Dance
12:01 am
Fri July 19, 2013

Fast feet, curly wigs, and straight arms: Learn more about Irish dance

The Sheila Tully School of Irish Dance at a St. Patrick's Day Parade in Chicago, 2007.
Credit AP Images

The Quinn School of Irish Dance will perform this weekend at the Blackrock Medieval Festival at Olde World Village in Augusta. Erin Quinn opened the studio 12 years ago where Irish step dancing classes are held year-round. She says not many people realize the school is here or that it’s one of only four schools in Michigan that is certified to compete internationally by a dance commission in Ireland.

Quinn herself performed with Riverdance for about five years. 

The Quinn Irish Dancers at a practice.
Credit Gordon Evans

“I was on what was called ‘the flying squad.’ So I was in college. So what I would do is fly out for a couple of weeks at a time and do the performance, and then come back home and go to school and do it again in a month or two,” says Quinn. “But it was just a really good experience to get to meet a lot of people from all over the world. So there were people from Australia and England and Ireland and the States.”

Most professional Irish dancers dance in “hard shoes,” which have soles made out of fiberglass. Quinn says Irish dance is a lot like tap dancing with tighter rhythms.

“The more advanced you get the more beats you put into the steps. The faster the movements,” she says.

Unlike the Hollywood-style dances of Riverdance, Quinn says traditional Irish dancers hold their arms straight at their sides.

“One theory is that, when the English came into Ireland the Irish weren’t allowed to do their dance. So by keeping the arms down to the side, if soldiers would walk past a window or a half door and somebody was inside dancing, it wouldn’t be considered dancing with the arms down to their side. Another theory is that, because of the intricate footwork, the arms are held at the side so as not to distract from the feet.”

Another characteristic of Irish dance performance is the big curly hair.

“The wigs give the illusion that you’re actually kind of bouncing off the ground more. The curls bounce and it makes it look like you’re jumping higher. There’s a theory that you would dance on Sundays after church back in Ireland. So you’d always be wearing your Sunday best and your hair would look nice, so usually it’d be curled. Or another theory was that there was a girl that curled her hair for these competitions and she was the one that would always win. So it’s traditional to curl the hair.”

Quinn says Irish dancers are constantly crossing one leg over the other, landing on the balls of their feet. Sometimes the dancers are moving so fast, it’s hard to pick out one single dance move. So, Quinn showed us one:

“The first thing we do when we start Irish dancing, we cross our feet. Our toes are turned out towards the corners and we’ve got one foot right in front of the other. Right foot in front of the left. We point our right toe," says Quinn. "And the first move we’re going to do is called a ‘cut.’ We call it a cut, other schools might call it something different. But what we do is we’re going to bring our right heel up towards our left hip and we’re going to hop off the ground when we do it."