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that weren’t considered completely Irish (like the set quadrilles so heavily influenced by the French,) they eventually rescinded their stance.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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