Irish dance terms

I thought it might be useful to some if I further explained some of the dance terms found in my pattern introductions. These are listed in the order you’ll find them starting with those found in the Light Reel Cowl, rather than alphabetical as I think it’s a bit easier to progress that way. They really aren’t as confusing as they look written out! 


start position = this is the same as ballet’s fifth position; both feet are turned out and the right is in front of the left. The right toes are lined up with the heel of the left foot, and the left toes are lined up with the right heel. When the dancer points their right foot, their right leg extends and crosses over in front of the left leg, their right toe lining up with, or crossing further across, than the left toes. Their weight is resting on the left (back) leg.


7-2-3 and off we go! = aka the count in, especially for a reel or standard jig. Irish dance music consists of reels, jigs, single jigs, slip jigs, and hornpipes. And while the time signatures may differ the counting for them all, except the slip jig (because they’re special), is 1-2-3, 2-2-3, 3-2-3, 4-2-3, 5-2-3, 6-2-3, 7-2-3, and 8-2-3 for one bar of music. (the “and 8” really comes out as one word) Most teachers with students beyond their first year, don’t count every beat out when running through a dance in class however (teaching, possibly, but running the dance or checking it over, next to never for students of more experience), and will often start at the halfway point of the intro bar with 5… 6… 7-2-3 and off you go! (you and we are interchangeable in the starting count). The last part has stuck in the minds of Irish dance students and the phrase has made its way into other aspects of their lives. Not unlike runners who will say “Ready, set, go” when they start something not related to a race.


3s = the most basic of the Irish dance steps. There are two forms: the over-2-3 and the skip-2-3. Everything in Irish dance, be it solos or group dances, starts with the right foot. For the over-2-3, the dancer continues on from start position, and raises their right leg/foot hopping onto it (over), the left foot lands in front (2), and the right does a quick up/down remaining behind (3). The movement is then repeated on the left: left leg/foot up, and hop onto it (over), right foot lands in front (2), and the left does a quick up/down remaining behind (3). These are often continued forwards and backwards, where the over is really a jump with the foot landing in back, over a few bars of music.  

For the skip-2-3, used most often in the group dances (because over-2-3s make it very easy to kick someone across from you; ask me how I know) and when you want to really cover the stage in a solo, it’s started in start position, but there 2 choices right away: a cut or a hop. Usually the cut is done if it’s the beginning of a step or dance. To start with a cut, the right leg is drawn up, bending at the knee, keeping the toe pointed, so the right heel meets the left hip while the dancer does a hop on their left foot/leg. This is done very quickly and the right foot lands in front (skip), the left foot snugs up behind the right foot (2), the right foot moves very slightly up/down to get the last count (3). To continue, the left leg comes up behind, sort of like a flamingo standing, heel meeting the lower bum (ideally), while the dancer hops on their right foot/leg, while also quickly bringing the left leg/foot forward to land in front (skip), the right foot snugs up behind the left foot (2), and the left foot moves very slightly up/down to get the count (3). To continue with the right foot again, the dancer repeats the flamingo stand with the right foot, while hopping on the left foot, etc.

3s are almost always done in sets of pairs (so the dancer remains balanced) and a single 3 uses one beat of music. If you look at “7-2-3, and off we go!” you can see where the 3s fit into the timing.


7s = the other building block step of Irish dance, 7s are used everywhere. While 3s have you traveling forwards and backwards, 7s move you side to side. It’s rare for them to start a dance, so the dancer is usually going into them already in motion. When practiced, they’re most often done in pairs. The dancer starts with their right leg/foot ahead, weight on their left. They can be started in a number of ways but either a cut or a spring are the most common; either way that’s the (1), the right leg/foot then steps to the right (2), the left follows to the right staying behind and crossing very slightly where the right is (3), the right continues to the right (4), the left continues to the right and staying behind (5), the right continues to the right (6), and the left finishes behind the right (7). This is often referred to as “7s right” or “right 7s”. Depending on the dance, 2 3s are often danced after a set of 7s, but a second set of 7s can follow directly after. Either way, to start the “left 7s”, the dancer does a slight spring switching their feet in air so their left is in front to lead (1). The movement is done exactly as the “right 7s” but leading with and keeping the left in front.


céilí = (kay-lee) literally Irish for party, in Irish dancing, céilí refers to group dances. There are round dances (everyone is in a big circle) and column dances (a couple faces another couple, both are back on to another couple who is facing another couple, who are back on to another couple who are facing… I think you see where this goes), and progressive dances which can be round or column! Progressives can go on forever if the band keeps playing at a dance or party. In a competition, there are a specific number of figures (steps) or in some cases bars of music that must be danced to. Céilí dances are a lot of fun, and great ways to introduce people to Irish dancing. Most people are fine if they can polka a bit and have someone who can lead them through the steps. Progressives usually require a minimum of 4 or 5 couples with the top end being however many people can fit on the dance floor. I’ve personally performed in a Bonfire (a progressive round dance) made up of 10 or 12 couples, and been in a column of dancers at a céilí dancing the Walls of Limerick that we never did figure out how many people we had out on the floor!


ghillies = (gill-ease) the black leather dance shoes/ slippers with laces. Also known as softshoes and less often poms or pomps. Most solo dances are danced in ghillies and normally céilí dances are as well.


5s = Slip jigs are in 9/8 time, completely unique to any other tune the world over. And those nine eighth notes cause a bit of trouble in counting! So the steps in slip jigs are counted in 5s. For the forward and backward movements, add (4)and (5) to the description of 3s above. For sideways movements, take away the (6) and (7) from the 7s.


hardshoes = also known as heavies. You’ve seen pictures of Riverdance? Nine chances out of ten, the dancers are seen in their hardshoes. The stunning rhythms heard in Riverdance and the other major shows: that’s the hardshoes showing off. Hardshoes have chunky heels (for performing clicks; literally the dancer has both legs/feet in the air and smacks their heels together making a click sound.) and a large wedge block under the toes. It’s the wedges making a lot of the sound. Dancers don’t typically start learning to dance in their hardshoes until they’ve learned the beginner choreographies for the softshoe dances at their school. Some teachers will teach both beginner softshoe and hardshoe dances at the same time to adult beginners but usually schools keep to the same timeline regardless of the student’s age.


treble = a specific movement in hardshoe dances that makes three beats. This is where treble reels and treble jigs have gotten their names from. A basic treble is made by making a brush out/brush in/down motion with the block of one foot while standing firm on the other. The count is out (1), in (2), down (3) all as even as possible; also counted as treb (1), ell (2), down (3). Trebles are really the basis for the hardshoe dances, and other movements make additional beats/sounds to compliment the rhythm of the trebles. 

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