Irish dancing is a distinctive, often exhilarating form of dance, but it suffers from a number of myths and misconceptions.
So we asked Sandra Ewing, founder of the Mullan School of Irish Dance in southeastern Minnesota and one of only four certified Irish dance instructors in Minnesota, to dispel the fiction and validate the facts about Irish dancing.
- All Irish dancers wear big, bouncy wigs.
“We didn’t have wigs when I was dancing,” Ewing said. “We had our hair curled in sponge rollers. And we’d have to sleep in the rollers the night before. And plastic bits of the rollers dig into our heads.”
Ewing said wigs came into vogue as a result of Irish dance’s growing popularity and the shows people flocked to see. Girls would perform two and three shows a day, forcing them to curl, spray and back-comb their hair repeatedly. And that punishing regimen caused their hair to thin and fall out. So the performers began wearing wigs, a practice that spread to dancing competitions as well. But wearing wigs is not intrinsic to Irish dance.
“That’s absurd. You can’t spot an Irish dancer because they’ve got a wig on,” she said.
- You have to have Irish music to have an Irish dance.
Fact — generally.
When you have Irish dancing, you have Irish music. A festival without Irish dancing is like a smile with no teeth. And with most kinds of Irish music, there is a step that accompanies it.
“When they do Irish dancing, they do it to Irish music,” Ewing said. “And all different types of Irish music. Kids get to recognize the difference between a reel and a slip jig and a jig and a horn pipe (the four most common Irish steps).”
That being said, when she’s teaching a class, Ewing will occasionally mix things up by a bit by playing pop music, such as Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” “There’s the same beat going through it, so we put it nice and loud.”
- You have to be Irish to do Irish dance.
“It doesn’t matter whether some children don’t have any inherent rhythm,” she said. “You have to teach the rhythm to them very, very slowly, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re Irish or Japanese. They either have the rhythm or they don’t, but you can certainly teach it.”
- You can have an Irish fest without Irish dance.
“Gosh, no. Absolutely not,” Ewing said. “It’s so integral to it and the music and the storytelling.”
In fact, dancing is so important to Irish culture and history that back in the 1800s, there used to be dance masters who were experts in the art. And they would go from village to village, teaching Irish dance. And because they were so rare, some villages would kidnap and hold them captive and force them to teach Irish dance. By abducting the dance masters, the villages hoped to get a leg up in the fairs and dancing competitions.
“One village would want to do better than the other village,” Ewing said. “There’s all sorts of things that went on like that.”
- Irish dance is strictly a girls thing.
Ewing said she knows one 15-year-old lad who recently won the world Irish dancing championship. He tells people that Irish dance has not only brought him world acclaim but is a great form of exercise. Another side benefit is that it has made a much better soccer player.
“When they do Irish dance, they have to have that explosive strength in their quads. They’re able to take off very quickly because in all Irish dancing, your legs have to be pistons,” Ewing said. “It really helps with balance. It helps with discipline.”
- Unlike Scottish dancers, Irish dancers keep their arms down by their sides, dancing from the hips down.
In fact, in competitions, a dancer loses points if they move their arms too much. It’s one of the characteristics that makes Irish dancing distinctive: Crossed feet, dancing up on the toes, arms by the side, shoulders back, head looking straight ahead.
Why Irish dancing developed its distinctive style is less clear. Some legends attribute it to the priests, who wielded considerable power in the Catholic country. They disapproved of any movement of the arms, which they viewed as tantamount to inviting the devil. It was too sensual and seductive, Ewing said.
“A less believable story,” Ewing said,” is that Irish dancing developed its unique style as a way to conceal the activity from the priests. A priest might be walking by a home, but he wouldn’t be able to tell whether any dancing was going on inside because the dancers kept their arms by their side.
“That’s obviously ridiculous, but all sorts of stories come out, but the common denominator is it always has to do with the church,” Ewing said.