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Common Questions about Irish Dancing

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

Why don't they move their arms?

A lot of people immediately think of this rigid arm style of dance when Irish Dancing is brought up. However, it is important to note that it is only some areas of Irish Dance where the arms have to stay by the sides. In others, such as Set Dancing, Sean Nos and Ceilí dancers can move their arms as needed.

But why the straight arms? Well, no one really agrees on the reason. Some say that a group of Irish dancers were brought to entertain Queen Elizabeth I (who was responsible for starting the plantations of Ireland). In defiance to Her Majesty, the dancers refused to raise their arms in salute and instead kept them stiffly by their sides.

Another theory says that it was the Catholic church stepping in to ensure the dancers remained pure. Dancers (both boys and girls) would have to hold heavy rocks in each hand whilst dancing so that they couldn't hold hands with each other.

The two other prevalent theories are that it was simply thought to be better etiquette, or that there was literally no space to have arms moving in the crowded and cramped pubs of Ireland. Whichever you prefer as an explanation, there is no denying that the iconic straight arms are instantly recognisable as Irish Dancing around the world.

What's the difference between the shoes?

There are two types of shoe used in Irish Dancing. The first is the Light Shoe, also known as soft shoes, by officially called ghillies. These shoes are worn for light jigs, single jigs, slips and reels. Male dancers have their own version of the soft show which has a slightly harder heel than the ghillie.

Hard Shoes have tips and heels that are made of a tougher material, most commonly fibreglass which aids in the iconic tap noise. These hard shoes are worn for treble jogs, treble reels and hornpipes.

What's with the wigs?

If the "straight arm" is the main association of Irish Dancing style, then ringlets are definitely the association for the look. Author John Cullinane covers this cosmetic choice in his book Irish dancing costumes: Their origins and evolution illustrated with 100 years of photographs, 1892-1992; wigs only became a normal part of the costume in the 1980s. Before this, it was custom for Irish dancers to go to bed with a head full of rollers the night before a feis. This was a time consuming and uncomfortable process, so when wigs became readily available it was the logical step.

But why ringlets in the first place? The hairstyle is based on the old Irish tradition of women putting curlers in her hair on a Saturday night to prepare for Church on Sunday morning. There would often be a ceili that followed the service, and so the tradition of Irish Dancers having beautiful tight ringlets was born.

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