If you asked the average person on the street the national symbol of Ireland, 99% of people are probably going to guess the shamrock. It’s for good reason—when Saint Patrick came over from Wales (that’s right--Saint Patrick isn’t Irish!) to bring Christianity to the largely Pagan population of Ireland, he used a three-leaf shamrock to explain to holy trinity. And it’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing--Ireland is more than 67% grasslands, making it the country with the highest proportion of natural vegetation in all of Europe. But the true national symbol of Ireland is something closer to the spirit of the Irish than the land: the harp.
The Celtic/Gaelic Harp or “Cláirseach” (having its own origins differing from those of European/Diatonic Harp or older, less complex harps in ancient Egypt) is believed to be approximately 1,000 years old. Even though the unpredictability of Ireland’s tradition of oral history means it could be even older, there’s less than a dozen Irish harps remaining from before the 1700s, so our knowledge of the harp before this time is a bit light. What we do know is harpists were celebrated in ancient Ireland, and legend tells us that the last high king of Ireland, Brian Boru (who died in 1014,) loved the harp so much that his son is said to have presented his father’s beloved instrument to the Pope as a sign of respect.
With the Irish love of music (that’s so closely tied to the love of dance,) it’s no surprise that the harp makes an appearance all over Irish historical annuals. A document dating from 12th century Ireland implies that the harp was the only music played during the Crusades, and we know the harp was so revered all over Europe that most monarchs and lords had a resident “Master Harper/Harpist.” As Christianity made its way to Ireland, the harp came to represent biblical King David and the symbol can be found all over early stone crosses, reflecting the status of musicians at the time. Harpists can be found all over art from these earlier time periods as well, from courtly and pastoral scenes to battlefield depictions.
The harp was so recognized as a part of Irish culture that the 1700s saw the British begin to oppress the use and production of the instrument, as well as travel for musicians. As there’s nothing more quintessentially Irish than rebelling against a controlling faction, we have this oppression to thank for what surviving Celtic harp music we have today. By the end of the 18th century, the ancient Gaelic harp was nearly extinct, and if not for the efforts of a musician named Edward Bunting, it may have been lost forever. In 1792 Bunting lured as many harpists as possible to Belfast, where he recorded their terminology and as much of their traditional music as possible—without him there’d likely be nothing left!
But even while the harp might not be as common as it once was in Ireland, the symbol remains. The image of the Irish harp are featured on numerous items all over Ireland, including: the presidential seal, the royal coat of arms (which Henry VIII chose for Ireland himself when he declared himself King of Ireland in 1531,) Irish Euro coins, countless official documents, and as a logos for many prominent state-supported groups. Before 1922, when the Irish Free State officially adopted the current tri-color flag we all know, the Irish flag was a gold harp on a green background (as early as 1642!) It’s also a symbol that many a business chooses to denotes their essential Irishness: Guinness is, of course, the first one that comes to mind (though their harp is backward,) but there’s also innumerable pubs across the world and budget Irish airline Ryan Air!
But besides Ireland’s love of music, what has the harp come to symbolize? While it’s use on the Irish royal coat of arms means the harp is often associated with royalty, it is more closely associated with the Irish fight for a free state that goes back hundreds of years. Notably, The Society of United Irishmen, a political organization aimed at achieving Irish independence, even took on the harp as their flag with the motto: “Equality: It is now strung and shall be heard.” Many versions of the harp flag appeared over time before the uniting nature of the tri-color (the green representing Roman Catholics, the gold Protestants, and the white between them the hope for lasting peace.) While it might not be as emerald as a shamrock, the harp as Ireland’s national symbol seems more fitting—it’s come to represent the rebellious and proud spirit we still associate with Ireland to this day.
This is Volume II of a series. Read Volume I, about the history of Irish Halloween, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
For Your Competitor
Looking for the perfect Christmas gift for a child in your life who loves to dance, wiggle, or move? Our taster session will give them the gift of dance!
This week on our Irish dancer gift guide, we’re concentrating on a different group of dancers: the feis enthusiasts! Is your dancer laser-focused on perfecting their moves before the next feis? Do they love moving up through the levels? Are you running out of places to put their ribbons? Then this is the guide is for you. And though you’ll find some bigger business links throughout, we’ve tried our best to uplift small businesses in the Irish dance community wherever possible and we hope you’ll join us in that goal! (Fun note: most of the items are customizable with SRL’s colors!)
1. Ribbon Hangers
This one’s a no-brainer for the dancer who has more feis ribbons than they know what to do with—who doesn’t need more organizational options in their life? There’s more options for these than I could possibly post here, so there’s an option to fit every dancer’s style. (And, if your dancer is more about dancing recreationally—or just younger—they make a pretty cute jewelry or coat hanger as well!)
Dancing Girl Ribbon Hanger
Comes in a Variety of Sizes
2. Shoe Bags
One pair of ghillies looks like every other pair of ghillies—so help your dancer come home with her own shoes with these personalized Irish dance shoe bags! Beyond that obvious benefit, this will keep whatever they stepped in from getting anywhere near the rest of their things, as well as protect those expensive shoes.
Personalized Dance Shoe Bag
3. Water Bottles
Almost everything in this post is able to be personalized, and for good reason—many kids and teens aren’t always the most careful with their personal belongings. These days, a personalized water bottle is more than a cute present, it’s a safety measure that will help your dancer steer clear of cross-contamination with their friends (or someone else with a blue water bottle.) The option pictured comes in a variety of fonts and colors, and there’s even male and female dancer decals you can add!
Personalized Bottle with Shoes
Lidded Cup with Straw
4. Makeup Bags
Get your little treble maker something to keep false lashes and stage makeup in! Makeup bags run in that same realm of avoiding any cross contamination with friends, while also ensuring your dancer comes home with their own belongings. They can also be used as regular makeup bags, pencil cases, or general carryalls for those who prefer not get under those bright lights.
“Feis Face” Bag
“Hard Work Beats Lazy Talent” Bag
“Eat, Sleep, Dance, Repeat” Bag
5. Custom Competition Mask and Tiara
This gift idea goes the extra mile and really embraces the reality of all the 2020 feiseanna. This Etsy seller will work with you to create two pieces that matches your dancer’s costume perfectly, along with a coordinating wrist band to hold the mask! Not many people do this kind of specialty work, so below I’ve linked a few fun hair accessories (for practice days,) instead.
Ghillie Hair Bows
Sequined “Dance” Shamrock Headband
6. Dress Bags
Those competition dresses have all kinds of embellishments and can be pretty pricey—might as well make sure they’re well protected! Note the “lemon wedge” shape, perfect for keeping that full skirt as neat as when it was hanging in the closet. See below for a personalized garment bag versus dress bag—perfect for our male dancers’ costumes!
With Matching Duffel
Customizable Sizes with Claddagh
Personalized Garment Bag
This is Volume II of a series. Come back next Saturday for the next installment or read last week’s for some gift tips for our youngest dancers. And check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Name: Courtney Jay TCRG
Position: Director and Instructor, all levels
How long have you been working at SRL? Why SRL?
It was my dream to create SRL! Since I was 12 years old I knew I was going to own an Irish dance studio. While I did not fully comprehend what that meant at the time, I had files upon files of documents on my computer with all my plans and visions. Looking back, it is pretty incredible that I had an idea at a young age that I committed to and brought to life in adulthood.
I opened SRL in 2014 when I was 22 years old and since then it has taken on a life of its own, much bigger and faster than my 12 year old self could have ever envisioned! My work at SRL includes the day to day operations, managing our team, teaching classes, protecting and executing the vision, and implementing business strategies to ensure we continue to grow and thrive. Everyday is different!
What are you interested in that most people aren’t?
Two things – competitive gymnastics (Elite and NCAA) and The Sims. Gymnastics is the only sport I’m interested in, and I can tell you in great detail what skills are being done while watching routines, about NCAA line ups, and watch every meet I can for both divisions. The Sims is something I indulge in during my VERY rare and sporadic moments of free time and I love to build things and get lost in my imaginary world.
How long have you been dancing? Why Irish dance?
I started Irish dance when I was six, after starting gymnastics and ballet as a two year old. I was really drawn to the quick movements and the driving music as a kid who was getting bored at the ballet barre. I begged my mom to let me switch to Irish for an entire summer before she agreed to sign me up, on the condition that I continued ballet. I was the kid who liked to quit everything, so I’m sure she wasn’t very confident I’d stick to Irish dance but here we are 23 years later!
As I got more into Irish dance, the draw that has kept me after all this time is you’re never done learning. There is always something new to learn or create – movements that trend and work their way into our repertoire each year, new rhythms that come to you in your sleep, and different pieces you’re creating to showcase a particular dancer’s strengths. No matter how good you get at it, there is always something more you can do, improve, or learn!
What movie can you watch over and over and never get tired of? Why?
I actually prefer to watch the same movies over and over again – my go to’s are: Any of the Harry Potter movies, Mean Girls, and Catch Me If You Can. I hate the process of picking something new to watch and wondering if I’ll like it, so I’m perfectly content to watch something tried and true.
How has dance affected your everyday life?
There aren’t very many areas of my life Irish dance hasn’t touched – my best friends and closest social circle is from Irish dancing. My oldest friends and I grew up dancing together elementary through high school and now we’re experiencing adulthood together. So many of my best experiences in life have been because of my involvement in Irish dancing – traveling the globe for competitions, attending events that have made me a better and stronger person, and building this business living out my dream career.
What’s the coolest place you’ve ever visited? (Remember travel?!)
Hawaii; if it wasn’t so far away and expensive, I would have already gone back. I really love the beach but there’s something about Hawaii that feels more magical and exotic than other beach destinations I frequent.
Why do you think people dance?
Ultimately I think it brings people joy – you get to move your body and release the endorphins that make you happy. Your mind gets to focus on something outside of the ‘everyday’ thoughts, worries, and stressors that we often get lost or caught up in. You are surrounded by people drawn to the same activity and have a common interest that bonds you. Going to dance class is like being surrounded in pure joy.
What did you want to be when you grew up when you were little? Why?
For quite some time, I wanted to be an architect. Part of that may come from my love of the Sims, which I’ve played since it was released in 2000. I was always drawing floor plans on paper, building in the Sims, and then in high school took drafting and architecture classes. While it ultimately wasn’t for me, I’m glad I got to experience those classes before I needed to make college decisions.
What advice do you have for aspiring dancers?
It sounds cliché, but never give up. I was not naturally talented and Irish dance was not easy for me when I started. I struggled until I decided I wanted to get better at it, started practicing at home, and then eventually reaped the benefits. Even once I had success, there were still times where certain steps, dances, or competitions challenged me and required me to be patient and dig deeper. If I had given up early on or once I was frustrated for a period of time, I wouldn’t be where I am today!
This post is part of a series. Read our Q&A with another instructor, Bailey, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
If you had to ask someone who’s only seen competitive Irish dance once or twice in their life to describe it, the first things they mention are always going to be the same: 1) the footwork, 2) the distinctly rigid upper body, and 3) no arm movements. For the layman (or woman,) this is what makes Irish dance so clearly Irish dance when they compare it to other styles they’re familiar with. It’s not quite ballet or jazz or tap, but something unique and artful on its own terms…and it’s the lack of movement in the upper body that seem to distinguish it most clearly.
This brings us to the question that people have been asking for at least the last 100 years: how did Irish dance end up with such a disparate and distinguishing form? What swirls around out there are plenty of rumors and hearsay—myths and stories. But what can we know for sure?
The first issue with determining the form’s origins is that of Ireland’s oral tradition. Until the 1800s, we have very few recorded texts or notations of any dances that were performed. If you read the first three volumes (I, II, III) of this series, you know we only have the vaguest outline of Irish dance’s history, and what we do have speaks of bans, restrictions, and a variety of foreign influences over the years.
The rumors that abound can’t be confirmed or denied and largely concentrate on the English suppression of the Irish and the constant religious upheavals that have plagued Ireland for centuries. One story tells of the Irish dancers who were brought to England to perform for Queen Elizabeth I: they refused to raise their arms to the foreign queen and the concept caught on. Another tale tells us that the Irish would dance behind bars and hedges to hide their practice of Irish culture from the Anglican church in the 18th and 19th centuries—the only part the authorities could see was their torsos, so they learned to keep them still. This one seems even more unlikely (maybe they wouldn’t have seen their feet, but I think I’d notice a bartender hopping up and down,) but the time of hedge schools and religious oppression were very real.
The speculation doesn’t stop there, but it all revolves around a similar theme: oppression and defiance. It could be English soldiers tied the Irish up and made them dance, or that the Catholic church restricted the arm movements to make the dancing less provocative. Or maybe it’s just that Irish pubs are so crowded, you can’t move your arms! All these ideas seem to tell us more about the Irish love of storytelling than their dance traditions.
What seems more likely from a historical standpoint is a combination of two factors: the influence of French court etiquette and decisions made as Irish dance became a competitive and international art form. The Dance Masters of the 18th and 19th centuries were also known for their concentration on decorum, having been trained by the (supposedly) more refined French. In hopes of taming the “wild Irish,” arm movements were removed to help civilize them. But this could still just be gossip.
What we know for sure is that when the Gaelic League (“Conradh na Gaeilge”) was formed in 1893, and then the Irish Dancing Commission (“An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha”) in 1927, the two organizations decided on specific criteria for Irish dance that has mostly remained till this day. Though there’s some controversy in modern circles about the Irish Dancing Commission’s decisions to standardize Irish dance, it was considered helpful from the perspective of judging to have the arms uninvolved so there’s no distractions from the feet. In any case, this is the only real, recorded evidence we have available to us for a specific reason Irish dance developed such a unique form.
While competitive Irish dance still adheres to this rigid posture, there’s of course traditions and performances that break from this standard (most notably Sean Nós, céilí dancing, and modern interpretations of step dancing like Riverdance—something we’ll cover in another post!) However it came to be, the form that was once a symbol of oppression is now one of defiant skill. After all, Irish dance’s form has added another difficult element to a dance style already known for its rapid and complex footwork—no other dance style expects perfect balance without the help of the arms!
This is Volume IV of a series. Read Volume III about Dance Masters and Gaelic Clubs here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
For Your Littlest Dancer
Looking for the perfect Christmas gift for a child in your life who loves to dance, wiggle, or move? Our taster session will give them the gift of dance!
With the holiday season creeping up on us, often so does the stress—and no more so than this year. We know a lot of parents have been feeling extra pressure to make holidays special for their kids in a year that’s been so out of the ordinary, so we’re here to help! Check out the blog every Saturday until the end of December for holiday gift guides for your Irish dancer—from stocking stuffers and accessories to prints and ideas for Mom and Dad—we’ll post a little something for everyone. Though you’ll find some bigger business links throughout, we’ve tried our best to promote small businesses in the Irish dance community wherever possible and we hope you’ll join us in that goal! First up, some fun ideas for our littlest dancers:
1. Picture Books
While a lot of Irish dance related books feature a female Irish dancer in traditional competition dress (which is fun, too! see more picture book suggestions below…) this book, written by Anna Marlis Bergard and illustrated by Leighanne Dees, is a rare children’s book about male Irish dancers. Set in old Ireland, Flying Feet: A Story of Irish Dance tells the story of two competing Dance Masters (learn more about them in our Origins of Irish Dance series here!) in the town of Ballyconneely. (It’s even reportedly based on a true event.)
Irish Dancer: Oireachtas
Kathleen O’Byrne: Irish Dancer
Irish Dancing Girl
(P.S. If none of these books are your style, check out our other Irish children's book recommendations here.)
2. Stuffed Animals
Get your Tiny Jig or Pre-Beginner dancer something new to bring into class with them! While the bear featured in the picture has a competition dress on, this toy maker, Paddy Pals, has a wide variety of Irish bears, each with their own occupation and story. Check out their website—you won’t be disappointed in the care they put into each bear! (Or look below for a few more bear and non-bear options.)
Personalized, Various Animals
Stuffed Dancer Doll
3. Dolls and Doll Clothes
For your dancer with her eye on the prize, this Etsy seller has created a mini-version of a competition dress (advertised for American Girl dolls, but it should fit any 18 inch doll!) While they may not be able to compete just yet, setting goals and achieving them is one of the biggest benefits of starting your littlest in dance classes early. Help your dancer visualize their goal through play!
A Male and Female Pair!
Another Option with Ghillies
Irish Dancer Nutcracker
4. Coloring and Activity Books
Sometimes, it’s hard to get your kids to practice. There’s nothing that will help that more than getting them excited about dancing, and activity books like these are the perfect way to have them thinking about dance even when they’re sitting still! And, not to mention, coloring has been proven to help improve motor skills, improve concentration, and develop a rich creative life—it’s a lot like dance that way.
Irish Dancer Activity Book
Irish Dance Coloring Book
Another Coloring Book
This one may seem out of left field, but I loved receiving stationery as a kid: it makes you feel grown up (especially if they’re personalized like these!) There are some benefits (outside of the excitement over the new gel pens I’d recommend as an addition) too: learning about our mail system, practicing writing, and teaching manners. Who knows—maybe you can even get grandma or one of your dancer’s cousins to write back and start a pen-pal relationship! Who doesn’t love getting real mail?
Personalized Male Irish Dancer Cards
Irish Dancers Rock Cards
Irish Dancer Cards
6. Dance Bag
This personalized, sequined dance bag is the perfect present to make each dance class feel special. Our smallest dancers don’t have a need for a larger, studio duffel just yet, just somewhere to put their water bottle and teddy—these drawstring backpacks are the perfect size! And for our less glitzy dancers, check out some non-sequined options below:
Dancing Girl Tote
Plain Cinch Backpack
This is Volume I of a series, come back next Saturday for the next installment! And check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Name: Erin Kate
Dancer at SRL: Avonlea
How long has your family been with SRL?
This is our 2nd year.
Why Irish dance?
We are very Irish and my daughter really wanted to do it.
What do most people not know about you?
I used to sing opera in high school and college.
What did you want to be when you grew up when you were little? Why?
I always wanted to be an opera singer. I loved all the old musicals that I used to watch with my grandfather. I always wanted to travel and see the world.
What’s your favorite thing about having your dancer in an online class?
We can be at home and for the safety factor.
Favorite fall family activity?
Outdoor Halloween movie with a fire at our house.
What advice would you give parents who are looking to try out Irish dance?
You have to set aside 30 mins every day to have your child practice and have them stick with it even if they get frustrated.
If your dancer were a fictional character, who would they be and why?
She would be Mal from Disney Descendants. She would be Mal because she can do magic, sing, dance, and is a good person.
How do you think dance has positively affected your dancer?
I feel it gives her more responsibility and lets her personality come out.
What’s the most important quality to have in life?
The most important quality to have in life I think is empathy. You need to always be able to put yourself in someone else's shoes in order to truly understand life.
This post is part of a series. See our Q&A with Irelyn's mom, Jill L., here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Children’s Books, Part 1
So, your child is interested in Ireland. While an appreciation for Ireland’s art of music and dance can be obtained by taking some Irish dance classes at SRL (of course,) what about the rest of the country’s culture? We’ve gathered together a few picture books that may intrigue them and will definitely teach them more about Ireland’s rich history and traditions:
1. Fiona’s Luck, Teresa Bateman
Illustrations by Kelly Murphy
This story is an original, but pulls from the ancient legend of one of Ireland’s most beloved myths: the leprechaun. Fiona and her people are newly arrived to the Irish shore, and the Leprechaun King is fed up—these “big folk” are hogging all the luck! When the King locks all the luck on the island away, Fiona and her village face many hardships before Fiona, with intelligence, ingenuity, and a dash of cunning, comes up with a plan to get it back. While both Bateman and Murphy are Americans, the reviews agree that the soft, delicate illustrations really bring Ireland to life. Take a break and let a librarian read this tale to your little one, with Storytime Now!’s YouTube channel (a great resource for many a reading!)
2. This is Ireland, Miroslav Sasek
If your kid is looking for facts instead of flights of fancy, this is the book for you! Part of a series that travels all over the world, Sasek’s history of Ireland for children was originally written and illustrated in the 1960s but has lost none of its charm (don’t worry—anything that needs to has been updated for this century!) This is Ireland is recommended all over as what to read your child before you take a trip to Ireland (one day again, maybe…) as it spans the entire Emerald Isle: from Trinity College to the Blarney stone, from bustling Dublin to peaceful fields of shamrocks. Sasek, primarily a painter, gives an accurate depiction of Ireland while keeping a sense of whimsy with his vibrant, stylized illustrations.
3. Brave Margaret: An Irish Adventure, Robert D. San Souci
Illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
Does your child love Disney’s Brave? This is a similar story set in old Ireland instead of Scotland! Margaret is a farmer’s daughter in County Donegal when a ship arrives in the harbor with a young Prince who promises adventure. But when a sea serpent attacks and Margaret is separated from the ship, she finds that she has the strength inside her to defeat monsters all on her own. Truly in the spirit of “girl power,” the author cites his source as a West Irish tale dating back to the 1800s and its timelessness is a must read for children of all ages. A fifth grade teacher recorded a wonderful bedtime reading of this story (in her pajamas,) which you can access here.
4.Tales from Old Ireland, Malachy Doyle
Illustrated by Niamh Sharkey and narrated by Maura O’Connell
Written by a Northern Irish native, this collection of seven fairytales comes with a bonus: the included audiobook was recorded by legendary Irish folk singer, Maura O’Connell. Though this is a picture book, it is a very traditional book of fairytales—make sure to check over the stories for content before your littlest ones start reading or listening (some details of the stories: here.) Complimented by rich, muted borders and a full-size painting for each story, Doyle even includes a pronunciation guide for unfamiliar Irish words and names. Think of Tales from old Ireland as an Irish version of Mother Goose (or maybe, more accurately, the Brothers’ Grimm.)
5. Brigid’s Cloak: An Ancient Irish Story, Bryce Milligan
Illustrated by Helen Cann
Brigid’s Cloak is another tale that harkens back to the ancient days of Ireland, but this one is a classic retold for children’s ears. St. Brigid (along with St. Patrick) is both a historical figure and the patron saint of Ireland in the Catholic tradition, but this story concentrates on one aspect of her legend: her cloak. The fable goes that Brigid was given a beautiful, blue cloak when she was born by a mysterious, Druidic figure. As she grew older and became a kind, charitable young woman, the cloak grows more tattered, but it still harnesses a very special power that allows her to perform a miracle that reflects her generous heart. Reviews all praise the book’s lyric prose and its ability to truly represent the conflicting aspects of Ireland (pastoral, but representing the Pagans, Christianity, and a belief in magic) in a child-friendly way that doesn’t take sides. So, while there are some religious aspects to the story (Brigid meeting the baby Jesus in Bethlehem, for instance,) it concentrates more on Brigid’s famed generosity than her beliefs.
This is Volume IV of a series, read about some Irish Adult Contemporary book recommendations here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Age: Freshly turned 6!
How long have you been dancing with SRL?
How did you get started with Irish dance?
I asked for it for my 5th birthday instead of gifts.
If you could rename yourself, what name would you choose? Or would you keep your own? Why?
I would keep my own name. I love it and my name comes from one of mama's favorite books when she was a kid.
What’s your current obsession?
My current obsession is Mal from Disney’s Descendants.
What’s your favorite thing about your online class?
My favorite thing about online class is I can dance at home safely and there’s more one on one with the teacher. Plus, my mom is there to help if I'm struggling.
What’s your favorite thing about your personality?
My favorite thing about my personality is my kindness. I always want to make sure everyone is happy.
What’s the best advice you can give a brand-new dancer?
You have to practice every day, especially if you want to do hard shoe.
Who do you look up to?
I look up to my Auntie Carol because she saved my life delivering me. She is so kind and smart.
If you could travel anywhere, where would you go and why?
I would go to Paris, France to see the Eiffel Tower and do a jig in front of it.
What’s your favorite thing about dancing?
My favorite thing about dancing is that it makes me happy!
This post is part of a series. See our Q&A with Irelyn here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
Dance Masters and Gaelic Leagues
The next chapter in the saga of Irish dance through the ages will look a little more familiar to our SRL families: the Dance Master. A precursor to the TCRG (like Miss Courtney,) Dance Masters were a flamboyant fixture in 1700s Ireland known for their itinerant lifestyle, brightly colored clothing, and the staffs they carried. Dance Masters traveled Irish districts in search of a pleasing town to stop in, and more importantly: students to teach.
It was considered a great honor to have a Dance Master stop in your town, and a greater honor to house and feed them when they came to teach. The dances they taught were heavily influenced by the set quadrilles popular in the French upper classes, and the Dance Masters were considered extremely cultured and civilized due to the emphasis they placed on proper manners and deportment. This clashes directly with the setting: most of these classes occurred in barns and many students didn’t know their right from left. To combat this issue, Dance Masters would tie hay or straw to one of each student’s feet and ask them to “lift hay foot” or “lift straw foot”!
While the Dance Masters were all about French etiquette and dancing (precursors to the sets students still learn today,) they also had some adventures along the way. Sometimes Dance Masters were kidnapped (playfully, we assume) by neighboring towns who wanted lessons. Dance Masters also often competed against Dance Masters from neighboring districts at céilís or feiseanna—large gatherings celebrating Irish culture and traditions usually held at a crossroads at the time--reportedly until one of them dropped!
Since the Statute of Kilkenny (check out Volume II for more details,) Irish culture had been contained to the Irish (in law if not in practice,) and still felt somewhat oppressed by their English neighbors. The forming of Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) in 1893 changed everything by establishing an organization specifically dedicated to preserving Irish language, literature, folklore, music, dress, and, to a lesser extent, dance. While the League originally outlawed certain dances that weren’t considered completely Irish (like the set quadrilles so heavily influenced by the French,) they eventually rescinded their stance. In 1930, An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (The Irish Dancing Commission) was formed to preserve and promote all forms of Irish dance and still exists to this day.
In 1897, the first public céilí was held in London (perhaps not so ironically, when you consider the goal of preserving Irish culture for all Irish people—there was a fair amount living there.) After the Commission was established only a few decades later, it only took a few years for their work to spread to wherever Irish people lived—which by then was everywhere! Now, there are Gaelic Leagues and Clubs all over the world and feiseanna are held wherever they are.
Irish dance comes from a tradition that resembles the American dream as much as anything Irish: a melting pot (doing my best to refrain from a pot o’ gold pun) of traditions and cultures. While it honors a specific heritage wherever it’s performed, that heritage was created over millennia through a distinct and unique combination of different people and civilizations. At SRL, as we’re proud to continue that tradition by keeping to the heart of it: honoring Irish culture, while always remembering you don’t need to be Irish to do Irish dance!
This is Volume II of a series. Catch up with Volume I here and Volume II here. And check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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