Between kindergarten and ninth grade, one of the central focuses of my life was dance. My mom, who had been a ballerina through high school, enrolled me in classes at the age of five, and my passion grew from there. Of the many types of dance that were offered at my dancing school, I—along with a group of friends who still dance to this day—was enrolled in two: jazz and tap. While my limited flexibility made me a slightly subpar jazz dancer, I fell in love with tap, practicing it as often as I could; even outside of the studio, I could be found clicking my feet on any hard surface I could find (needless to say, my mom was not thrilled with the number of times I scuffed up her hardwood floors).
During my first year at Haverford, nearly four years after I had stopped dancing to pursue other extracurriculars at my high school, I went to a dance concert on campus in support of my friends and classmates. There, I was thrilled to watch ballerinas, hip hoppers, jazz dancers, and, of course, tappers. Even as I enjoyed the tap dancers, another group—the Irish step dancers—also caught my attention. As I watched them prance across the stage, arms-locked, circling up, their feet tapping against the ground, I wondered: what was the difference between tap and Irish step dance?
In doing more research, I learned that Irish Step Dance is part of a long tradition of dance in the region, dating as far back as 400 BCE: even as the former pagans of the region were proselytized and converted to Christianity, syncretic tactics allowed them to retain the music and dance that were pivotal within the Celtic culture. By the eighteenth century, even as Norman tradition and song had begun to permeate into that of the Celts, the notion of a “dance master” allowed for the tradition of dance to be passed down to younger generations, as standards were high and soloists became highly esteemed. It was in this moment—at the end of the eighteenth century—that step dancing appeared. To this day, the worldwide success of performance troupes and shows such as Riverdance has allowed for the continuity and appreciation of Irish step dance throughout the globe (IrelandsEye).
Tap dance, on the other hand, emerged in America, as a fusion of “several ethnic percussive dances, primarily African tribal dances and Scottish, Irish, and English clog dances, hornpipes, and jigs” (Britannica 1). Effectively, the tap dance, then, embodies a form of unifying rhythm that draws from Irish step dance, highlighting the reasons why they appear to be so similar. Though there is some debate as to the origins of tap dance, it is believed to have emerged from urban environments such as the Five Points District of New York, where a variety of groups mingled and brought their dances together to create a wholly new form of dance (Britannica 1).
Interestingly, the primary difference between tap and Irish step dance seems to stem from both the ways in which the body is utilized and the ways in which the feet actually work. Unlike tap dance, which allows for the syncopation of the entirety of the body and calls upon a person’s whole being to fall into the rhythm, Irish step dance emphasizes a sense of rigidity—that is, in the jig itself, straight lines are emphasized such that the arms and legs seem to remain almost perfectly still. Likewise, tap dance tends to move across space more freely, whereas certain patterns exist within Irish step dance to propel individuals from one space to another.
The costuming of Irish step dance is also unique: unlike tap, which does not mandate a certain form of dress beyond the shoes, Irish step dance (at least in performances) requires a specific type of costuming and attire. Because it is more deeply rooted in Irish tradition and culture, the costumes in Irish step dance typically recall the clothing of the past, the dresses, kilts, and jackets characteristic from two hundred years ago (Ireland’s Eye). Effectively, there seems to be a way in which Irish step dance—because it carries the markers of tradition—tends to be more regulated than tap dance such that it can continue to imbue Celtic culture on the whole.
Recently, both tap and Irish step dance have been popularized throughout the world. For example, in 2014, an Irish step dance group caught global attention with their performance on Britain’s Got Talent:
Likewise, the Syncopated Ladies captured national attention with their tap performance of Beyonce’s “Formation” and, more recently, their response to the election of President Donald Trump:
Overall, even as both tap and Irish step dancing seem to correlate, each maintains the tradition, rhythm, and appearance that underscores their individuated beauty and allows for viewers and dancers alike to foster a profound sense of appreciation for both forms of dance.
Frank, Rusty. “Tap Dance.” Dance Forms. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2009. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.
“The History of Irish Dance.” Ireland’s Eye. Ireland’s Eye, 1994-2004. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.
All videos courtesy of YouTube. P.S. Sorry they didn’t get properly embedded… something went wrong with the links!