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Why Irish Dancers Don't Move Their Arms


How this unusual form of dance evolved

Irish step dancing is a unique form of artistic expression. The dancers do not move their arms, at least in the more traditional form of step dancing.

Elaborate steps are made with just the legs, and it's primarily the lower legs that generate the most movements. Some of these steps are very intricate, often leaving you wondering just how these contortions are possible.

A dancer's arms are held flat at her side, and her upper body is stiff as a board. Why is that?

Flickr Photo by Dave Dugdale

Some history of Irish Dance

No one is really sure why this form of dance evolved the way it did. But I like my daughter's Irish step-dance teacher's explanation. Before every recital the teacher would give a 10-minute talk on the history of Ireland and Irish step-dancing. She concluded with talk with, "If you're lucky enough to be Irish, then you're lucky enough."

Anyway, the teacher is a devout Catholic and according to her account, Ireland was once a strongly Catholic country. The priests at one time had a great deal of influence and people listened to them. Step dancing was permitted, as it also served a spiritual purpose.

But there were a few stipulations. First and foremost, the dancing could not be suggestive. And the clothing had to be modest, with skirts well below the knee. So this is why the girls started dancing with their arms held to their sides like two boards. Any form of hip swaying was not allowed either.

I suspect the dancing costumes worn a few generations ago in Ireland were a little different than what we see now. The skirts probably fell way below the knees and sleeveless costumes would have been unheard of.

Sterling Silver Ghillies and Irish step dancer - Remember your dancer's earliest years

This sterling silver charm depicts the "ghillies," which are the soft-soled shoes all new dancers wear for their first recital. Typically it takes years to graduate to hard-toed Irish step-dancing shoes. Your little girl will love the "ghillies" charm and also the sterling silver Irish step dancer.

Irish dancer.

Irish dancer.

Flickr Photo by Dave Dugdale

Irish Step Dancing Protected Catholics

My daughter's teacher also explained how Irish step-dancing helped preserve the Catholic faith in Ireland, as the Church suffered intense persecution at various times in the country's history.

During the 1600's, for instance, there was something known as Irish Penal Laws. This made it illegal to practice one's Catholic faith. This was also the era of Oliver Cromwell, a rabid Catholic hater who oversaw the assassinations of many priests and nuns. Cromwell also deported many lay Catholics to remote Irish outposts and to the Caribbean.

Therefore, it was sometimes necessary to celebrate the Mass underground, in the lowest level of a village house. While Mass was being offered, several children would be dispatched to stand at the edge of the property to watch for British soldiers. If soldiers were spotted, the little scouts would run inside and tap a message with their feet to alert the worshipers on the lower level.

If the soldiers happened to arrive at the home, they'd find children dancing in the house, while everyone else scurried to hide all evidence that a Mass was taking place.

I do wonder if the soldiers eventually caught on, after finding so many children dancing on Sunday mornings.

Did the dance teacher have her facts right? I don't know, and I have no way of checking, but her story makes a certain amount of sense.

Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day

Your dancer will love this beautiful Christmas tree ornament or St. Patrick's Day ornament.

Have you ever watched an Irish step-dancing show?

flycatcherrr on May 07, 2014:

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Celtic dancing is alive and well in my part of Canada, but I must say I never thought about why the dancers don't move their arms. That's a fascinating historical tidbit, about the children tapping out a warning to hidden Catholics with their dancing toes!

ologsinquito2 (author) on May 19, 2013:

Hi LiteraryMind,

Thanks for visiting.

Ellen Gregory from Connecticut, USA on May 19, 2013:

I never even thought about why the dancers don't move their arms until now.

ologsinquito2 (author) on May 06, 2013:

Hi John,

Thank you for visiting. I am not that familiar with Scottish dance. I didn't know the girls hold their arms up. I'm not positive the Church is the reason Irish dancers don't move their bodies much, but it is the explanation given by my daughter's dance teacher.

John Tannahill from Somewhere in England on May 06, 2013:

I think you're probably right about the explanation being the Catholic Church, but I'm not absolutely sure what it was. My understanding is that it was a way to 'clean up' dance and remove any suggestiveness, as you said. There's a lot in common with traditional Scottish dancing but the Scots girls hold their arms up high, there's a lot more spinning around the upper legs move much more.

ologsinquito2 (author) on April 29, 2013:

Hi Erin,

Thank you for visiting. Yes, the dresses have gotten a lot shorter and there is a more beauty pageant feel to these shows. I'd love to see the dresses fall below the knee again.

Erin Mellor from Europe on April 29, 2013:

The dresses have got much shorter and more 'bling' over the last 40 years, and there's more of a beauty pageant feel these days. Perhaps having a screen above waist level so the judges only assessed dancing leg action would be a fun development.

ologsinquito2 (author) on April 21, 2013:

Hi FlowerChick,

Thanks for your feedback.

Laura Hofman from Naperville, IL on April 21, 2013:

Yes I have...They are so talented and well choreographed.

ologsinquito2 (author) on April 18, 2013:

Hi cmadden,

Thank you for stopping by. I've never seen a professional Irish step dance troupe, just the children. But even these are interesting.

cmadden on April 17, 2013:

I've only seen step dancing on television - would love to see a performance in person!

ologsinquito2 (author) on April 17, 2013:

Hi Maureen,

Thank you for visiting and for commenting. Your name certainly sounds Irish.

MaureenCee on April 17, 2013:

Yes I have.Sometime in the last year I came across a contest of Irish dancing which was the lead up to the grand final of the dancing year and it was absolutely fascinating to watch. The dresses and the steps and the time it had taken these dancers to get where they were was enthralling so count me in.

Having Irish heritage and living so far away I tend to grasp at anything Irish I can get.

Thanks so much for a wonderfully interesting lens.

ologsinquito2 (author) on March 11, 2013:

Hi takkhis,

Thanks for stopping by an for commenting. I really liked your red panda lens.

Takkhis on March 11, 2013:

Yes, I have watched step-dancing! Very interesting indeed :)

ologsinquito2 (author) on March 03, 2013:

Hi artbyrodriguez, thank you so much for reading and for commenting.

Beverly Rodriguez from Albany New York on March 03, 2013:

I love the Irish step-dancing. Thanks for all the great information.

ologsinquito2 (author) on February 28, 2013:

Hi Melaniekaren,

Thanks for stopping by.

Melanie Wilcox from Pennsylvania, USA on February 27, 2013:

I've always like Irish step-dancing -and with men too. I had no idea how it developed. Thanks for sharing.

ologsinquito2 (author) on February 27, 2013:

Hi Kiwinana71,

Thank you for the kind words. I liked my daughter's teacher's explanation as well. The teacher was a real spark plug - 100 percent Irish American and a red head.

Elsie Hagley from New Zealand on February 26, 2013:

I enjoyed your lens very much. It is the first time I have heard why irish dancers don't move their arms, and until I saw the title of your lens, I haven't thought about it, but I like how your daughter's teacher explained it so until I hear different I will consider your version right. Looking forward to your next lens.

ologsinquito2 (author) on February 26, 2013:

Hi Sockii, thanks for visiting and thanks for the link to the instructional module.

Nicole Pellegrini from New Jersey on February 26, 2013:

RocketSquid tip - feel free to delete after reading! You might want to use html to link your photo credits back to their sources. For more info here's a great simple tutorial:

Nicole Pellegrini from New Jersey on February 26, 2013:

Fascinating history! Had no idea about these aspects of the Irish dance. Nicely done.

ologsinquito2 (author) on February 26, 2013:

Hi Kristalulabelle84, thank you for reading and for the feedback. I can easily add a video. That's a great idea.

Kristen from Wisconsin on February 26, 2013:

RocketSquids Suggestions/Advice: (Feel free to delete after reading.) I loved the history behind Irish dancing, I found it fascinating! I would suggest added a YouTube video or two of some Irish dancing to add to your lens and to keep readers' attention longer. Fantastic job!

Kristen from Wisconsin on February 26, 2013:

Great and interesting information! I really enjoyed reading!

ologsinquito2 (author) on February 26, 2013:

Thanks for reading pyngthyngs. The Irish suffered a lot for their faith.

pyngthyngs on February 25, 2013:

I had not heard the tradition of the tap dancing to alert the church-goers of British tyrants. Very interesting.

ologsinquito2 (author) on February 25, 2013:

Hi RoseGrace and Vineliner, thank you so much for visiting and for commenting.

Rosanna Grace on February 25, 2013:

Very informative! Thank you : )

Hal Gall from Bloomington, IN on February 25, 2013:

I always wondered why they danced like that. Very Interesting lens!

ologsinquito2 (author) on February 25, 2013:

Hi, thank you for stopping by and for reading and for helping out a new member. Yes, they definitely need to be changed and I will do that.

Mary Beth Granger from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA on February 25, 2013:

A Rocket Squid tip for sure to change the titles on your modules. These two need to be changed: Text with Big Picture and New Guestbook Comments. Perhaps for the guestbook you might consider asking a question like "Have you ever seen Irish dancing?" You have some interesting material here. Feel free to delete this comment after reading.

ologsinquito2 (author) on February 25, 2013:

Hi Linda,

Thank you for visiting and for commenting. This is a fun form of dance to watch.

linsm76 on February 24, 2013:

Another name is the River Dance. I love to watch this dance. Saw it live years ago at the Community College of Philadelphia.

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