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
As dance spread, the Gaelic League increased regulation. According to the Irish Dancing Commission’s website, the League established in 1927 a subcommittee of dancing, which was later renamed the Irish Dance Commission. Between 1932 and 1933, the Irish Dance Commission organized competitions and registered dance teachers and adjudicators.The Commission published three books on Irish dance figures and created an examination to certify teachers.
The books asserted they had the authority to determine what authentic Irish dance was. During the middle of the century, the Irish Dance Commission tried to contain dance to Ireland. Whelan wrote, “Up to 1950 most of the Irish Dance Commission’s activities were confined to Ireland.”
This didn’t stop those in the diaspora who wanted to dance. The Irish Dancing Commission’s website wrote that occasional visitors to Dublin from America and Australia qualified as teachers after passing the exam. After discussion with oversea organizations, the Irish Dance Commission examiners held tests in America (1967), England (1969), and Australia (1969). They made certification more accessible for dancers across the globe.
Irish American interest in dance increased. Dorothea Hast wrote in her work “Music, dance, and community: Contra dance in New England,” “Fanned by the impetus of the American Bicentennial, sub cultural groups . . . began looking for their own ‘ethnic’ means of cultural representation.” Irish Americans used dance to identify with their heritage.
Dance also helped cement the Irish American community. Dancers saw themselves as continuing tradition. Hast continued, “The fellowship which results from the dancers’ experiences of transcendence, repetition, and ‘habit memory’ can lead to loyalty which in turn leads to a sense of community.” These friendships contributed to the Irish American community.
In the late twentieth century the world was changing. Whelan wrote that the Troubles in Northern Ireland had a severe impact on dance. Dancer and teacher Anna McCoy from Belfast had founded a famous Irish dance team. During the Troubles, dancers found it difficult to travel to class. This led to a collapse in Irish dance there.
Despite the obstacles, Irish dance increased in popularity around the globe. The Irish Dancing Commission’s website wrote there was a growing call for an international competition. The first World Irish Dancing Championship was held in Dublin in 1969. The event’s location, the same city as the Irish Dance Commission’s headquarters, demonstrated the Commission’s position of authority. The World Irish Dancing Championships are still going strong and have been held in several Irish and American cities.
As dance gained popularity and spread throughout the diaspora, tension developed over authenticity. In the diaspora dance helped maintain a connection with the motherland and structure Irish communities. Facilitating teacher certification and the World Championships helped ease the tension, which is beneficial because step dance does not show any sign of slowing down.