A creativity blog - including reviews, photographs and discussion on a variety of things; such as dragons and other things almost but not quite completely entirely unlike tea.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Irish step dancing FTW!

Since coming to the university of Oulu to study English in 2007, I heard people talking about there being Irish dancing opportunities connected with the Irish Music Festival held in Oulu since 2005 - I think my first time was in 2008 or 2009, and I completely fell in love with it. Unfortunately, in the beginning it was only possible to train Irish dancing during the Festival weekend - then, after a while another dancing weekend was organized in the spring time. In the autumn of 2011 when I was studying in the University of Kent in Canterbury, a group of Oulu-based Irish dancers started organizing weekly dance practices and when I came back to Oulu I started going there too; almost regulary once a week, although there were two practices a week.. 

We are currently in the middle of the eight annual Irish Festival of Oulu, and the dance weekend is well under way. I'm participating in the intermediate group, where we learn a bit more demanding routines and choreographies, but also fine tune the basics and the easier céili dances. As I like Irish dancing very much, and as I'm in the spirit of the festivities, I thought I'd write something about Irish dancing here too.

Irish dancing is really the kind of traditional dancing people in Ireland do. There are different forms of it and it's not uncommon to have dancing whenever there's a suitable music playing. Although the competitive dancing is very fine indeed, you don't really need much to be able to dance - most group dances, or céilis are actually quite simple, they just go on forever and ever. The two basic dance types are the reel and the jig. A reel is often a bit slower than a jig and it is characterized by people moving in lines left and right and returning back to where they started from. A jig has a bit more fast-paced music and its steps are more airy. With that I mean that there are often more jumps and more lifting one's legs in jigs. Jigs also travel a bit more than the reels are wont to do, and even if you do the same step sequence both for the right and left leg, you don't often end up in the same place as you started from, but instead go basically from one corner of the dance floor to the other. Both reels and jigs can be danced single or as céilis.

As mentioned, the Irish dance step sequences are most often repeated both for the right and for the left leg. What this basically means, is that you start a choreography with you right foot in front (one leg is always in the front and the other one in the back) and once you complete the step sequence, you've ended up with your left foot in the front and you repeat the same step, but begin with your left foot. Not all dances do this, but especially most single dances will.

The posture for Irish dancing is as follows: head up high, shoulders back, arms relaxed but straight, hands in loose fists, legs straight, with other one in front of the other (knees are in a straight line), crossed over, so there's a diamond-shape between your shins, turned out, so that your toes point outward and heels inward, and finally, you stand on your toes. Your knees don't bend, except when you are kicking back towards your bum or your lifting your leg up and touching your knee with your toes, for instance. The movement comes mainly from your ankles, so it's a really demanding way of dancing and takes a lot of muscle training before it'll start looking even close to proper. When jumping, you also are not supposed to bend you knees when going up or coming down, so the main force is always on your ankles and your toes. The opening of the leg starts all they way up, so that your whole leg is turned open from your hip down - one of the benefits this gives you is the balance. Try staying on your toes and jumping up and down with your legs straight and you'll notice how difficult it is to stay up like that. You also need to keep your abs strong all the time, because they're the main support for the rest of your upper body and you can get a sore back if you don't concentrate on your abs while jumping around. And don't forget to keep your ankles and toe nice and straight and pointing them when you are jumping.

So basically it's only your arms that don't get a lot of movement , or exercise in Irish dancing. In céilis you often hold hands with your partner, so that you form a 90 degree angle with them - elbows are in a line and your hands are upright - which can make the muscles in your arms sore too.. Finally, there are two different shoe-types: the soft shoe and the hard shoe. The soft shoe concentrates on the airy, light movement, jumps and travelling soundlessly, while the hard shoe is the exact opposite - you're supposed to tap and drum and make a sound and you don't always even move around too much; although many of the hard shoe dances are jigs, which I already mentioned tend to travel around. I myself have been practising mainly the soft shoe style but I'm going to get hard shoes soon and start doing that as well. I suppose my downstairs neighbours will love me a bit more after that, not to mention my dog, who is already a bit worried every time I do steps at home...

The three basic steps in Irish dancing are the promenade, or skips or hop-two-threes (a dear child has many names, after all) which is the basic reel and jig step and the purpose of which is to move forward. The rhythm of the step differs slightly according to the type of music, reel or jig, being played. This step is accomplished by first taking a step with your front leg, then following it with your back leg, then another front leg step, kicking yourself in the bum with the back leg and moving the back leg forward to be the new front leg. Also, there's a jump during the back kick.

Another basic step is jump-two-three, hop-over or confusingly, hop-two-three, where you lift your front leg up, do a big jump as if going over a fence, with the back leg kicking your bum again during the jump and coming forward to become the new front leg, with which you take the step two forward, and closing your legs from the openness of the jump, third step bring the back leg back to the beginning position. This step takes you both up and forward.

The third basic step is called sevens - you begin it with a cut or a jump (a cut is a kick with your front leg to your opposite hip, during which you also jump) then doing six steps to the side. You always go in the direction of the front leg, so if the right left is the front leg, you go right. You also always cross you legs over when you do this step, you don't bend you knees at all and in the end you often do something like two jump-two-threes before the next sevens, often to the opposite direction, so the first jump needs to switch leg as well.

I could probably go on about the dances and step sequences, but I guess I'll leave it here at this point. I could sometime put on links to  Irish dance videos and maybe even introduce some nice and easy céilis and what sort of steps they use.

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