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.

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.

Sources: B. Anderson. Imagined Communities. (New York, 2006), F. Hall. Competitive Irish Dance: Art, Sport, Duty. (Madison, 2008), E. Hobswarm. The Invention of Tradition. (New York, 1983), and F. Whelan. The Complete Guide to Irish Dance. (Belfast, 2000).