A Brief History of Traditional Irish Step Dancing

Traditional Irish Step Dancing is considered to be one of the parent dance forms of Appalachian Clogging. The corpus of Irish Dance contains both soft shoe dances (the reel, the light-jig, and the slip-jig) as well as hard shoe dances which are percussive (the hornpipe, the treble-jig, and the traditional set dances). A major contributing factor to the evolution of step dancing in the American South was the in-migration of the Ulster-Scots from Ireland in the late 1700s and early 1800s. After migrating to North America, the Ulster-Scots became particularly concentrated in the Appalachian foothills. A composite population, the Ulster-Scots, also known as Scotch-Irish, consisted of people with English and Scottish backgrounds who settled in the Ulster region of Ireland. The dance forms from this part of Ireland most likely bore cultural trademarks from Irish, English, and Scottish traditional dances. In the 18th century, dance teachers known as the “Traveling Dancing Masters” journeyed around Ireland, teaching students Irish dance steps and technique. These Dancing Masters are thought to have taught their pupils the “traditional set dances.” The St. Patrick’s Day dance is one of these traditional dances.

As the footwork of the Ulster-Scots intermingled with the dance styles from the early Native American and African American communities, the technique went through an adaptation process which ultimately led to a blending of stylized percussive footwork, which is exhibited in clogging, and has evolved from casual dancing patterns to sophisticated performance contexts. A common event where dancing was taught and performed was the cèilidh. Cèilidhs were casual, community events where friends and neighbors would gather in someone’s home, barn, or church hall and participate in the local expressive culture. Cèilidhs usually featured cooking, music-making, story-telling, and of course dancing. The early cèilidhs were similar in nature to a “hoe-down” and revolved around the family, neighbors, and the home. They were a primary activity that brought the community members together to celebrate their heritage, their culture, and their traditions.

Prior to formal dance classes, children often learned to dance from their parents or their friends. Dancing was ordinary and commonplace, and the home played an integral part in dance transmission. Though it is most likely that the entire family participated in dancing to some degree in its initial stages, currently female dancers make up a large constituent of the contemporary Irish Dance field. Many Irish Dance schools in the United States are owned and operated by female teachers. Jean Butler, who was the lead female dancer in the original Riverdance show with Michael Flatley, has exemplified how successful an Irish-American woman can be in the Step Dance arena. Appalachian percussive dance has evolved from informal dancing to highly stylized footwork and will continue to adapt to keep up with modern performance trends. Whether it is simply tapping your feet under the kitchen table or competing at the Irish Dance World Championships, there is something for everyone to enjoy!