History of Irish Dance Trivia

Article featured in Diddlyi Magazine.
08.17.11

So you’ve started Irish dancing. You enjoy it a lot. You may have some Irish heritage, maybe not. But down the road, people who see you dance are going to have some questions. I’ve been asked a lot of questions about the history of Irish dance over the years and sometimes have felt a little silly when I didn’t know the answers.

I’ve been asked things like, why do you keep your arms at your side? Why do you wear wigs? I’ve found it’s good to know a few things so you don’t feel embarrassed when the questions start coming your way. So for those of you who don’t know your basic Irish dance history, here’s some simple answers to a few questions you are going to be asked down the road if you decide to keep dancing.

1: Why don’t Irish dancers use their arms when dancing?
I’ve found there are multiple theories so no one can be sure of the true answer. However the most popular answer is that dancing, like most other things in the 18th century, was performed by men only. By the 18th century, Ireland was under complete British rule. The Irish were forbidden to speak their own language, dance, play and sing traditional Irish folk songs, etc. So people decided to keep their arms by their sides while dancing indoors so if a British guard happened to look into a window it would appear as though the person was just walking around.

2: What does the word ‘Feis’ mean?
The literal English translation for the Gaelic word ‘Feis’ is ‘Festival’.

3: Why do Irish dancers wear wigs?
This is the question you’ll be asked more than any other, I can guarantee it. It is also a very difficult question to answer, since again, no one really knows the truth. The most popular theory states that years ago dance competitions would be held on a Sundays. Since dancers also attended religious service on Sundays they would curl their hair to look their best for church and therefore would go to the competitions with ringlets. In the 1980′s wigs were introduced to expedite the process of getting ready to dance since it can take a long time to curl hair.

4: Did American tap dance originate from Irish dance?
Tap dance has its roots in both Irish step-dancing, and black slave dances, such as the Master Juba. It is believed to have begun in the mid-1800s during the rise of minstrel shows, in which Irish performers would imitate southern blacks and satirize their dance forms while incorporating step-dancing. In later minstrel shows, black performers wearing blackface (makeup used by a nonblack performer playing a black role) would play roles in which they would imitate the Irish imitation of black dance forms, further mixing the two.

5: What is the meaning behind the names of traditional and non-traditional set dances?
Each set dance has it’s own story or meaning behind it. For example…

The Drunken Gauger
Before optics were invented, pubs would keep their spirits in barrels behind the bar, which were equipped with a little tap on the front for ease of pouring. It was up to the barman or his assistant to “gauge” the amount of spirit poured into the glass, to ensure it corresponded with the order (Large whiskey please! Small gin please!). The implication here is that the unscrupulous barman would sneak a cheeky sip before passing the drink to his punter, therefore becoming the Drunken Gauger.

The Blackthorn Stick
The blackthorn is a medium-sized shrub native to Europe, whose berries are used to make sloe gin. It’s smaller branches were often used to make walking sticks or ‘beaters’, which were used to clear scrub when hunting or to disturb game birds from trees, ready for shooting.

Can you think of any other questions Irish dancers are asked frequently?

Sources: Wikipedia, Keane O?Brien, eHow, Davies Dancing, Dance.net

Article written by Shelly Allen
Photo by Shelly Allen Photography

TAGS: american, answer, arm, basic, blackthorn, dance, dancers, drunken, feis, festival, gauger, Hathawayp, history, Irish, Irish Culture, keep, knowledge, origin, photography, question, set, Shelly, side, stick, tap, translation, trivia, wear, why, wigs

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