In today’s mainstream society, Irish dance is almost still synonymous with images of Riverdance, which hit the scene in 1995. But it’s safe to say that historically, the majority of Irish dancing scarcely resembled the popular on-stage spectacle (and the subsequent flashy choreography of Michael Flatley in his gruesome Celtic Tiger show). Quick-footed Irish dance is a cultural artform that has survived eras of repression, and we learned about multiple expressions of this dance in the Dance Dispatches Social Club online Irish dance lesson with Heidi Hakseth.

Women learning Irish dance stand in front of a mirror
Heidi Hakseth leads a group of adults in an Irish dance class at Express Yourself Madison dance school.

Adult Dance Instructor, Heidi Hakseth of Dance with Heidi

Dance instructor, Heidi Hakseth, learned Irish dancing as a young adult – after catching a glimpse of the dances whilst listening to Irish music in a Twin Cities bar. She has kept up dancing Irish dance ever since, and she regularly teaches adult Irish dance lessons. (This is especially wonderful because many Irish dance schools do not offer Irish dance classes for adults.) Today, Heidi shares both her knowledge of soft shoe dances and hard shoe dances with students – when she’s not leading ballet, tap and jazz classes.

Side note: Heidi and I taught at the same local studio in Madison, WI (shout out: Dance Fabulous) for a short amount of time, but before I met her, I watched her Irish dance seminar for the UW-Madison Dance Department.

Dance instructors at Dance Fabulous pose with Lindsey B of the Beat Freakz
The Dance Fabulous instructors pose with Lindsey B of the Beat Freakz after her workshops… (And a decade later, I still occasionally rock a side ponytail.)

Digital Irish Dance Class

Historical Irish Dancing & Current Trends

Throughout our digital introduction to Irish dance workshop, Heidi covered multiple dance styles beneath the larger umbrella of Irish dance. She glossed over some of the time signatures (jigs: 6/8, reels: 4/4, hornpipes: 4/4 beneath a syncopated rhythm) and differentiated the group dances (set dances and ceilis). She also explained that in the past, dancers solely knew the dances from their region. However, nowadays, many dancers like to build up their choreography library by learning variations from other regions, too.

Heidi also demystified some of the current Irish dance competition fashion trends. For instance, Irish dance hard shoes once had wood bottoms – and had nails pounded into the bottom, like flamenco shoes. But now, the ‘standard’ Irish hard shoes have large fiberglass bottoms because they’re lightweight – and loud, which helps to attract the judges’ attention during a crowded competition heat. Likewise, the dresses evolved to catch attention, which is why you’ll spot such a myriad of neon colors.

At Irish dance competitions, you’ll see that bouncy curled hair has become phased out in favor of synthetic, tight-curled wigs, which are now sometimes worn in a ‘double decker’ wig-on-wig style! And to complete the iconic look, many dancers will also tan their legs (but just their legs, as opposed to competitive ballroom dancers, who tend to bronze their entire body).

Female Irish dancers in black pose on a sidewalk
Adult Irish dance instructor, Heidi Hakseth, poses with her Mad Craic Irish Dance students at Madison’s annual Art Fair on the Square.

Sean-nós vs. Irish Step Dancing

Heidi structured the class, so that we could embody and compare the funky old-style Sean-nós groove with the polished present-day Irish step dancing style. We strung together a short sequence of moves, feeling the soulful backbone of the dance before tweaking it to more closely represent the style that the Irish Dance Commission promotes. And it turns out that Irish dance integrated the style of turned-out feet from ballet (pun!) – and they nabbed the upright carriage European court dances from traveling dance masters.

Both Irish dance styles are still practiced today. However, the style perpetuated first by the Gaelic League and now the Irish Dance Commission, remains prevalent. Their teachers become certified according to this one specific method, and they pay dues to maintain their professional Irish dance street credit. (This is similar to some ballet schools, by the way.)

However, there are some dancers that are interested in reviving the Sean-nós Irish dance style, and other dancers that want to learn historic choreographies that are not currently eligible in Irish dancing competitions.

Tap dancers will feel comfortable learning Irish dance because there are steps and combinations that have similar foot motions – some using the heel, some using the ball of the foot. At a beginner level, you can break down many steps into combinations with steps, hops, shuffles and flaps (often pronounced ‘fa-lap’). But anyone who loves dance and movement will enjoy the strong connection the music.

Irish dancing in unison, especially in hard shoes, kindles such a positive feeling of community. So, I highly recommend you give it a try – whether you can head to the studio or learn Irish dance online!

An Irish dancer performs a traditional brush dance with a broom on stage
Heidi Hakseth demonstrates a Brush Dance (broom dance) at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.

Online Irish Dance Class Summary

Physical intensity: 3 / 5 – but only because the dancing was spaced out between discussion points and mini-demonstrations

Most challenging moment: trying to assume the cool, laidback Sean-nós (or “old style”) step dance style – since I really enjoy the lighter, competition style

Best moment: dancing with the music – it was so uplifting, even if I was off-count…

Three words to describe class: Jovial, rhythmic, elucidating.

Although Heidi ran an exclusive adult Irish dance workshop, just for the ladies in our online dance social club, you can learn from her, too. Check out her website, Dance with Heidi, for more. Her Madison-based troupe performs as Mad Craic Irish Dance.

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