In our Origins of Irish Dance series, we’ve covered everything from Irish dance’s druidic origins and 18th century dancing masters to competitive levels and modern costuming. However, there’s something we breezed right past, as it’s a deviation from the standard Irish step we teach at SRL: sean-nós dance! (Though we have dabbled in sean-nós before with dances like Maggie Pickens and a summer masterclass with guest instructor Annabelle Bugay!) Tonight, we’re taking a step back to take a look at this branch of Irish dance tradition that has had wide-reaching influence on not only Irish step dance, but other forms of dance as well.
Sean-nós, meaning “old-style,” is a solo, percussive, usually improvised style of Irish dance strongly associated with Connemara on the west coast of Ireland. Unlike Irish step dance like we teach at SRL, which is highly regulated by the CLRG in Ireland, sean-nós is a more casual dance form that predates any modern records and developed differently in disperse areas over time. Sean-nós dancers, due to the improvisational nature of the dance that favors personal style over precision, normally dance alone, though many often take turns dancing to the music. Generally danced in a social setting, like a pub, party, or cultural festival (though competitions now exist, as well as some “standard” steps!), this form of Irish dance is more stripped down than step in both presentation and musical choices.
While Irish step dancers perform highly choreographed routines in often elaborate costumes with stiff arms and high kicks, sean-nós Irish dancers throughout time have tended to favor their street clothes, improvised steps, free arm movement, and footwork that stays low to the ground. Additionally, while adjudicators expect a competitive step dancer to move over the entire stage during a performance, sean-nós was traditionally performed in tight spaces: a door taken off its hinges, on a tabletop, or even on the top of a barrel! There was even an old saying about how a good dancer could perform on a silver serving tray, but a great dancer could perform on a sixpence. (Though sean-nós dancers these days generally just prefer a hardwood floor.)
Then, there’s the shoes. While any Irish dancer knows all about ghillies and hard shoes (check out a history of Irish step shoes here,) sean-nós dancers don’t have a particular type of shoe they’re tied to. However, they are looking for something that can make some noise! Sean-nós concentrates on what they call the “batter” i.e. hard, percussive sounds that emphasis the accented beats in the usually 8-count music being played as they dance. Many modern sean-nós dancers actually prefer tap shoes!
While Irish step hard shoe and sean-nós have has much in common as they do differences by way of proximity, sean-nós also made a huge impact on the world of American dance forms. With the influx of Irish immigrants in the 1800s during the Great Famine, sean-nós made its way to the U.S. and subsequently became a part of our culture, whether we realized it or not! While sean-nós itself isn’t widely found in America modern day, it highly influenced the vaudeville era of American dance, lending its style to soft shoe, flat-footing, hoofing, and clogging—all precursors to American jazz and tap!
So, while SRL may not have a sean-nós class, this old-style of dance is still an intrinsic part of the story of Irish dance’s (and American dance’s) history. And it still lives on in many a pub and party today. (Can’t forget a pretty epic flash mob in Galway in 2013 to promote the 116th Oireachtas Festival there! Watch a video of it here.)
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last “Origins of Irish Dance” post, all about modern male costuming, here. Also: 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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