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Why Irish Dancers Don't Move Their Arms

Updated on June 4, 2016

How this unusual form of dance evolved

Irish step dancing is a unique form of artistic expression. The dancers do not move their arms, at least in the more traditional form of step dancing.

Elaborate steps are made with just the legs, and it's primarily the lower legs that generate the most movements. Some of these steps are very intricate, often leaving you wondering just how these contortions are possible.

A dancer's arms are held flat at her side, and her upper body is stiff as a board. Why is that?

Flickr Photo by Dave Dugdale

Some history of Irish Dance

No one is really sure why this form of dance evolved the way it did. But I like my daughter's Irish step-dance teacher's explanation. Before every recital the teacher would give a 10-minute talk on the history of Ireland and Irish step-dancing. She concluded with talk with, "If you're lucky enough to be Irish, then you're lucky enough."

Anyway, the teacher is a devout Catholic and according to her account, Ireland was once a strongly Catholic country. The priests at one time had a great deal of influence and people listened to them. Step dancing was permitted, as it also served a spiritual purpose.

But there were a few stipulations. First and foremost, the dancing could not be suggestive. And the clothing had to be modest, with skirts well below the knee. So this is why the girls started dancing with their arms held to their sides like two boards. Any form of hip swaying was not allowed either.

I suspect the dancing costumes worn a few generations ago in Ireland were a little different than what we see now. The skirts probably fell way below the knees and sleeveless costumes would have been unheard of.

Sterling Silver Ghillies and Irish step dancer - Remember your dancer's earliest years

This sterling silver charm depicts the "ghillies," which are the soft-soled shoes all new dancers wear for their first recital. Typically it takes years to graduate to hard-toed Irish step-dancing shoes. Your little girl will love the "ghillies" charm and also the sterling silver Irish step dancer.

Irish dancer.
Irish dancer.

Irish Step Dancing Protected Catholics

My daughter's teacher also explained how Irish step-dancing helped preserve the Catholic faith in Ireland, as the Church suffered intense persecution at various times in the country's history.

During the 1600's, for instance, there was something known as Irish Penal Laws. This made it illegal to practice one's Catholic faith. This was also the era of Oliver Cromwell, a rabid Catholic hater who oversaw the assassinations of many priests and nuns. Cromwell also deported many lay Catholics to remote Irish outposts and to the Caribbean.

Therefore, it was sometimes necessary to celebrate the Mass underground, in the lowest level of a village house. While Mass was being offered, several children would be dispatched to stand at the edge of the property to watch for British soldiers. If soldiers were spotted, the little scouts would run inside and tap a message with their feet to alert the worshipers on the lower level.

If the soldiers happened to arrive at the home, they'd find children dancing in the house, while everyone else scurried to hide all evidence that a Mass was taking place.

I do wonder if the soldiers eventually caught on, after finding so many children dancing on Sunday mornings.

Did the dance teacher have her facts right? I don't know, and I have no way of checking, but her story makes a certain amount of sense.

Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick's Day

Your dancer will love this beautiful Christmas tree ornament or St. Patrick's Day ornament.

Have you ever watched an Irish step-dancing show?

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    • flycatcherrr profile image

      flycatcherrr 3 years ago

      Celtic dancing is alive and well in my part of Canada, but I must say I never thought about why the dancers don't move their arms. That's a fascinating historical tidbit, about the children tapping out a warning to hidden Catholics with their dancing toes!

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 4 years ago

      Hi LiteraryMind,

      Thanks for visiting.

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 4 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      I never even thought about why the dancers don't move their arms until now.

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
      Author

      ologsinquito2 4 years ago

      Hi John,

      Thank you for visiting. I am not that familiar with Scottish dance. I didn't know the girls hold their arms up. I'm not positive the Church is the reason Irish dancers don't move their bodies much, but it is the explanation given by my daughter's dance teacher.

    • JohnTannahill profile image

      John Tannahill 4 years ago from Somewhere in England

      I think you're probably right about the explanation being the Catholic Church, but I'm not absolutely sure what it was. My understanding is that it was a way to 'clean up' dance and remove any suggestiveness, as you said. There's a lot in common with traditional Scottish dancing but the Scots girls hold their arms up high, there's a lot more spinning around the upper legs move much more.

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 4 years ago

      Hi Erin,

      Thank you for visiting. Yes, the dresses have gotten a lot shorter and there is a more beauty pageant feel to these shows. I'd love to see the dresses fall below the knee again.

    • Erin Mellor profile image

      Erin Mellor 4 years ago from Europe

      The dresses have got much shorter and more 'bling' over the last 40 years, and there's more of a beauty pageant feel these days. Perhaps having a screen above waist level so the judges only assessed dancing leg action would be a fun development.

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 4 years ago

      Hi FlowerChick,

      Thanks for your feedback.

    • LauraHofman profile image

      Laura Hofman 4 years ago from Naperville, IL

      Yes I have...They are so talented and well choreographed.

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 5 years ago

      Hi cmadden,

      Thank you for stopping by. I've never seen a professional Irish step dance troupe, just the children. But even these are interesting.

    • profile image

      cmadden 5 years ago

      I've only seen step dancing on television - would love to see a performance in person!

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 5 years ago

      Hi Maureen,

      Thank you for visiting and for commenting. Your name certainly sounds Irish.

    • MaureenCee profile image

      MaureenCee 5 years ago

      Yes I have.Sometime in the last year I came across a contest of Irish dancing which was the lead up to the grand final of the dancing year and it was absolutely fascinating to watch. The dresses and the steps and the time it had taken these dancers to get where they were was enthralling so count me in.

      Having Irish heritage and living so far away I tend to grasp at anything Irish I can get.

      Thanks so much for a wonderfully interesting lens.

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 5 years ago

      Hi takkhis,

      Thanks for stopping by an for commenting. I really liked your red panda lens.

    • takkhisa profile image

      Takkhis 5 years ago

      Yes, I have watched step-dancing! Very interesting indeed :)

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 5 years ago

      Hi artbyrodriguez, thank you so much for reading and for commenting.

    • artbyrodriguez profile image

      Beverly Rodriguez 5 years ago from Albany New York

      I love the Irish step-dancing. Thanks for all the great information.

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 5 years ago

      Hi Melaniekaren,

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • MelanieKaren profile image

      Melanie Wilcox 5 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      I've always like Irish step-dancing -and with men too. I had no idea how it developed. Thanks for sharing.

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 5 years ago

      Hi Kiwinana71,

      Thank you for the kind words. I liked my daughter's teacher's explanation as well. The teacher was a real spark plug - 100 percent Irish American and a red head.

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 5 years ago from New Zealand

      I enjoyed your lens very much. It is the first time I have heard why irish dancers don't move their arms, and until I saw the title of your lens, I haven't thought about it, but I like how your daughter's teacher explained it so until I hear different I will consider your version right. Looking forward to your next lens.

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 5 years ago

      Hi Sockii, thanks for visiting and thanks for the link to the instructional module.

    • sockii profile image

      Nicole Pellegrini 5 years ago from New Jersey

      RocketSquid tip - feel free to delete after reading! You might want to use html to link your photo credits back to their sources. For more info here's a great simple tutorial: http://www.squidoo.com/linking-tips#module2118466

    • sockii profile image

      Nicole Pellegrini 5 years ago from New Jersey

      Fascinating history! Had no idea about these aspects of the Irish dance. Nicely done.

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 5 years ago

      Hi Kristalulabelle84, thank you for reading and for the feedback. I can easily add a video. That's a great idea.

    • kristalulabelle profile image

      Kristen 5 years ago from Wisconsin

      RocketSquids Suggestions/Advice: (Feel free to delete after reading.) I loved the history behind Irish dancing, I found it fascinating! I would suggest added a YouTube video or two of some Irish dancing to add to your lens and to keep readers' attention longer. Fantastic job!

    • kristalulabelle profile image

      Kristen 5 years ago from Wisconsin

      Great and interesting information! I really enjoyed reading!

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 5 years ago

      Thanks for reading pyngthyngs. The Irish suffered a lot for their faith.

    • pyngthyngs profile image

      pyngthyngs 5 years ago

      I had not heard the tradition of the tap dancing to alert the church-goers of British tyrants. Very interesting.

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 5 years ago

      Hi RoseGrace and Vineliner, thank you so much for visiting and for commenting.

    • Rosanna Grace profile image

      Rosanna Grace 5 years ago

      Very informative! Thank you : )

    • vineliner57 profile image

      Hal Gall 5 years ago from Bloomington, IN

      I always wondered why they danced like that. Very Interesting lens!

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 5 years ago

      Hi, thank you for stopping by and for reading and for helping out a new member. Yes, they definitely need to be changed and I will do that.

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 5 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      A Rocket Squid tip for you..be sure to change the titles on your modules. These two need to be changed: Text with Big Picture and New Guestbook Comments. Perhaps for the guestbook you might consider asking a question like "Have you ever seen Irish dancing?" You have some interesting material here. Feel free to delete this comment after reading.

    • ologsinquito2 profile image
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      ologsinquito2 5 years ago

      Hi Linda,

      Thank you for visiting and for commenting. This is a fun form of dance to watch.

    • profile image

      linsm76 5 years ago

      Another name is the River Dance. I love to watch this dance. Saw it live years ago at the Community College of Philadelphia.

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