Origins of Irish Dance: Volume V
Levels and Competitions, Part 1
Many of our parents and dancers here at SRL are fully aware of all the ins and outs of Irish dance, and this post isn’t really for them (unless they’ve always been a little fuzzy on some of it—we won’t tell! It’s complicated!) This post is for our Beginner parents, our dancers just getting excited about maybe competing one day, or even the parent just browsing out our website for the first time. (If that’s you, check out our four previous posts here to catch you up to the present in Irish dance’s history!)
A little recap: It was the Gaelic revival in the late 19th century, and the forming of the Conradh na Gaeilge (Gaelic League) in 1893, that helped Irish dance truly begin its journey from unrecorded folk tradition to the international, competitive art form it is today. With the League’s creation of a governing body specific to dance in the 1930s (Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha—aka The Irish Dancing Commission or CLRG—still the primary governing body of Irish dance today,) Irish Dance Masters became a legitimate authority on a world stage (no pun intended.) The world of Irish dance as we know it today was built on this bedrock: the CLRG set down a series of rules and regulations to govern and standardize Irish dance (everything from steps and form to certifications for teachers.) This led to the creation of competitive opportunities to elevate its reputation, preserve and promote Irish culture, and nurture the art. And those competitions, rules, and regulations are what we’re here to discuss with you today!
Feis Out the Best
We’ve discussed feis and feiseanna (pronounced fesh and fesh-anna) before in this series—meaning simply “festival(s)”—they’re a long-standing tradition meant to celebrate and preserve Irish culture. Feiseanna today are still much the same (though in the dance world, they may only be a dance competition and not have as many outside vendors,) and vary in size: dance academies often hold inter-school class feiseanna, but there are also larger, regional feiseanna all over the world. These competitions are divided by both age and skill level (discussed next week!) and competitors are judged on a variety of technical and stylistic concerns such as timing, turn out, foot placement, deportment, choreography, rhythm…the list could fill this entire post.
To put this all as simply as possible: dancers compete in multiple different dances divided into two major categories: hard shoe and soft shoe. From those larger categories, more specific ones emerge based on the music and its timing, in three broad categories: jig, reel, and hornpipe (though the slip jig is completely unique in Irish music and dance with a 9/8 time signature—we’ll explain further below!) Soft shoe dances include the reel, the light jig, the slip jig, and the single or hop jig, while hard shoe dances include the treble or double jig, hornpipe, and treble reel. Most feiseanna will have dancers beyond the earliest levels compete in soft shoe rounds, hard shoe rounds, and then a final round that’s often hard shoe, and often a set dance (more about that below.) Some feiseanna will include team or cèili (pronounced kay-lee) dances, as well.
But how does a dancer get to be a competitor? Dancers begin preparing for competition at the earliest levels: every move they learn in their Beginner later becomes part of a dance. Beginners start with the basic reel and jig. Once a dancer has mastered these basic steps and has good control of their technique, they begin learning hard shoe with the treble jig (essentially a hard shoe version of the jig they’ve already mastered and know the music for—but with hard shoe skills and movements instead!) Hornpipe and traditional set dances are added as a dancer progresses in their hard shoe technique.
Each dancer will gradually add more complexity to these basic dances, differing in rhythm and timing, as they develop as dancers—for example: over time, the basic steps of the reel, light jig, and slip jig are upgraded with more difficult choreography. Traditional set dances are unique, tune-specific dances that were choreographed long ago by Dance Masters in Ireland to exactly match the music. They have titles such as “St. Patrick’s Day,” or “Garden of Daisies,” and are largely universal around the world (though there are slight regional and studio variations.) This is different to other types of dances (reel, jig, slip jig, treble jig, and hornpipe) that are unique to each school. This is why (well, at least until 2020 forced many competitions online) videotaping Irish dance competitions has always been forbidden—you have to protect that choreography!
What the layperson needs to understand in order to hear the differences in dances/music really comes down to is the timing: different dances have differences in their beats per bar of music, as well as different emphasized beats. Here’s a little breakdown of the major groupings, though further designations into dances have even further and more complicated variations (check out a musical theory breakdown of each one here and click on each type of music to hear an example!):
Reels: 4/4 time signature and will probably sound the most “normal” to a non-dancer as the beats are evenly emphasized. Can be detected if you can say “double decker, double decker” in time with the music.
Jigs: 6/8 time signature, i.e. three beats per bar with the 1 and 3 emphasized (non-Irish dancers will recognized this as a waltz.) Detected by non-dancers by saying “carrots and cabbages, carrots and cabbages” in time to the music. Includes light jigs and treble jigs, but not slip jigs!
Slip Jigs: 9/8 time signature, i.e. similar to the above jig but with three beats per bar and three eight notes in one beat (with the emphasis on the 5 and 9 beats.) This one can give a lot of dancers some difficulties at first—it has an almost rolling sound to it!
Hornpipes: 4/4 time signature, like the reel, but with the 1 and 3 beats emphasized. There’s more variation here, but many hornpipes can be detected with “humpty-dumpty, humpty-dumpty.”
Next week, tune in to the blog for the purpose of feiseanna competitions (besides fun!): rising through the levels or “grades.”
This post is part of a series. Read more about how Irish dance's iconic form developed 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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