How Irish dance became a significant business for Irish women


Analysis: Irish dance has deep historical ties with cultural nationalism and identity, but its financial importance for women cannot be overlooked

On that memorable night in 1994 when Jean Butler leapt onto the Eurovision stage, a new era for Irish dance and the female Irish dancer was born. Suddenly, words like ‘sexy’ and ‘modern’ were being used to describe what was once confined to Irish rural community halls.

Of course, like most overnight successes, Riverdance was not at all the spontaneous sensation it is sometimes perceived to be. Years of exploration and experimentation by individual artists and producers preceded the pivotal performance in Dublin.

However, the stars aligned that night with the right people in the right place at the right time. A newfound confidence in Irish dance was attributed to the successes of Riverdance and globalisation. But perhaps the conviction within the Irish dance community had been there all along. This is particularly so amongst the women; quietly and confidently waiting for that stage and that night when Butler’s leap forward would expose what years of hard work had cultivated.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, how the roots of Riverdance can be found in Kerry

In the early 1900s, the Gaelic League’s desire to ensure nationwide participation in uniquely Irish activities saw Irish dance classes increase across the country. These classes, as well as the Gaelic games, became hugely popular in the local communities and were heavily attended.

Local teachers, mostly female, replaced the travelling dance masters of the 1800s at these classes. This ensured that female Irish dance teachers became significant and highly regarded members within these communities. Despite an outward championing of equality for women’s issues, the establishment of the new Irish state in 1922 was far less progressive and was, as some have argued, more regressive in terms of equality for women in Ireland.

But the high regard in which the local dance teacher was afforded remained intact. While women in the civil service were being forced to leave jobs once married, Irish dance teachers continued their classes maintaining a sense of authority and position. These dancers could run businesses and financially contribute to the household.

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From RTÉ Archives, Irish Folk Song and Dance Society’s Lily Comerford talks about the importance of Irish dancing on Newsbeat in 1964

This was not the norm and these teachers often worked unsociable hours which was not conducive to the aspirations of the Irish government’s idea that the women’s place was in the home. Because Irish dance was an extracurricular cultural activity, engaged in for fun and community, the significance of this outlet for women is not immediately clear, but it seems to have nurtured a strength, resilience and confidence amongst its female cohort that is still evident to this day.

Nowadays, many Irish dance classes are privately run. While the original governing body (An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha) established in 1927 still regulates the industry for its members, Irish dance teachers function as self-employed business people. After Riverdance, the demand for Irish dance classes increased internationally and people were not disappointed.

Irish dance became big business as the entrepreneurial spirit fostered quietly amongst the dance community gained fuel from globalisation. It could be argued that it was always a business, but it’s deep-rooted historical associations with cultural nationalism and cultural identity means that it can be overlooked as commercial enterprise in Ireland.

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From RTÉ Archives, Jim Fahy reports for RTÉ News on the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne Irish Dancing World Championships in Galway in 1988

On the other hand, its internationalisation has fostered a dilution of engagement with our awareness of its cultural associations. The traditional halls were replaced by dance studios and extra classes rebranded as dance camps. The young women who were tutored by the influential women of the 1970s and 1980s went on to join commercial dance shows like Riverdance and some became teachers themselves. As a result, the cycle of strength within this niche community continues to this day.

Could it be that the agency experienced by women in Irish dance is a result of that fact that physical expression nurtures this sense of agency rather than external societal circumstance? Dance is, in its essence, movement and mastery over the physical body. Feminist scholars like Iris Young emphasise the correlation between the way we physically move in the world and occupy space and our sense of empowerment and agency. She claims that women are conditioned to move with less power than men and as a result feel less powerful.

The young women tutored by the influential women of the 1970s and 1980s joined shows like Riverdance and some became teachers themselves

Dance defies this. A dancer must occupy space with purpose, confidence, and spatial intent. In A Somatic Movement Approach to Fostering Emotional Resiliency through Laban Movement Analysis, researchers found that one could alter their emotional state through movement. For example, if a person is afraid and “contracting in space” by moving in an expansive manner, they could reverse the feelings of fear. If we imposed this theory on a dancer, given the necessity of ownership of space, it could be suggested that dancers learn to move with purpose and autonomy not only on the dancefloor but in every aspect of life.

Whether it was a chance of societal circumstance, a century long cultivation of confidence and nurture or bodily autonomy, the result was a positive one for women in Irish dance. The effects of those quiet successes are now reverberating internationally with an emerging community of capable, resilient, talented and entrepreneurial female Irish dancers.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ






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