted their use also, but had dropped them by the 1970s. Hard shoes have also evolved in style and technology. Dancers have adopted fiberglass toe tips and hollow heels. This change in materials allows dancers' "clicks" of their heels to become much louder, thus changing the emphasis and content of many dances. (Previously, nail heads were used and dancers inserted coins between sole and toe tip to increase loudness.) Bubble heels were invented around 1985 to augment clicking, but they are now prohibited at feisianna. (Feis rules also require "authentic Gaelic dress" but it is likely that neither current boys' nor girls' costumes would have been seen in Celtic Ireland.)

North American and Columbus History

The Irish Dance Teachers Association was founded in 1964. There are more than 300 certified instructors in North America. Rules regarding competitions in the U.S. and Canada are regulated by the North American Feis Commission, founded in 1968.

The Richens Academy has evolved over the past twenty years from a handful of dancers meeting on Saturdays at the Knights of Columbus Hall off Morse Road to the present group of about 100 dancers meeting at St. Patrick's Social Hall. The dancers perform throughout the year, marching in the St. Patrick's Day Parade, performing at various festivals, churches, and nursing homes. Past performances have included the Ohio State Fair, the Columbus Arts Festival, Octoberfest, the Irish Reunion at Vet's Memorial on St. Patrick's Day, and a 1990 trip to Russia. Richens students compete in feisianna throughout the U.S. and in the Midwest Oireachtas, Nationals, and World Championships in Ireland.

Ann Richens is a native of Dublin (Ireland, not Ohio) and has been teaching traditional Irish dancing for more than 25 years. She came to America when she was 20 and worked for the Irish Embassy. Her first experience as a teacher of Irish step dancing was instruction of the Embassy employees' children. Ann brought her shoes to the U.S. never imagining the huge interest in step dancing that would grow in America. She now travels a circuit from her home in Dayton to Columbus, reminiscent of the Irish dance masters.

Ann served as the 10th president of the Irish Dance Teachers Association of North American and is frequently an adjudicator at feisianna, and Regional, National, and World Championships. She continues her professional service including: Director of the Irish Dancing Teachers Association of Mid-America, Executive Board of the Irish Dancing Teachers Association of North America, and member of the World An Comisiun Oireachtas Committee. Ann is one of only ten people qualified to certify new adjudicators in North America. She also has received funding from the Ohio Arts Council to aid in the development and artistic growth of aspiring dance teachers.

Ann Richens teacher is Maitiu O'Maoileidgh, and a master Irish dance teacher for more than 50 years. He has served as a vice president of the Irish Dancing Commission and chaired the World Championships for fifteen years. Matt has traveled the world to direct workshops and judge competitions. He heads the Inis Eagla School of Irish Dance in Dublin and he has produced numerous champions in solo and ceili dancing. Another aspect of the World Championships is the dance drama and again Matt has produced many champions. This line of teachers goes back to Cormac MacInley, from Scotland.

Another teacher associated with the Richens Academy is Marie Duffy, another student of O'Maoileidgh. Marie has trained many world champions and taught in many schools around the world. Annually, Marie comes to Dayton to present a dance camp at Wright State University for Richens students.

John Timm, a student of Ann Richens, recently became the newest instructor in the Academy. John has danced since age five, he was both Mid-American and North American champion, and he became the Senior Men's World Champion in 1993. He graduated from Wright State and has opened his own dance school in Indiana.


The four types of Irish music and associated dances are the jig, reel, hornpipe, and the set dances. First, some basic music definitions are needed. The "time" of a tune is shown at the beginning of the music; for example, a jig is in 6/8 time. The second number is the basic unit for a beat (4 for quarter note, 8 for eighth note), and the first number is the number of beats per "measure" or "bar." The "tempo" of the music determines the speed of the beat. In a fast tempo, beats occur rapidly. The hornpipe may have a slow or fast tempo. Beginning dancers at a feis may be asked whether they want the music to be slow or fast, often confusing them. (Richens Academy teaches a fast hornpipe to the advanced beginners. The steps are simple so they can dance them at a faster pace.) Metronomes measure tempos precisely; thus you can observe advanced dancers requesting their set dance in a particular tempo (e.g., Planxty Drury at 68). Slower tempos allow dancers to "pack" more movements into a particular dance. During the age of the dance masters, some would refuse to compete at a feis if the musician insisted on playing a tune at too fast of a tempo.

Just as costumes are evolving, dances are also evolving because of the development of new movements. Examples of recent innovations include the butterfly and toe stands. These developments are sometimes controversial because they conflict with maintaining the authentic or traditional aspect of step dancing. However, highly skilled dancers are always pushing the limits and innovating.

[A note on metronomes: it is jokingly reported that, in the past, musicians when asked to play faster, just played louder and when asked to play more slowly, just played more softly, never changing the tempo. With the coming of the portable electronic metronome, dancers now are comforted that the tempo is correct. However, rumor has it that musicians' solution is to secretly turn off the metronome and substitute their own ticking sound into the microphone, adding an occasional ping for effect!]


There are references to the jig in ancient Ireland. A number of variations of the jig are performed including the single (or soft), double, treble, and slip jig. The music is 6/8 time (the emphasis on beats in a jig is: ONE-two-three four-five-six). Slip jigs are in 9/8 time (ONE-two-three four-five-six seven-eight-nine). Dancers perform single or soft jigs in soft shoes. Solo competitions only occur at the level of beginners, advanced beginners, and at some feisianna, Open. Competitions at all levels also occur in the treble jig which has a slower tempo, but dancers triple beats in hard shoes. The slip jig (soft shoes) is the most graceful of Irish dances and features light hopping, sliding, skipping and pointing. Only women dance the slip jig. In the Richens Academy, the first dance learned is the soft jig.


The reel originated around 1750 in Scotland and the Irish dance masters brought it to full development. The music is 4/4 time and it is danced at a relatively fast tempo (ONE-two-three-four). Both men and women dance the reel. For women, it is a light, rapid soft shoe dance that allows for plenty of leaping and demands an energetic performance from the dancer. Men often dance the reel in hard shoes.

Often a feis will include a special competition in the treble reel. Here, dancers in a single line have two chances to display their best efforts in a competition matching boys and girls from multiple age groups. Usually, audiences are extremely enthusiastic in their appreciation for this exciting performance.


The hornpipe began around 1760, evolving from English stage acts. It was originally danced exclusively by males in hard shoes, but now, both men and women compete. It is reported that the ladies of Cork were the first to brazenly perform the hornpipe in the male style. The hornpipe is in 4/4 time, reminiscent of a slow reel with accents on the first and third beat (ONE-and-a two-and-a three-and-a four-and-a). A notable feature is the frequent use of a rocking motion with the ankles.

Set Dances

A set dance is performed to a specific tune which has remained set over time (at least during the 20th Century). Both males and females dance sets in hard shoes. Competitions begin at the level of "Open" because of the difficulty of the dances. Because the tune is always the same and the dancer knows the tune, adjudicators expect greater interpretation of the music. (In the jig, reel, and hornpipe competitions, the particular tune may vary depending on the musician.) The dances can be either in jig or hornpipe time. In one case, "Is the Big Man Within?" the time changes mid-tune. Regular jigs and hornpipes follow a particular structure of the number of measures per tune, but sets vary. Sets contain two parts, the first is the "lead around" (from 8 to 16 measures), the second is the "set" (12 to 16 measures). Some tunes are more than 250 years old, but most of the dances are of more recent origin, developed by dance masters. Also, some of the tunes have accompanying words.

Competitively danced sets come from an approved list of dances. Some are the "planxties" such as Planxty Drury and Planxty Davis. These tunes are over 200 years old, many composed by a blind harpist, Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738). He composed the music to honor a hospitable friend, the friend's name listed last (e.g., Drury or Davis). The word planxty probably means "good health." Another group of set dances is related to Napoleon (Downfall of Paris, Bonaparte's Retreat, Madame Bonaparte). One reason for this may have been that the Irish looked to the French for help in overthrowing English rule around Napoleon's time.

The list of set dances is long including The Hunt, Rub the Bag, The Humours of Branden (a humour appears to have been a drinking party at a particular place), The Piper through the Meadow Straying, Kilkenny Races, The Ace and Deuce of Pipering, The Three Sea Captains, King of the Fairies, Blackthorn Stick, The Drunken Gauger, and Hurry the Jug. Fairly often, a tune is known by more than one name. Tempos vary from the 60s to more than 100 beats per minute.

Another group of sets, including St. Patrick's Day, The Blackbird, Garden of Daisies, and Job of Journeywork, are considered to be traditional dances. These are all very old tunes and were part of early Irish dance history. The title The Blackbird is actually "code" for Bonnie Prince Charles who tried to overthrow the English with a group of Scotsmen. Garden of Daisies should be the Garden of Deise, an area in County Waterford. They traditionally perform this group of dances at a fast tempo without high jumps or lifts.

Another type of dance is the "group set dance." They are danced in reel, hornpipe, or jig time and are derived from French quadrilles. These group dances differ from ceili dances in that they are less sophisticated.

Ceili Dances

Ceili dances were derived from group set dances and French quadrilles, but were set to Irish music. They appear to have evolved with the help of the Irish dance masters, many from County Kerry. Nationalism, combined with the Handbook of Irish Dances published in 1902, led to standardization of ceili dances. Recording the descriptions of these dances occurred through the 1930s. For example, the Sweets of May and A Trip to the Cottage were discovered in South Armagh, being known only to a group of elderly men and women. Luckily, many ceili dances were recorded before being lost in history.

A "ceili" is a gathering for music and dance. The Gaelic League sponsored the first Irish ceili in 1897. They borrowed the idea from the Scots and a precedent was set that a piper opened the ceili. Because the ceili dance revival was not widespread at that time, the dances at the first Irish ceili consisted of group set dances and French quadrilles! Annually, a ceili dance is sponsored by the Richens Academy Booster Association for the benefit of the Academy.


A variety of instruments are played at a feis including fiddles, accordions, and flutes. A traditional instrument rarely seen at a feis is the Irish uillean pipe. It is a complicated bellows-blown instrument that differs from the more often seen Scottish Highlands pipes. The sound has been described as being more appropriate for playing an Irish air in the parlor rather than the stirring sound of the Scottish bagpipe. The number of Irish pipers has grown recently; one was spotted at a historical reenactment of a 19th Century trade fair at New Boston, Ohio in 1995. Irish pipers were predominant in the traditional culture for 200 years (the gentry sometimes kept one in-house), but the suppression by the English led to their decline.


Early in the 20th century, the Irish Dancing Commission established a 100 mark system for judging competitors. The distribution of points in solo dancing is 25% for timing, 25% for the steps, 25% for execution and method, and 25% for deportment and style. In figure dancing, the distribution is 30 points for timing, 30 for figures, and 40 for general effect. In beginner through open competitions, there is one judge. In preliminary championship and championship level, there are most often multiple judges. Competitors dance two or three at a time except in set dances and they perform two or three "steps." Dances are of short duration and the judging is instantaneous. In the past, judges kept competitors on stage and continuously dancing until they were satisfied that all aspects of the dance were properly graded. Up to five steps might have to be performed until the judge rang a bell signifying the competitor was finished.


Feis (pronounced "fesh"): a festival that includes figure (group) and solo step dancing, crafts, instrumental, vocal and Gaelic language competitions. The plural is feisianna. A competition with only dancing is called a feile.

Feis Syllabus: a listing of the competitions in a feis by age, gender, and skill level as well as the rules of the feis, fees, and where to send entries. The competitive levels are beginner, novice, open, preliminary championship, and championship. Sometimes an advanced beginner category is added. Competitions at feisianna differ depending on the site, but the major categories are uniform.

Oireachtas (pronounced "o-rach-tas"): a type of super feis. In North America, they are organized by regions, having begun in 1976. Competition is by age category and gender, but there is no separation of skill levels. Dancers placing highly qualify for the World Championship in Ireland (Oireachtas na Cruinne). A North American championship competition began in 1969. Locations vary from year to year. Both the national and world championships are also called Oireachtas (plural is Oireachtasai).

TCRG: (Certified Instructor) Teasgicoir Choimisiuin Le Rinci Gaelacha--translation is Gaelic Commission Dancing Teacher.

ADCRG: Ard Diploma Choimisiuin Le Rinci Gaelacha--translation is Highest Diploma in Gaelic Dancing.



Send email inquiries and comments about this history to:

February 1996

BACK to Ann's Place -- Irish Dance

This page maintained by Ann E. Robinson

I am NOT Ann Richens; her address is