The world of Irish dance - the globalization of traditional Irish dance in the 20th century
Tension between Ireland’s Diaspora and those in the Emerald Isle over the dance’s authenticity
Before “Riverdance” leapt onto the world stage, Irish step dance laid the groundwork. Since dance was a cultural representation, there was pressure to ensure it was an accurate representation of Irish culture. The globalization of Irish dance created tension between Ireland and the Diaspora over authenticity.
Irish step dance was created by the Gaelic League, a nationalist organization created in 1893 to promote Irish culture. The Gaelic League had several branches, including one in London.
Two of its members decided to add a social dimension to the League’s Irish language classes after attending Scottish ‘ceillithe’ nights. The London branch held the first social dance event, called a ceili in 1897.
From here Irish dance played an important role in the structure of Irish communities by helping them preserve their Irish identity.
However, in Ireland, dance was an expression of nationalism.
Competitions were a universally understood method of protest. Eric Hosbwarm wrote in “The Invention of Tradition,” “[Team games] allowed for symbolic expressions of protest in an idiom familiar to both settlers and administrators”. Competitions functioned as a nationalist challenge to British rule, which charged dance with a political agenda.
“Solo step-dancing and an invented social dance form called ceili were combined under the nationalist designation, ‘Irish dancing’”, according to Frank Hall, author of “Competitive Irish Dance: Art, Sport, Duty”.
As ceilis became more popular, dance gained a larger role in the Gaelic League. Frank Whelan wrote in his book “The Complete Guide to Irish Dance,” that formal dance classes started in 1900 which placed Gaelic League teachers in charge and they instructed the now iconic still arms. Helen Brennan, author of “Reinventing Tradition: the Boundaries of Irish Dance” wrote, “[The nationalist movement] sought to modify the native dance style. Arm movements, which had been a feature of Moinin jigs, were suppressed.”
This new style of dance spread through immigration. Immigrants taught their children to stay in touch with their Irish identity. Whelan wrote, the American branch of the Gaelic League organized large competitions in four major cities each year. Dancer Thomas Hill from Ireland said because of standards of excellence and a high number of capable performers, America was leading Ireland in Irish dance.
It was not just Irish Americans who enjoyed Irish dancing. Hall wrote that during the early twentieth century, “[Irish dance] flourished and spread through Irish communities of the diaspora, England, Scotland, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand.”England had a vibrant Irish dance community. As Whelan put it, Irish immigrants felt “it was so important for them to maintain their identity and also to keep close links with their fellow Irish.”
Other countries also had strong dance communities. In Canada, teacher Monica Dunne arrived from Ireland in 1947 and helped organize the dance community by registering teachers and examiners. In Australia, Irish dance was generally taught in Catholic schools. The Queensland Championships were held between 1866 and 1900. Irish dance developed slower in New Zealand because of a smaller Irish population. The first national organized competition was held in 1950.