Irish Dance Revolution

In the early 2000s, traditional Irish step dance experienced dramatic changes. As a traditional dance form, Irish step dance lends itself to innovation; it is a lively and living art so to stay fresh and contemporary, it needs to stay, well… alive.

The seven-minute interval act ‘Riverdance’ in 1994 changed not only Irish step dance irrevocably, but also impacted enormously on the developing Irish national identity, the style of dance, the costumes and employment opportunities.

The Irish Have Been Doing it For Years

Where did it all begin? There is a link between early Celtic dance and modern Irish dance. The Celts were sun worshippers who danced within a circular formation of stones which is similar to the circular formation of Irish set dancing. The Celts included movements involving repeated tapping of the feet on one spot which can be seen in dance routines to this day.

The Irish people’s love of dancing is legendary with an English author in the 1700s declaring that there was no occasion from which dancing was absent. During the 19th century the Irish Dancing Masters travelled the country to teach dancing to the masses. The Gaelic League was established in 1893 to create a separate cultural Irish nation but many of the popular dances at the time were banned.

In 1951, the formation of the Society of the Musicians of Ireland, led to a strong revival of traditional Irish music and dance and the late 90s saw an enormous increase in set dancing workshops across Ireland. Learning Irish dancing is a regular extra mural activity of many Irish children and, while it differs from modern genres such as hip-hop, lyrical, and fusion, it is in a class of its own.

There are three main types of dance routines: set dancing routines, social routines, and step routines. The style in each case is formal and disciplined with little upper body movement and precise and fast foot movements. The restriction of movement is owing to the limited space dancers had in the earlier centuries when they had to perform in small pubs or barns crowded with locals!

Instruments Accompanying Irish Dancing

The traditional accompaniment for Irish dancing was a harp, bagpipe or singing but as the dances became more complex so did the music and there is a variety of instruments that go with the dancing including the fiddle, the bodhran, a hand-held drum, the tin whistle, the concertina and the uilleann pipes.

While some costumes in Irish dance are ostentatious, the modern Irish dancing costumes tend to me more modest. Soft or hard shoes are worn depending on the dance style: hard shoes have tips and heels made of fiberglass to add to the noise and the beat, while soft shoes are leather lace ups called ghillies.

Irish dancing competitions are still popular. The annual regional championship is known by the same name given to the Irish government: Oireachtas. Dancers are rated on technique, timing and the sounds their shoes make. The regulations for these competitions are very rigid and the process is highly competitive. The Irish Dancing Commission takes place each year in a different part of the world and features over 6,000 dancers from 30 countries!


This extraordinary theatrical show placed Irish dancing firmly on the international map. Having made its debut at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, Riverdance started out as a seven-minute-long interval act and featured Jean Butler and Michael Flatley. The act was so well received that the BBC commissioned a repeat performance at the Royal Variety Show. Shortly thereafter, a full-length stage show expanding on the original act was created – a show which sold over 120,000 tickets! The show went on to play worldwide for fifteen years, making it as popular as Big Dollar casino.

Whether your preference is for traditional Irish dancing or Riverdancing, one thing is certain: both of these art forms are alive and well!