By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America
When the Methodist revival took place in Wales, one of its more significant musical impacts was the decline of traditional Welsh dancing. But, we don’t know much about this change. So, it becomes more important to look at Scottish and Irish dance forms to know more about the origins of the dance traditions that have influenced the whole world.
It is rather unfortunate that much less is known about the origins of Scottish and Irish dance than is known about their music. There are no artifacts, and very little visual proof of their dancing has survived. In the Irish language, there is not even an indigenous word for dancing. The terms that are used today have been borrowed from the English and French languages.
The earliest mention of dancing in Ireland is actually from a famous 14th -century Middle English poem that calls on the listener to “come aunt daunce wyt me in Irlaunde.” This poem must have referred to the tip of a fairly large iceberg, because as with music we suddenly had many written sources talking about dancing in the 16th century. Various kinds of dances are mentioned, including the “Hay,” the “Fading,” and the “Trenchmore,” though alas, we have no idea what these dances looked like. Dancing was reportedly very popular among the poorer classes, especially at agricultural festivals.
This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Scottish and Irish Dance in the 18th Century
The actual focus on Scottish and Irish dance came in the 18th century. This was about at the same time as the violin was introduced. The jig and the reel were considered to be the most important dance meters. It is an irony that the jig originated in England, but it became more popular in Ireland and Scotland. The jig, with either two or three groups of notes, is a triple meter. A jig that is performed with three groups of three notes is known as a slip jig.
The reel, though, did originate in Scotland, and it then made its way to Ireland, where it became enormously popular. The reel is in double or quadruple meter, and it’s usually a rapid melody with an emphasis on eighth notes. There are usually two related melodic parts that are repeated in various patterns.
One other type of dance that is specifically Scottish and must be mentioned here is the dance named strathspey. Like the reel, it is in 4/4 time, but as opposed to the reel, which is a rapid melody, strathspey is slow and stately. It is distinguished by a very typical rhythm that is known as the Scotch snap. It is a short dotted note before a longer note.
Learn more about the turbulent story of English conquest in Wales.
The Revival of Irish Dance
Just as the learned revival of the language attempted to introduce some standardization amidst linguistic diversity, the revival of dance led to a rather rigid codification of norms. The distinguishing feature of Irish step dancing is its very particular emphasis on the posture of the upper body that should be stiff so that the entire focus is placed on the movement of the feet. The Scottish dance does not have this feature, although it is similar to the Irish dance to some extent. So, it can be assumed that these two forms were more similar at some point in time.
There was also a completely new stress on competition in Ireland. And it was applicable to both solo as well as group forms of dance. No wonder that presently the Irish dance world is intensely competition-driven.
No doubt, traditionalist and avant-gardists exist in every form of art and Celtic music and dance are no exception to that. Many groups today blend traditional forms with modern forms. For example, there is an Irish ballad called The Star of the County Down, and there is a rather different and new version of it that is played by the Celtic rock band Brynmore.
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The Irish Dance Today
In the present times, there is no doubt that the Irish dance has become a worldwide phenomenon. It has happened because of the success of the show Riverdance and Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance, which is an offshoot of Riverdance. These dance extravaganzas draw on the tradition of Irish dance, but it’s important to note that Irish dance as we know it today is a relatively recent phenomenon.
The traditions that are being talked about here had started declining even in Ireland in the 19th century, more so because of the scornful criticism of the Catholic Church. It went on till late in the century when the Gaelic League made a decision to revive Irish dance and music just as it was trying to revive the Irish language. The tradition of decorating the Irish dancers’ costumes with very obvious Celtic motifs also began in the 19th century. It went to such an extent that the dresses of many Irish dancers today look almost exactly like carpet pages from the Book of Kells.
Even if we don’t know much about the origins of dancing in Ireland and Scotland, it is not a debatable fact that Irish and Scottish dances have become very popular in the world.
Common Questions about the Forms and Revival of Scottish and Irish Dance
The earliest mention of Irish dance is given in a famous 14th-century Middle English poem that calls on the listener to “come aunt daunce wyt me in Irlaunde.”
In the 19th century, the Gaelic League made a decision to revive Irish dance and music in Ireland just as it was trying to revive the Irish language.
The distinguishing feature of Irish step dancing is its very particular emphasis on the posture of the upper body that should be stiff so that the entire focus is placed on the movement of the feet.