About Irish Dance
Dance, like music, is an integral part of celebration in every culture. Irish dance as a form has drawn from many other cultures to create a style of dance uniquely theirs.
In the 18th century, dance masters (men and women known as experts in Irish dance) were largely responsible for spreading and innovating dance skills throughout Ireland. They would travel throughout the country teaching dance, manners and etiquette to those who contracted their services. Dance masters had school costumes unique to their pupils, as do Irish dance schools today. The styles taught then are not so different from today; we still begin instruction with the same basic movements. In fact, many traditional set dances taught today came from these dance masters. These masters had defined geographical territories, and disputes would sometimes arise between masters who would resolve the matter with a dance battle of sorts.
Instruction of dance was universal in that it was not limited to the upper class. However, it took many years before it became acceptable for females to learn Irish dance. Even then, the style of dance often differed between the genders, since some dance masters believed some movements were unsuitable for ladies. Light vs. heavy dances were not considered feminine or masculine, but rather the high kicks and vigorous movements were restricted to male dancers. Today, this distinction no longer exists, despite some stylistic differences in the choreography for males.
Step dancing is defined by foot movements which reflect and complement the tempo of the accompanying music. The flowing pattern of these dances is broken down into specific movements such as cuts, rocks, and batters. Each step consists of a series of these elements to cover 8 bars of music. These steps are danced on both the right and left foot, which emphasizes the importance of the ability to execute movements equally on both feet. Modern Irish step dance is based on the Munster style of dancing, characterized by the foot placement--dancers are up on their toes with toes turned out. The entire purpose of this style of dance is to amaze and intrigue.
Irish social dances ("ceilis") are rooted in ancient Celtic circle dances, but also draw from many other sources, most notably English country dances and French quadrilles. The Irish versions, however, have always been much more vigorous. Where English country dances and French quadrilles are punctuated by purposeful pauses, Irish social dances are in continual motion and every bar of music is accentuated by movement. This is in part due to the livelier tempo of Irish jig, reel, and hornpipe tunes. Today, we follow "Ar Rince Foirne," the official list of ceili dances published by An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha.
Source: The Story of Irish Dance by Helen Brennan