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.
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