Irish dance comes in several forms, which can broadly be divided into social dances and performance dances. Irish social dancing can be divided further into céilí and set dancing, though the boundaries between the two are rather indistinct. Irish set and céilí dances are usually danced by couples arranged into formations (sets); frequently squares of four couples, but many other formations are found, also. Irish social dance is a living tradition, and variations in the way a particular dance is danced are found across the Irish dance community; in some places, dances are deliberatley modified and new dances are written.
Irish performance dancing is usually referred to as stepdance. Irish stepdancing has been recently popularized by the world-famous show Riverdance and its followers. Aside from public dance performances, there are also stepdance competitions in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and North America. Most competitive stepdances are solo dances, though many stepdancers also perform and compete using traditional set and céilí dances.
Irish céilí dance
Irish social, or céilí', dances vary widely throughout Ireland and the rest of the world. A céilí dance may be performed with as few as four people and as many as sixteen. The Irish word "céilí" has no precise English word that means quite the same thing; "party" is the closest English can come. These dances are meant more for socialization and fun than as an athletic and competitive form. But the céilí dances are still fast-paced and may be quite complicated. In a social setting, the céilí may be "called" -- that is, the upcoming steps are announced during the dance for the benefit of newcomers.
Some of the céilí dances are named after the traditional Irish tunes to which they are most-frequently danced, others after the region of Ireland they were developed in, and others indicate the kind of music and/or the sizxe of the dance. Most céilí can be done to any tune of the appropriate time (jig or reel). The céilí dances were heavily influenced by French quadrille dances, and many are danced in the same formation, but many are danced in longways sets or sets of different sizes. Céilí dances are among the ancestors of the North American square dance.
Irish céilí dance is popular in most countries with significant Irish populations, except the Republic of Ireland, where set dancing is far more popular.
Irish set dances
Set dances are folk dances of Ireland based on French quadrilles, with four couples of dancers in a square. Set dances can be in any tempo of music, and sometimes will change from a reel to a jig part-way through. Set dances emphasize fancy footwork more so than ceili dances. Typically, a set dance is not danced all the way through; instead, each section is briefly talked through before dancing it.
The organization Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann promotes and hosts many set dance events.
Irish stepdance is primarily an exhibition dance, and is frequently a competitive dance as well. The production of Riverdance significantly raised the profile of Irish stepdance from its premiere in the Eurovision Song Contest of 1994, and subsequent tours.
Irish solo stepdances fall into two broad categories based on the shoes worn: hardshoe and soft shoe dances.
The terms "reel", "slip jig", "hornpipe", and "jig" and "set dance" refer to different types of dances and to types of tunes in Irish traditional music (and other traditional musics). Reels are tunes either in 2/4 or 4/4 time, with an even phrasing which distinguishes them from hornpipes. Slip jigs are in 9/8 time, and are considered to be the lightest and most graceful of the dances. Hornpipes can be in 2/4 or 4/4 time, with a triplet phrasing which distinguishes them from reels, and are danced in hard shoes. There are three kinds of jigs danced in competition, the light jig, the single jig and the treble (or double) jig. Light and single jigs are in 6/8 time, and are soft shoes dances, while the treble jig is hard shoe, danced in a slow 6/8.
Irish stepdance competition is highly structured, with rules set down by two different organizing bodies, An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha ("The Irish Dancing Commission") and Comhdháil Múinteoirí Na Rincí Gaelacha ("The Congress of Irish Dancing Teachers"). Each body specifies the structure for competitions, which are only open to dancers studying under teachers certified by the organizing body. In general, dance competitions are divided by age levels. Age levels are usually two-year brackets, with the dancer's age bracket being determined by the dancer's age on 1 January of the current year. Within each age group there are rankings which a dancer may advance through by placing well enough in a competition. There are usually four or more rankings available at each age group; dancers in "championship" levels may qualify for regional and national competitions, and dancers who place well enough in regional and national competitions may compete at the World Championships.
Most stepdance competitors are children or young adults; An Coimisiún has separate age brackets for young adults who started competing as children and for adults who started competing as adults; a dancer in the "over 20" age bracket will not compete against dancers in the "Adult" age bracket.
A local competition is called a feis, Irish Gaelic for "festival". An annual regional or national competition is called an Oireachtas, Irish Gaelic for a gathering. (The parliament of the Republic of Ireland is known as the "Oireachtas", for example.)
In a typical competition, dancers may dance solo in up to six traditional dances, using their own (or their teacher's) choreography, and dance in "traditional set dances" and "non-traditional set dances", where the choreography is set by the governing body. There are also "figure dances" (ceili dances), where teams of dancers compete using traditional, and sometimes new, choreography. Competitors dance to live music, and are judged by experienced Irish stepdance teachers, usually from outside the area.