Basics: All Irish dance consists of repeated phrases of 16 measures, generally 8 measures led by the right foot followed by 8 measures led by the left. Individual dancers include reels, jigs and hornpipes and each school teaches its own variations of these dances (so an individual reel will vary depending on where the dancer trained and advanced dancers may choreograph their own versions). Group dances called figure dances or céilí include groups of 4, 6, or 8 dancers and are standardized for competition (so the 4-hand reel will always look the same, no matter where the dancers were trained).
Competitive Irish step dancing takes place at gatherings called feis, with individual prizes awarded for as many as a dozen styles at several different levels of experience. Dances vary based on the type of shoe worn: soft shoes (or ghillies) and hard shoes. In competitive dancing, costumes mark a dancer’s level of attainment: the right to wear hair extensions, bibs, and the more fancied dresses is earned through competitive success.
Most competitive step dancing is accompanied by traditional Irish music, but advanced dancers also will dance unaccompanied. When live music is used as the accompaniment, it will include musical instruments typical to a trad session – particularly a fiddle, Irish flute or tin whistle, guitar, mandolin, and bodhran.
Reel: The most basic individual dance, set to 4/4 or 2/2 time, with an emphasis on the first and third beat in every measure. Dancers wear soft shoes in reels.
Hornpipe: Similar to a reel, but dancers wear hard shoes.
Jig: An individual dance set to 6/8 time, with emphasis on the first and fourth beat in every measure. A jig may be danced with either hard or soft shoes. There are many different variations of jigs that use different time signatures (e.g. a “slip jig”, which used a 9/8 time signature) and rhythm combinations.
Céilí or Figure Dance: Coordinated figure dances with multiple dancers. Popular examples are the 4- and 8-hand reel, the 8-hand jig, St Patrick’s Day, and Bonfire Dance.