I Was a Teenage Irish Stepdancer! Or, A Few Notes on Irish Stepdancing That I’ve Been Meaning to Write Down for Years Now

Michael Flatley in "Feet of Flames" wearing leather trousers.
STOP! Did someone in the audience call Irish Dancing FOLK DANCING? We will show our displeasure through this interpretive Treble Reel!

I am a former Irish Dancer.

I do not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

(But you can! And I love you for it.)

Today will be a day of quiet and rest for me.

Because every St. Patrick’s Day of my childhood, youth, and young adult years felt like an eternity.

And in some ways—it was.

For seventeen years’ worth of St. Patrick’s Days, I performed without pay (because I was still an amateur competitor) starting at 6 a.m. on the 17th and ending somewhere around 3 a.m. on the 18th. This was expected of me, and sometimes I enjoyed it.

Typically, there was some driving and waiting around between shows, and we had some sort of long dinner break around six p.m. to just before eight o’clock.

But, from eight p.m. to three or four the next morning, we’d begin performing again at this large restaurant/bar with a teeny stage. Hour after hour.

This audience loved us more than the other eighteen or nineteen other audiences of the day put together because this audience was really, really, really drunk.

Enough time has lapsed that I don’t feel nearly so grouchy about St. Patrick’s Day.

I’ve got three things I’ve been wanting to say for years.

And I finally feel ready to share these thoughts with you.

1) Irish Dancing is not folk dancing.

The steps are as new as hip-hop, or any other contemporary dance form. In the world of Irish stepdancing, people come out with new ways to move every year.

In folk dancing the steps and the music do not change. Ever. No one adds new movements and you dance to a specific time signature. Typically in a costume of clothes that people in the old country wore for celebrations.

Irish stepdancing has one folk dance equivalent.

There are four plodding “set dances” with slooo-ooow hard shoe steps that every dancer has to learn. We had to do them in competition. I don’t think the generation that’s competing now has to use them at all, but I could be wrong.

Learning the “Trad. sets” helps you appreciate the modern swift-changing form that Irish step dancing has always been, and will always be. It’s also a way for adjudicators to line up four competitors stripped of their fancy choreography and see, in one flick of the eyes, whether the dancers have correct form, timing, and style.

The rest of the dances you encounter are a horn o’plenty of reels and jigs and hornpipes of the soft and hard shoe variety. More bounty: Each soloist will have their own choreography made up of many different steps in combination.

Some of those steps will be new. In the “no one has moved their feet that way in Irish Dancing before I just saw you do it right now” school of newness.

Now, let’s talk about those new steps in Irish Stepdancing.

Where do new steps come from? How do new steps get passed around?

Someone does some cool new thing on stage at the World Championships, and every big competitor and their teachers sees the step, and they steal it.

That original competitor will place no higher than third because brand new steps are not acceptable. Last year’s new step is okay. And everyone is required to do the new step from four years ago with the double-Swiss variation.

But for that first guy: Woe to ye who thought it was a good idea to bring that step to Worlds!

Next year, everyone’s using his new step in their winning solo.

The following year, someone will add three extra somethings to the new step, a movement defying both physics and human anatomy. Gasps all around. And all the teachers and all the dancers steal the souped-up version of the step.

We’ve all got to learn to do the quadruple-doohickey the year after that. It’s become standard for your level of competition.

In the meantime, a dancer and her teacher have come out with “the Swan” which is a crosskey done backwards with a flick both ways, and a boy in a dance school in Killarney just added three twists to it.

That’s what we get to learn next year for our competitions. I hope your kneecaps are double jointed!

2) It’s not called “Riverdancing.” That’s a show.

Irish stepdancing as culture goes way past Michael Flatley. What Flatley (and Marie Duffy and about ten others) did, is loosen up some of the rules of performance.

To be fair, Riverdance was such a phenomenon, former champions were finally able to make a non-competition, non-teaching career out of Irish Dance. Dance teachers were able to fill all their student slots, and probably for the first time, keep a waiting list of would-be students.

However, Flatley created some unfortunate precedents for female dancers— he created a thin body culture Irish Dancing didn’t have and didn’t need.

Before Riverdance, some of the best “power competitors” were built like Muhammad Ali, and they had his considerable physical grace too. I once nearly cried watching this muscular dancer perform. She was a rather famous World Champion, and she was doing things my body would never be able to do.

So there’s that.

With the new “thin” Irish Dance culture, came the weirdly dichotomous femininity—also a Flatley specialty—in which you were either a withering swan or this naughty, naughty girl.

Luckily, I was heading for the exit by then. I had a university degree and I was going off to graduate school.

I didn’t have an interest in dressing up as one of Flatley’s female chorus members: Three wigs sewn together to make one super-wig, six slickery coats of spray tan, and a beauty pageant tiara, all tied together visually by a dress made from wisps of fresh Irish mist.

Male dancers had it worse. I don’t even know what to say about those “masculine” leather pants Flatley stuffed his male dancers into for his next show, “Lord of the Dance,” but I can tell you those pants looked damned uncomfortable. And so did the performers wearing them.

I said I was heading towards the exit. Check that. I was sprinting.

As I wrapped up my solo career, women in any audience got in the habit of grabbing at my solo costume (worth more than my first car) and, yes, weeping because they loved Riverdancing so much.

To be fair, it was HUGE at the time. Commercials. Specials on PBS. Some people really identified with this show. I felt bad for these women and their genuine gigantic feelings for Michael Flatley, and Irish Dance, and me, who they thought danced just like Michael Flatley, and should be in Riverdance, but all of it really freaked me out.

So I thanked them and I thanked them, and gently removed their hands from the only new solo dress I ever owned.

For the record— I wouldn’t have made the first round of cuts for the corps of any of the three touring Riverdance shows. I wasn’t good enough and that was fine by me. (No super-wig!)

If you are out and about today, for goodness’ sakes don’t call it Riverdancing. Irish dancers get really ticked about this, but they’re too polite to say anything—usually because you’re all so nice and earnest and genuinely heartfelt that no one wants to correct you.

Nor should they. Dancing for an enthusiastic audience is one of the most visceral pleasures of an Irish dancer’s life.

After more than a decade out of my ghillies*, I can afford to be frank this once. (No super-wig!)

3) This is going to blow your mind, but the national color of Ireland until late in the 20th century was actually blue.

This national color was about three to six different colors of blue because various groups in the two countries that make up Ireland couldn’t decide which blue was the right blue, so instead of picking one, they named a bunch of them St. Patrick’s Blue and called it a day.

It naturally follows that the flag that represents St. Patrick—(There are three of him too!)— is a carefully chosen symbol called the “Saltire of St. Patrick” and also the “Standard of St. Patrick.” (Though there’s fighting about that, also. Lots of history of fighting over stuff in Ireland.)

Then it certainly is at all points logical that this St. Patrick’s flag, or Saltire, or Standard is, in fact, colored bright red and blinding white with no blue to speak of whatsoever.

Today, I will not be watching a bunch of St. Patricky things on TV or singing any of those songs about “a ragtag rambling rover from Donegal who wore a black band in his Guinness black hair” or any other Irish tune stuck in my head until always. I will never, ever wax nostalgic about what it was like to be an Irish Dancer because there is always this:

My stress dreams involve Irish dancing. Every time. And that’s enough to keep me from pulling out my last pair of unbroken Rutherfords* and strapping them on for ‘ould times’ sake.

Because late next week, when I’m worried about something, I’ll be looking for those damned hard shoes in my dreams as the PA is announcing the callbacks in a competition I’m in.

While I’m frantically peeking under chairs for my shoes, a lady with a fixation for Riverdance will grab at my costume and rip it— massive points off for me. And I’ll get to the stage and remember that on orange days cats don’t wear garbage cans. They wear St. Patrick’s Blue, or nothing at all.


*soft shoes, or ghillies, are what female dancers wear. They’re also called poms for some reason, and most likely, six newer names I haven’t heard yet. Male dancers wear soft shoes as well. Those shoes don’t have nicknames at all.

**a brand of hard shoe. Irish dancing has hard shoes and soft shoes for both men and women.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photograph of Michael Flatley in his Marie Duffy co-choreographed production, “Feet of Flames,” was made available by the photographer MaxGuy and by Wikimedia Commons.

This post was originally published on March 17, 2013.

33 thoughts on “I Was a Teenage Irish Stepdancer! Or, A Few Notes on Irish Stepdancing That I’ve Been Meaning to Write Down for Years Now”

    1. Thank you so very much, Philosopher Mouse of the Hedge! I was so afraid to talk about Irish Dance because it is a closed world that values its privacy.

      But I realized something, Philosopher Mouse— that world was also my world for nearly 20 years. It belonged to me too, right?

      It was time to have a laugh, I think. Thanks again– you’ve made my day!

    2. It is a secret world behind the curtain – like in ballet or Olympic gymnastics. A very cool post.
      You have a great way with words.
      Had to tell a few others today about some of your post…(we all agree, no one thought about it before, but the leather pants are probably a real issue!)
      Enjoyed the trip through wonderland!

    3. I think the comparison to ballet/gymnastics is so apt. I wish there were more gymnastics documentaries. There are loads of ballet docs now. I can’t bring myself to watch Jig!, which is the Irish Dancing documentary. People have talked on and off about the need for a good Irish Dancing doc. for years.

      Oh, thank you so much for the compliment. And thank you for sharing this post!

      Those leather pants have bothered me for years— I come from the generation who ended up wearing these velvet (polyester) costumes covered with Celtic embroidery that made popular by competitors in Ireland. They are great when you live in a city with cold weather, but when you live in a hot place (like I do), these costumes are a heatstroke risk. We took to wearing opaque camisoles under ours so we could unzip the top of the costumes off stage to keep from passing out. So, that’s why I looked at that leather and thought— no way. Not with stage lights.

      Here’s what I thought later that evening— Weren’t all those little leathery lords covered in bodybuilder’s grease also (or whatever its called?) to make their muscles, um, glisten or something? Is that stuff petroleum based? If so, that would mean that even the exposed parts of their torso couldn’t breathe. Were you to add some stage makeup (latex-based, most of it) to the mix, that leaves the scalp to cool off an entire human body using near-superhuman dance skills. How did they *not* pass out?

    1. I hope that’s a good thing, Kate! One thing to know about the Irish Dancing world is that the greatest pleasure of all Irish Dancers is when you lose yourself in their performance. It makes practicing at home for five hours a day more than worth it.

      The stuff I mentioned in this piece has to do with according the hardest working dance form in show business its proper due.

      It also has to do with attempting to track a dance form that can be progressive (new steps, new styles, new music), and arbitrarily strict about odd things. For instance, Michael Flatley had his performers get these awful spray tans, a popular item at the time.

      A few years later, Irish Dance competitors (teens and up) were required to get spray tans too. It was an innovation, then a fashion, then a rule. You’d do it because you don’t want appearance points knocked off your score.

    2. I’ve watched these dancers live and I saw Riverdance at least once. I am in awe of the speed and precision. It is really beautiful to watch. I didn’t even notice the thinness (guess I figured if you do this enough you can’t possible weigh much) or the spray tans!

    3. I think its an amazing dance form!

      One thing you may not have seen in the post-Flatley dance world, is that dancers used to do these slower pieces where they would slide on their feet forward into a crossed leg, and sloo-ooowly rock their ankles from one side to the other without falling over. There are things that are hard about dancing fast, and there are things that are hard about dancing with slow. In the first, the precision you mentioned is the key thing. In the second, you need absolute muscle control. We used to do both fast and slow jigs. The effect was often stunning.

      *Sigh* The weight thing chapped my hide. I know why and how a smaller body type ended up getting picked— it tends to look more uniform in a lineup. But Irish Dancing was amazing because it was so hard and because each body type could bring some specific glamour to the steps.

      One of my first assignments as a features writer was to interview the original creators and producers of the show by phone, sans El Flatley, who had gone on to create Lord of the Dance. They were lovely.

      But, I was scheduled to review that touring show two days later. Because I had mentioned my background as a dancer, word came down somehow to someone working that show to move me to a poor seat for the performance and lessen my ability to see the dancer’s feet.

      This is what I was told.

      My local handler moved me back to the original seating arrangement. Great show.

  1. Hee hee. I’ve had the privilege of hearing some of these stories ’round the Bluebird campfire before, but the weeping Riverdance fanatics grabbing at your solo costume is a new one. Hysterical image.

    1. *Grins*. You know some of the funny ones. Ah, we’ll talk later tonight, okay?

      Irish dancers went all those years without recognition, so when it got massive enthusiastic audiences who weren’t originally fans of Irish Dance or Irish music, some of us didn’t know how to handle it. These new fans were focused on one single show, “Riverdance.”

      I had danced in front of audiences of 2,000 or more before this phenomenon, but those were Irish Dancing fans, a different different because they knew whether you were any good or not and gaged their response accordingly.

      The new fans loved everything indiscriminately at first. I’m sure they’re experts now.

      Much worse than an enthusiastic Riverdance fan were the endless parade of uncoordinated drunks. Every year during the height of the St. Patrick’s Day evening shows, one of us would end up with a beer dumped on her costume or a cigarette burn hole in her sleeve.

      The fashion for the male dancers in those years were Irish kilts of traditional solid colored broadcloth and a million swinging knife pleats. Drunk women would try to grab the hem of a kilt and flip it up. Nothing to see, really— all dancers wear dance underwear to match their costume, men included.

  2. -blush- I loved Riverdance – especially the music and the hard shoe numbers. I had a CD of the music and it went in the car with me for years. I can understand your … ambivalence towards irish dancing though. Hope you had a relaxing day!

    1. Oh no! It’s okay for you to love Riverdance! I had that CD too! Someone gave it to me when I was teaching. It was nice to set things to big orchestral numbers with time changes.

      I was supposed to spend the day blissfully napping, which is what I do every year now, but instead, I had four hours of sleep because I decided at the last minute the night before to change out the post I had written for this piece I’ve been trying to write for years. I worked until 6 a.m., rolled out at 11, and got right back on the computer. In other words, I might as well have spent St. Patrick’s Day dancing. (No super-wig, though!)

      To be honest, I hope it’s clear that I do not like St. Patrick’s Day, but Irish Dancing? You can’t do something for 17 years and then suddenly hate it. (I took three classes a week and I practiced every day for anywhere from an 1 hour to 5 hours.) I love it, but I didn’t like its new direction post-Riverdance— I could get into the specifics of the competition choreography changes and the lax rules about carriage and turnout, but it doesn’t seem helpful.


    2. Okay, all of my costumes were secondhand. Let me find a good representative of what those generally looked like.

      (I have so few pictures of me dancing because a bunch got stolen when I was in college. My mother has more, but I need to make some calls because there are TONS of them out there. Somewhere. I know some fantastic Irish Dance photographers.)

    3. Wait, here’s a quick photo essay in the New York Times of the 2012 World Championships (in Belfast that year). I love how this teacher dressed up to match his championship dancers. That’s serious solidarity.

    4. My last dress was similar to this one. Mine is blue-green velvet with orange red and white and… I can’t remember the color of the embroidery! Mine didn’t have that lamé edging the shawl. The kick-lining (that’s what kicks up with your leg) was goldenrod satin with matching dance pants.

      Also, the skirt of my dress was shorter and the skirt was much stiffer, so that it would kick out properly when I leapt. I had short bobbed dyed black hair most of the time, too. I slapped a crocheted headband on my hair. It didn’t take curl well when I was young.

    5. It was lovely. I was so proud. Thank you, Meeka! They were meant to retain folk roots, which is why there still isn’t much variation on the style of the dress itself— the close neckline and long sleeves puts focus on the embroidery and the dancer’s legs.

      But then you’d have stylistic variations like the period where, instead of one stiff front panel, there’d be two, side-by-side like doors. When the dancer kicked an inverted pleat inside the side-by-side pleats was revealed; it was also embroidered.

      The secondhand costumes I wore for years were not velvet but broadcloth, and they were these strange color combinations that were meant to be eye-catching, but they certainly didn’t catch my eye.

      I shouldn’t complain— I had a costume. (A solo costume was required for pre-champions and champions.)

    6. Please ask you mother for those photos! I’d love to see you in your solo costume. Better yet, do you have any photos or videos of you dancing?

  3. Man I used to think Michael Flatley was the coolest man on Earth when I was younger, with his oversized white shirts and his many costume changes. I watched Feet of Flames or Lord of the Dance the other day, can’t remember which one exactly, they’re pretty much the same but I couldn’t help but think, “man what a goon.”

    But I thought he was awesome in his day, and I guess he brought real Irish dancing a wider audience by association. I also never noticed how thin all the girls were; the only thing I noticed were the ridic costumes 🙂

    1. IF YOU were young enough, handsome Pete, as I suspect you are— How could you not think him cool? He was larger than life! I don’t think it’s any different than the way many girls my age felt about David Bowie in Labyrinth. But, when you go back to view David Bowie in Labyrinth, you realize he’s got a huge teased mullet, AbFab-worthy eye makeup, and a stockinged body suit.

      Now, if we’re going to be honest with one another, Flatley gets my respect for his world record number of taps… or so I thought. That record does not exist. Crap, I forgot that he had a nasty tendency of “embellishing” things. Here’s the current taps-per-minute record. Check the Guinness archives to see what I mean.

      Oh, you didn’t notice the thin girls, did you? *Grins* BTW, I met Jean Butler in the late eighties when we were both in Milwaukee. She was performing with her teacher Donny Golden with “Green Fields of America,” and I was there for a competition and some workshops. I was running around with all the Irish girls (nice lot) who came to help teach workshops. They were from my teacher’s father’s school.

  4. Wow, thanks ever so much for this personal background piece both about yourself and the Irish dancing, which of course is so removed from my parents’ culture.

    I learned much from this piece. In Vancouver, BC there is a peculiar local celebration that twins Chinese New Year and Robert Burn’s Day (Scottish, I know. Totally different nationality, culture.). There is fusion dance, music. I haven’t gone yet, but here’s a youngster performing:

    I loved this backstage, personal story of yours!!

    1. Oh, thank you, Jean! I’m curious about the cultural lens on Irish Dancing. What would be the most removed aspect from your parents’ culture? I know your mother was pretty taciturn, wasn’t she?

      Oh, Robert Burns Day! There’s a fair amount of Irish/Scottish event sharing if you’re not in one of the big three Irish-American population cities (Boston, Chicago, and New York). I went to many Robert Burn’s Night céilíthe. Well, since it’s a Scottish céilídhs, and it’s plural, the Scottish Gaelic would be cèilídhean.

      I want to go to a Robert Burns’s Day/Chinese New Year cèilidhean!

      Gonna watch your clip now!

      I have been wanting to share this story for ten years. I thought about doing it last year, but… I just didn’t have the heart for it. Jean, my friend, this was a huge leap for me. (Full truth: This story may not go unnoticed. Irish Dancing is a big-small world. I had to be sure I was ready to deal with whatever response turns up on my doorstep from that world.)

    2. Follow up: I am watching the young boy dance the Sailor’s Hornpipe. (That’s the name of this Highland Dance.) And darn it, I’m nearly crying. He’s such a good dancer for being so young. I love the blended costumes. Aw, man! My eyes are tearing up!

      Give me a sec.

      A few things to note about the differences in Scottish Highland Dancing and Irish Stepdancing— Scottish Highland Dance is a folk form of dance, meaning that the steps do not vary, nor does the music. There are competitions for dancers, even championship levels, but to change the step is to create “an illegal move.”

      To call it folk dancing is not to diminish its level of difficulty— on the contrary, all the dances are really difficult both in step and style— it takes a well-trained dancer to make it look easy.

      Besides the use of arms in solo competition dancing and the non-changing steps, the third big difference between Scottish and Irish dance is the form itself.

      In the Highland Dances the foot kicks out from the hip with the toe down. In Irish Step-Dancing, everything is crossed and the feet remain inside the line of the hips. Toes are also pointed down. (Both have the exaggerated arch you see in ballet.)

      The leaps you see in Highland dances have a “spring” to them that is almost perpendicular to the floor if the dancer is staying put. If s/he’s leaping while moving, once again, the foot is going to follow that diagonal hipline. The toe leads the rest of the dancer’s body.

      In Irish Stepdancing, few leaps are done in place, and all jumps have that same crossed feet position. The jumps turn up in all steps, and even the most basic steps are learned low first, then the required jumps where one foot follows another (like a horse jumping a barrel).

      The biggest difference in the movement style is that Scottish Highland dances (and I have been to a LOT of Irish competitions that were also Highland Flings) is that the power in the jump in Highland dances comes from the knee (as does ballet), and in Irish Dancing, it’s the foot pushing off that gives you the height and momentum.

      *Whew* Hope I didn’t bore you, Jean! A number of my close friends and acquaintances when I was growing up competed in Irish Dancing and the Highland Dances, so I got to see lots of the major Highland Dances quite frequently up close!

    3. Thanks for this great expertise, Courtenay. You are an expert and have taught all readers a great deal here.

      As for the fun, crazy annual Gung Haggis Fat Choy –fusion Chinese-Scottish cultural-dinner event around Robbie Burns Day + Chinese New Year’s in Vancouver, B.C., here are some links:

      http://www.gunghaggis.com/2013/03/20/6508/ They were featured in local St. Paddy’s Day parade.



      I think you would greatly enjoy this cultural fusion event. The current, handsome mayor of Vancouver, Gregor Robertson, is of Scottish extraction…and is also a commuting cyclist to City Hall on regular basis to work.

  5. Found this fascinating. We have a wee Irish dancer in our family and enjoy the performances. We took the child to a performance of Lord of the Dance. Two things bothered me – the super skinny women and the sexual content. At one point, a line of women ripped off their dresses and danced in black panties and bras. Ugh! Our little dancer whispered to me, “That’s inappropriate.” Sometimes it takes a small child to see that the Emperor or the Emperor’s dancer are naked or nearly so. I loved the actual dancing and admire their skill and dedication, but I didn’t like the pandering.

    1. Both of the things you mentioned were Michael Flatley specialties—and I am not sure which I found more disturbing then or now— the thinness that was never part of Irish Dance culture before, or the sexual overtones that reinforced stone age gender roles.

      The dancers in Up & Over It had a recent piece about the History of Irish Dance that illustrates what we’re discussing here. But, it’s darkly humored in a v. Irish way, and not for kiddos.

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