Just for Kicks

Just for KicksIrish Dancing Captures the Hearts, Minds and Feet of a Whole New Generation

By Amanda Finch Broadfoot

When Michael Flatley brought his “Lord of the Dance” show to American audiences back in the 1990s, he spawned a renaissance. With arms firmly positioned at the sides and feet and legs striking sharp, staccato movements, Flatley and his dancers stomped and kicked their way to a dance revolution. Suddenly, Irish dance classes were overflowing with eager dancers hoping to emulate the tricky footwork and stylized choreography of the “Riverdancers” they had seen live or on video.

But Irish dance didn’t begin with Flatley. In fact, this genre of fancy footwork has a long and colorful history. Traced back to the 1600s, when traveling dance masters carried the art from village to village across the Irish countryside, some legends have the Irish beginning to dance by moving only their feet so the British soldiers walking past their houses and looking through the windows wouldn’t get suspicious.

While the more recent and dramatic “Riverdance” shows made Irish dance popular in the United States, there are Irish dances that invite every age, every skill level, and every body type to the dance floor.


Step, Set and Ceili

There are three types of Irish dancing. Step dancing, the most widely popularized in the United States, also is potentially the most demanding form of Irish dance. Step dancing involves sharp, complicated steps and high kicks, performed with the arms at the sides, elbows tucked in and the head facing straight ahead. Sometimes beginner dancers practice while holding pennies or hair clips in their hands to remind them of arm positions.

Step dancing can be performed by a group or a single, solo dancer. Competitive solo dancers regularly practice at home more than two hours a day, according to Cindy Brainerd, assistant instructor at the Drake School of Dance in Fort Walton Beach. That is in addition to up to five hours of classroom instruction.

“They are very determined and very dedicated,” Brainerd said.

A feis (pronounced “fesh”) is a gathering in which dancers compete against one another. The first World Dancing Championships were held in Dublin in 1970. Today, there are more than 150 Feishanna (competitions) held throughout 30 states in this country, and they are run by the Irish Dance Commission in Ireland. Only students from certified schools of Irish dance can compete.

One of Brainerd’s students, 14-year-old Panama City dancer Laura Kerr, recently placed in the top 10 at the regional competition and qualified to compete at the World Championships in Scotland this summer. Kerr has been dancing for only a little over a year.

But you don’t have to be a world champ or dance for hours a week to have fun with Irish dance. Set dancing, unlike step dancing, involves low and flat movements and is popular with older beginners and non-competitive dancers. Based on French quadrilles, set dances involve groups of eight, divided into four partnerships. The group goes through a series of jagged stomps with much twirling and arm-locking until every couple has been in the middle of a 5-foot-wide circle.

The types of set dances are varied and depend upon the area from which they originated. The Ballybunion is based on the polka and jig, while the Clare set, considered more complicated, features dancers going up on the downbeat.

The final type of Irish dance is ceili dancing. This 100-year-old Irish dance also is called “figure dancing.” A hybrid of understated movements that could pass as a cousin of American square dance, ceilis can be performed in groups of eight or in a progressive line. It is supposed to be high and light, with toes pointed and legs jutting at unnatural angles, but even the less skilled can enjoy the group experience.


Dressed for Success

The dancer’s costume is extremely important to serious Irish dancers – beginning, of course, with the shoes.

“Ghillies,” explains Brainerd, are pliable, soft-soled black shoes that lace up to the ankle, similar to ballet slippers, and are used in the lighter, airier dances. A second type of shoe, with a hard sole, is similar to the tap shoe and is used in dances that require a loud staccato sound to accompany the stomps and kicks of the dance. Calf-length socks, known as “poodle socks,” accompany the shoes.

While all Irish dancers will need to invest in good shoes, the more elaborate costuming is left to the competitive dancers. Female solo step dancers can spend hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars on one-of-a-kind dresses.

Then there are the wigs: Tightly curled ringlets adorn the heads of the serious dancers who don’t want to spend hours with a curling iron.

The costumes and the makeup of the dancers are designed to attract attention. While much of the embroidery on today’s ornate costumes is said to have its origins in ancient Celtic calligraphy, many of the styles have distinctly modern features, like sequins. Makeup styles have been known to utilize glitter.

Traditionally, boys have worn kilts while competing and performing. However, today they have the option of wearing traditional costumes or pants with coordinating shirts and ties.


Local Opportunities

If you’re interested in trying your hand – or foot – at Irish dancing, contact one of the Emerald Coast’s prestigious local schools for private or group classes.

“Most of our students are people with some kind of Irish background, or they’ve seen us out performing somewhere,” Brainerd said. “But I’m Hispanic,” she laughed, pointing out that Irish dance is for anyone, regardless of family background.

Classes cost around $30 to 50 per month, depending upon the type and frequency of instruction. The Drake School of Dance can be contacted at (850) 651-1494, while you can reach the Emerald Coast School of Traditional Irish Dance at (850) 479-7873.

May the luck of the Irish be with you.