Irish Step Dancing
by Sandra Lee Buxton
My DNA indicates that I am more than a third Irish, which gives me the authority to speak on a subject that I know nothing about, Irish Step Dancing. Who hasn’t seen and loved watching “Riverdance?” If that didn’t encourage you to call for lessons or lay down with mental exhaustion, well then nothing would. I checked into the history of this form of dance and became even more intrigued. I followed up with two local authorities that teach this art and thought that you might find it interesting as well.
First a little history: The traditional music was originally meant for dancing at celebrations, weddings, saint’s days or other observances. Tunes are usually divided into two eight-bar strains which are each played as many times as the performers feel is appropriate. At least ten instruments were used in creating the music for the reel, hornpipe and jigs.
The music and dance have roots in pre-Christian Ireland. Traveling dance masters taught all over Ireland beginning around the 1750’s and continued as late as the early 1900’s. Irish dancing has evolved and adapted to accommodate and reflect changing times blending with new cultures. It is often said that the stiff upper body was related to limited hard surfaces and space. People
removed their door from the hinges using the door as the dance floor.
The actual step dance is specific to each school or dance instructor. Each dance is built out of the same basic elements, but the dance itself is unique. The performance dance is generally characterized by a stiff upper body and quick precise movements of the feet. Two types of shoes are worn, hard shoes, which make sounds like a tap shoe, and soft shoes, which are similar to ballet slippers. The dances for soft shoe and hard shoes are generally different, though they share basic moves and rhythms.
My Naples resources on Irish Dancing are Michael O’Hare, owner of Flanagan-O’Hare School of Irish Dance and Catherine Gorman, owner of Celtic Spirit School of Dance. Both agree that Irish Dancing is for people of all ages, the dance form is modified to accommodate the age and abilities of their students, which range from 4 to 80. The younger students are able to start lessons when they can count to ten and their goal is usually competitions.
Students who begin as an adult are generally involved in team dancing (ceili) and enjoy the socialization and exercise. The adult dancers have less hopping and jumping in their routines.
Students begin with warm up exercises, basic steps and positions and what’s called “7s.” After that, the dancers learn one step at a time and add to that once they mastered each step along the way. Dancers build off of those steps and move towards more advanced steps using both hard and soft shoes. Steps are taught and mastered according to level as well as age. The need for a uniform varies between schools and a student may dance for months before there is any consideration given to purchasing shoes or parts of a costume.
Certified schools often believe dancers should earn their costumes based on their practice and performance. Not all schools mandate costumes as they are costly and the family budget is respected. Dancers start with weekly lessons which increases to two, it is advised that students have at least one hour of home practice between lessons. This dance art is taught over several
years in order to become a dance master, which is generally after five years of instruction.
Step dancing requires stamina and classes are taught in a way to develop and maintain that stamina through warm up and drill exercises.
Many students are also athletes but they do have to protect ankles and feet so that they can continue this dance art. Shoes and costumes are expensive so only those who are dedicated make major commitments. Soft shoes (ghillies) are at least $50 while hard shoes are upwards of $125 to $200. It is possible to find gently used shoes which are considerably less costly.
Costumes are made in many places but most are imported from Ireland or England and range from $500 to $3,000.
Most dancers start with a school costumes and outfits and then earn school dresses.
Once a dancer reaches a certain level, she can also earn a solo dress. These are the most expensive and intricate dresses. Male dancers usually wear simple shirts, black pants and ties. If this has piqued your interest contact Catherine Gorman at 239.272.8791 or Michael O’Hare at 239.961.0610 regarding this great form of exercise and dance art.
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