Why Irish Dancers Keep Their Hands By Their Sides

Why Irish Dancers Keep Their Hands By Their Sides

Irish dancing has been practiced by numerous people for many years. It is indeed believed to be almost as old as Celtic culture itself. This dance form, which has its roots in Ireland's Druidic period, became well-known during the Riverdance craze of the 1990s.

If you have ever had the opportunity to see Irish dancing live, then you may have realized that the dancers keep their arms stiff and by their side as if they are almost glued to their bodies. Now, this isn't always the case, as there are a variety of styles of Irish Dance, but it is a bit of a stereotype.

With that in mind, there are many theories as to why some of the styles of dancing require dancers to keep their arms stiff by their sides, and in this blog, we will explore some of these theories and myths. 

What Is Irish Dancing?

This extremely niche activity is made up of a sequence of steps with very little upper-body movement. Each step is a coordinated series of foot movements and leaps that are designed to match a particular musical cadence, particularly those found in Irish music. Eight bars of music are danced through for each foot in each sequence.

Irish dances are typically created to accompany Irish music, such as:

  • Reels
  • Light Jigs
  • Slip Jigs
  • Treble Jigs
  • Hornpipe

Each dance has distinctive steps that were developed by the particular Irish dance school and range in difficulty.

Irish dancing-specific footwear is also available. Either these shoes are soft, or they are hard. Dancers who perform reels, light jigs, and slip jigs wear soft shoes, while those who perform treble jigs and hornpipes wear hard shoes. 

What Is With the Stiff Arms?

Truthfully, no one knows the origins of stiff arms; however, there are several theories and a few crazy myths. Some of these ideas are rooted in tradition, while others are quirky folktales. When it comes to the Irish, there is a lot of crossover between the two. 

1. Defiance

The English and The Irish have always had their problems. They have fought one another for thousands of years, up until modern times. This tension is generally a mild annoyance but can sometimes lead to protests.

One anecdote is that there was a group of Irish dancers who were brought before the queen. This queen, most likely Elizabeth I, reportedly enjoyed Irish dances and often had dancers in her courts for entertainment. 

Due to the tense nature of English-Irish relationships at the time, it is thought that the Irish dancers refused to raise their arms to her. This quiet protest was to show that they were not enjoying themselves. 

2. Frisky Business

Another such theory is that the Catholic church, which is deeply integrated into traditional Irish society, did not approve of fluid arm movements due to its sexual nature. Clergy supposedly didn't like the idea of young men and women holding hands while dancing; therefore, they began enforcing rules to keep dancers from touching one another. 

While this sounds a little too close to a movie script, the Catholic Church at the time was very conservative when it came to matters of sexuality and how dance may cause one to stumble after the opposite sex. 

To further explore this theory, another thought is that the Catholic Church wanted dance to be less joyous and secular so that the dancers could focus on more serious matters. Once again, this is highly unlikely but often thrown out as a theory. 

3. Focus on Footwork

The most likely reason that Irish dancers keep their arms stiff by their sides is that this hands-by-the-sides posture emphasizes footwork. Irish dance is renowned for its rapid and complex foot movements, which create the distinct rhythmic sounds that accompany the dance.

By minimizing hand movement, dancers draw attention to their intricate steps and the synchronization of their movements. The stillness of the hands creates a visually stunning contrast to the lively, dynamic footwork, captivating the audience's attention and allowing them to appreciate the dancers' incredible skill.

4. Connection to Dance Competitions

Irish dance has gained global popularity, thanks in part to international competitions like the World Irish Dancing Championships. In these competitions, dancers are judged not only on their technique and footwork but also on their adherence to traditional style and posture.

The hands-by-the-sides position is often a key aspect of this judging criterion, reinforcing the importance of preserving the dance's historical and cultural integrity.

Whatever the reason, Irish dance is a cultural treasure that continues to captivate people of all ages and backgrounds. This ancient practice of keeping hands by the sides is a testament to the tradition of Irish dance. 

So, the next time you watch a mesmerizing Irish dance performance, take a moment to marvel at the dancers' mastery of footwork and the beauty of a tradition that has stood the test of time.

Learn Irish Dancing at Asheville Performing Arts Academy

The Carpenter Academy of Irish Dance, a division of the Asheville Performing Arts Academy, is the place to go if you want to learn more about Irish dance. Heather Gallagher, the director for Asheville, has been dancing since she was four years old. She looks for ways to express herself through dance while preserving the tradition of Irish dance. 

You or your child could start learning the lovely and special art of Irish dance for as little as $65 per month, and we hope you'll fall in love with it as much as we do. Please get in touch with us right away if you have any questions about the courses offered at the Asheville Performing Arts Academy.