Many years ago my daughter Emma was entered in one of the dance categories of the Jersey Eisteddfod. She practised her ballet-based piece of work for weeks beforehand and, on competition night, she pulled it off perfectly. Three little girls performing bog standard Irish jigs took the three prizes.
Traditional Irish step dance has its origins in the 1700s when dance masters travelled the country teaching the dances. These visits were apparently very popular with the townsfolk as they represented a chance to have a bit of a party.
In 1893 the Gaelic League was formed. This was a kickback against colonial oppression and the perceived anglicisation of Irish culture. As well as promoting indigenous Irish sports, the League standardised step dance in the country and re-branded it Irish dance.
In 1935 the Public Dance Halls Act effectively confined dancing to Catholic-controlled dance halls. The style of dancing thus remained isolated from outside influences. It continued to be a rather formal and chaste affair, arms stiffly by side, upper torso rigid. Girls and women wore colourfully embroidered velvet dresses, boys and men kilts, though dark trousers started to become accepted. The Irish Dancing Commission retained strict rules concerning the teaching of Irish dance, and the rules of competition were unbending.
The Eurovision Song Contest was held in 1994 at the Point Theatre (now the 3Arena) in Dublin. Ireland were hosting the contest as the previous year’s winners. The national broadcaster RTE televised the show across the continent. During the intermission half way through the contest a dance performance took place. Those seven minutes revolutionised the perception of Irish dance. Riverdance, fronted by American-born champion dancers Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, took everyone’s breath away. It was sensational. Irish dance was suddenly a theatrical performance. It was energetic, freed from convention, progressive, sexy, smiley. The costumes were now light, modern, sequinned, allowing freedom of movement. It perfectly captured the mood of modern Ireland and the Celtic Tiger years.
Irish dance expanded worldwide, outside its heartland and those of Irish descent worldwide. Riverdance became a full-length show which is still touring the world 26 years later. Flatley broke away to run his own shows. If you’ve never seen Lord of the Dance, it is still touring. If you can’t see it live then it’s worth 90 minutes of your life to watch it here, with Flatley himself.
And, I understand anyway, back at non-theatrical competition level, the judges now accept innovation as part of the evolution of this ancient dance form.