Edel Quin changing between different Irish dance shoes. Photo: Kevin Vaughan Dance UK explores... Irish dance

Date Sun 17 August 2014

Each month, Dance UK is investigating a different dance style for our members' e-newsletter, finding out about its technique, style and history. For August, it’s Irish dance, which Edel Quin discusses in an interview with dance writer Laura Dodge.


Edel began Irish dance classes at a local school in Ireland when she was six. She toured for five years with hit dance show Riverdance from 1996, and is now Programme Leader of the MSc Dance Science course at Dance UK member Trinity Laban.


What is Irish dancing?


Irish dancing began as a folk dance. It doesn’t have a particular start date as it’s been a part of Irish culture for such a long time. Originally, sean nos were danced in everyday shoes. Movements were grounded and quite subtle – not like the high legs and flashy footwork of Irish dancing today. It was more like tap.


In the late 1800s under British rule, Irish cultural activities were banned, including dancing. But in the early 20th Century, traditions were revived. Dance competitions also started taking place. These are very now important for most dancers, and have high standards as people come from all over the world to participate. I’d recommend watching the film Jig, which documents an Irish dance competition.


Through competitions, people have started including other styles – such as ballet and tap – in their performances, which has meant Irish dancing has developed and changed. There have also been lots of Irish dance shows, such as Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, and these have brought a bit of Hollywood glamour. Irish dance has become a huge global phenomenon.


How do you train as an Irish dancer?


In Ireland, it’s very common for children to go to an Irish dance school, and most compete in competitions so the training is very strict. Irish dance tends to be done by young people (under 18), although there is a senior category (for over 18s) in competitions.


There are no full-time vocational schools but there are lots of amazing part-time ones, such as the Maguire O Shea Academy in London. Teenagers who want to dance seriously and do well in competitions need to take several classes a week. Rope skipping is also good training, so many do this in the morning before school.


Before Riverdance in the 1990s, there weren’t opportunities for Irish dancers to work professionally. Back then, even the top competitors would have other full-time jobs. Now people can work professionally in Irish dance, but others – myself included – just do it for fun. There are also classes that are purely for enjoyment, without the competitive element.


What are the different styles of Irish dance?


In this interview, I’ve been describing step dancing, focusing mainly on the solo form. There is also a group form of step dancing, and another entirely different style of Irish dance which is set dancing. Set dancing is done in formation and is a low, grounded style. It is more traditional as it hasn’t changed with the introduction of competitions.


Within set dancing, there are two different styles again – soft shoe and hard shoe. The former is more graceful and balletic. It’s mainly performed by women, and they wear a shoe made of leather with laces. In competitions, however, there is a male soft shoe dance, but the footwear is more like a character shoe with a heel.


Hard shoe dancing is all about creating crisp, clean sounds. The shoes are heeled with a tapered tip that is thicker at the front. The thick part of the tip supports the foot in ‘pivot position’, which is the equivalent of being on pointe in ballet. The tip was traditionally a block of wood with nails but is now made of fibreglass.


What should you look for when watching Irish dance?


The dancer’s abdomen and upper body needs to be calm and still. Many people interpret this as ‘tense and rigid’ but it’s not. There should be a sense of ease in the torso, but a strong core keeping the abdomen and spine still.


The legs are contrastingly fast, flighty and lively, and movement is very high intensity. The legs move in only one plane – front to back and not side to side. The feet are turned out when on the floor, but move to parallel as the legs are raised.


In soft shoe dances, the heels shouldn’t touch the floor – jumps should land on the toes with a feeling of bounce. It’s biomechanically problematic, but that’s the style. Even when wearing hard shoes, the heel should only be put down if it’s specifically to make a sound.


As in all performing arts, you should also look out for an element of confidence and performance. Costumes for Irish dancing are very glitzy and elaborate, but you still need a dancer who is able to ‘sell’ his or her movements to the audience.


Why do you love Irish dance?


I love that it is steeped in history. It’s part of my heritage and identity. But I also love that it has moved on and reinvented itself into a global style. Plus it’s great for fitness and great fun!


What dance style would you like to see featured next in the 'Dance UK explores...' series? Email suggestions to michael@danceuk.org.