Irish Entertainment: 5 Facts about Irish Step Dancing for St Patrick’s Day

February 18, 2013


Like any good entertainment agency, we’re always on the lookout for the next entertainment trend and with St Patrick ’s Day sneaking up on us like... a sneaky Bono? ... It’s as good a time as any to celebrate Irish entertainment at corporate events, weddings and private functions.

Today we’re going to take a look at dance in particular. With Irish dancing proving reliably popular at events and weddings in the last few years – particularly when paired with a Céilidh band, there’s never been a better time to have wildly flailing feet and completely rigid arms. But in an effort to better understand this traditional Irish entertainment, we thought we’d offer up 5 Facts about Traditional Irish Dancing... read on for more.

Irish Dancing is thought to be based on the European Quadrille

The Quadrille is a precursor to the modern Square Dance and has roots in the military parades of the 17th Century in which horsemen performed in square formations. Eventually, dancers ditched the horses (because why should they have all the fun?) and started doing it on foot. The dance features four couples arranged in a square, one couple is designated the ‘lead couple’ and the others ‘side couples’ – the lead couple would perform a step and the side couples would replicate that step. 

Irish Step Dancers would literally ‘Take the Cake’ 

The phrase ‘Takes the cake’ has appeared in texts as early as the 5th Century BC but it also has ties to early 20th Century America’s ‘strut competitions’ or ‘cake walks’. Turns out the Irish also have a claim to the phrase thanks to the tradition of ‘cake dances’ - sadly not dances which took place atop a freshly baked cake – but in which a cake was placed in the middle of a field and dancers competed for the chance to win it. Such competitions would take place after church on Sunday and were fiercely contested because Sunday afternoon is pretty much optimal cake time.

Please Keep Your Arms at Your Sides at all Times...

Theories abound as to the origin of step dancing’s famously rigid arms. Some believe the stiffened upper body was less provocative than ‘all that touching’ involved in other dances. Somewhat more entertainingly, others believe the dance was conceived so that groups of people could meet up and dance secretly and when someone looked in through a waist high window, it would look like they were standing still. More likely is the theory that the rigidity was borne out of the small stages used for dancing – dancers would sometimes take doors off hinges and lay them on the ground in an effort to find the right kind of wooden surface for the performance which naturally restricts any flailing around. Later competitions emphasised this control and discipline by challenging solo dancers to perform on a barrel top.

The Dancing Master

Whereas we now look to Beyonce or a middle-aged Korean man for new dance moves - back in the 18th century, prohibitively slow broadband speeds made it difficult to watch the latest music videos for dance tips. Instead, a fleet-footed expert known as a Dancing Master would travel from town to down instructing locals in step dancing moves. The arrival of a dancing master was a cause of much excitement, so much so that he was paid by the local parish, given room and board by a local family and townspeople would dress ‘eccentrically’ while he was there.

A Good Way to Meet People

Traditionally, Irish céilidh performed an important social function for Irish communities – a place where people met, exchanged news and most importantly, danced. For the cast of 90s step dancing sensation Riverdance, it seems like dancing was an exceptionally good way to meet a potential partner; there were no less than 39 marriages between cast members during the show’s run.  No awkward shuffling to Robbie William’s Angels at those weddings. 

For more information on booking Irish Entertainment for corporate events, weddings and private functions, head over to our contact page and get in touch.

By Garreth Owen