Bringing Europe Home

Ya, Dancer!

English: Girls performing Irish step dancing i...

Image via Wikipedia

While you’re drinking that green beer this weekend, pay attention to the entertainment.  Those step dancers are athletes and artists, keeping alive the grand tradition of the Emerald Isle.


Irish dance is not only a tradition that dates back to the 15th century in Ireland–it is a competitive sport.  Dancers will compete in hard shoe and soft shoe dances (hornpipes, reels, jigs), in teams or solo, at a competition called a feis (pronounced “fesh”).  The plural form of fesh, incidentally, is feiseanna, not “feshes” or even “fish,” although I never was comfortable actually saying the word “feiseanna.”  Those who qualify will go on to a regional competition, called oireachtas, and qualifiers there go on to compete at the World Championships.  Irish step dancing is distinct in that the dancer’s legs and feet will tap, toe, leap, and hop at often astonishing speeds, while the dancer’s upper body is held rigid.  This dance form gained worldwide popularity through the show Riverdance (which itself developed when a group of Irish dancers performed during “European Song Contest,” something akin to “Europe’s Got Talent,” with countries vying for the prize).



We literally did bring this one home. My daughter saw some high-school Irish dancers when we lived in Germany, and she was captivated. She began taking lessons with a dance school in Munich and continued when we moved back to the States. I soon learned that it would have been more economical to buy her a horse. There is more to this than just the dancin’!

Each school has its own competition dress (or a tie, perhaps, for boys–lucky boys), made in the school colors and embellished with embroidered Celtic designs.

As dancers advance in the ranks, they must have their own “solo” or “competition” dresses, which are often custom-made. These dresses all follow the same basic form, but they are usually richly decorated and vary greatly in the details. (By the way–does anyone want to buy a competition dress??!)

Irish dancing is HUGE here in the States. Much like ants at a picnic, (no offense, dancers), this subculture of dancers goes quite undetected until someone finally looks around and realizes they’re everywhere!! A feis in the States will cap at anywhere from 800 to 1500 competitors. (So multiply that times the entourage of parents, grandparents, bouncy curly wigs, clicky tap shoes and soft ballet shoes, sparkly dresses, and vendors, and imagine those 800-1500 dancers practicing leaps, steps and footwork across any coveted smidgen of floor space, while jigs and reels and sea shanties are played constantly on fiddles and accordions at the stages, and you have a vague idea of a feis.) On any given weekend, I would wager, there will be a feis taking place somewhere in the U.S. Find one near you, and you will have introduced yourself to a cultural treasure.

Irish dancers’ shoes take a beating and so do their feet. So if you happen across some Irish dancers while you’re out this weekend celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at a bar or parade or local festive venue, raise a glass and give them a hand–they deserve it.



  1. Bonita Babe

    Just looking at those shoes makes my toes hurt!! But, those dresses are sure classy!!

    • You’re right, Babe, the shoes don’t lie. And the dresses are incredible. One of my favorite things about attending those feiseanna was admiring all of those dresses!

  2. Lisa

    Great Blog, Robin … My daughter is an Irish Dancer, as well. So, I loved what you had to say. Enjoy St. Patty’s!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Lisa! We’ll be watching for step dancers this year. 🙂

  3. connie20

    Hey Robin!
    I’m so glad you chose to do your St. Patty’s Day blog on Irish Dancing! You did a wonderful job, as usual. If I could add my two cents, though, the common competative dances (reel, slip jig, treble jig, and hornpipe) only last about a minute or a couple seconds more. It’s an unbelievably long minute for dancers! Group and performance dances can be longer… maybe around 3 to 5 minutes per song?
    Anyways, I hope you have a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day and enjoy the dancing! 🙂

    • Thank you for the clarification, Connie. I guess that “1 minute” of solo dancing always felt at least like three to me, and I was only watching! And I’m glad that someone in the know likes the dancing blog–that means a lot to me! Happy St. Patrick’s Day to you, too 🙂

  4. It is quite an astonishing feat of athleticism, it wears me out just to watch it. Very impressive though, I must admit.

    • It truly is! The solo dancers will be on stage for only about 3 minutes for a competitive dance, but that three minutes is about as exhausting as running 3 miles.

      • A full 3 minutes of that sort of caper sounds completely exhausting. I think I need a lie down.

        • Yes, lie down and watch a video of “Lord of the Dance.”



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