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4 Theories On Why Irish Dancers Don’t Move Their Arms

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Photo Credit: my.diddlyi.com member Lisandro Rosales

There are a lot of entertaining and interesting theories out there as to why Irish dancers have that unique posture and lack of upper body movement when dancing. You know what we’re talking about: extended torso, shoulders back, arms down at the sides with a stick straight back. No one knows for certain as to why the upper body is this way in Irish dance, so we listed the theories that we’ve come across most frequently for you here. We’ll let you be the judge as to which one(s) is most likely true – and which one is the silliest, too.

Theory 1 : The British Wouldn’t Allow It
During past British occupation of Ireland, the Irish weren’t permitted to practice their own cultural traditions – i.e. dance, play music, or speak the Irish language. The thought is that the Irish could still get away with dancing as long as their upper body didn’t appear to be moving. So if a member of the British authority glanced into a window of a bar or house and saw someone bopping about the place with stationary arms, it would seem as though the person was just walking and not dancing. Has anyone tested this theory? We encourage you to record and upload your findings to my.diddlyi.com if you have.  We’re going to need to see it.

Theory 2 : The Dancing Masters Said So
We know that the Dancing Masters of the 18th and 19th centuries took dance seriously and they were in large part responsible for spreading dance throughout the country. They refined and formalized dance and required their students to have that straight back with arms held at the sides. (Although, we must note that we’ve read that some teachers allowed women to dance with one hand on the hip.) The theory here is that the Dancing Masters wanted their students’ arms straight to differentiate between the looser arms seen in the sean-nós style of dance. In fact, there are even accounts of Dancing Masters requiring their male students to dance with stones in their hands in order to keep their arms down and straight.

Theory 3 : The Church Wanted To Take The Fun Out of Dancing
The church respected Irish dance but disapproved of certain aspects of it. More specifically, the church didn’t want males and females fraternizing inappropriately. No way were members of the opposite sex going hold hands on their clock. Because of this, the suggestion is that the church wanted Irish dance to be more on the serious side and less on the fun one.  Thus, it urged teachers to try to take the joy out of dance with the suggestion of the strict posture and arm position.

Theory 4: There Was Just No Room for Arms Moving About the Place
Irish dance was at first a casual pastime that took place mostly in tiny bars and kitchens.  Less space meant little room to accommodate the dancers’ arm movements and consequently more emphasis ended up on the feet and sound accompanying the music. So lack of space and focus on feet forced dancers’ arms to stay put.

We’ll never know which, if any, of these theories are true. We reckon a number of forces influenced Irish dance’s distinctive posture and arm placement.  In the end, most of these are probably just stories but do tell us what do you think below in the comments section.  And feel free to share any more theories you’ve heard or come up with on your own.  We know they are out there!

 

References:
Brennan, Helen.  The Story of Irish Dance. Lanham, Maryland: Roberts Rinehart Publishers, 1999.
Hall, Frank. (1995). Posture in Irish Dancing. Journal for the Anthropological Study of Movement, 8(3), 80-91.
Sheppard, Joelle. “A Brief History of Solo Irish Step Dancing.” MJP Academy of Irish Dance. No Date of Publication. Web. 03 July 2013.

 


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Comments

  1. You forgot the one that tells the tale of a competitor in early feiseanna who simply want very good at using her arms so held them down, but her footwork was nice, so she won, and set the trend of not using arms.

  2. I have heard that it was because they danced on doors in order to get the best sound out of their shoes, and was usually in small crowded spaces. But I would lean more towards the English/Religious reasoning–because it never fails that it is either religion or politics that suppresses art.

  3. The dancing Masters Theory is the one that makes the most sense. They set the new standards and people followed them. The others are a wee bit nonsensical. Seriously, people walking without moving their arms looks natural? Even the dumbest soldier would notice something isn’t right. The Church would have forbidden dancing outright if they were worried about immoral behavior. And not enough room begs the question of why sean nós survived. After all they danced in the same places.

  4. I know during war times you were not allowed to have music or dance. Many of the old houses in Ireland had the same front door…. The half split. That means the top opens and bottom stays shut. When people danced near their door they never moved their arms or shoulders so no one could see them dancing. They would only move from the waist down and since the lower half was closed you could not see them dancing

  5. I would recommend sitting down for a chat with Professor Cullinane. He has a well-researched explanation for the posture. In short, it’s a mix of dance masters teaching carriage and posture as well as dancing, subsequently adopted, streamlined and formalised as the feisanna organised by the Conradh na Gaeilge and later on An Comisiún grew in popularity.

    In short, “don’t flail your arms about like an overexcited git” became “keep your arms steady and flowy” (like sean nós) which in turn became “keep your arms glued by your side”.

    I think it’s a bit of a shame really, the rigid posture. Many dancers don’t have the core stability to keep arms or shoulders steady, and many other introduce, well, flailing arms, as a sort of an ID counter-culture. I think, although not a sean nós dancer meself, that they’re the ones closest to a natural use of arm movements, fluidity and carriage in Irish dancing.

  6. I think several of the above theories and ideas have some base in truth but dance ideals and styles evolve over years and as we’ve seen after Riverdance, continue to do so. Just as in ballet, control is the ultimate goal. So if you choose a style with arm movements, these will never be an uncontrolled attempt to keep your balance but a form of expression. Anyone who has reached an advanced level of solo step must have felt the feeling of success that accompanies being able to keep their arms and upper body relaxed yet straight, and their lower body performing at top achievement level. Sean Nós has a slightly different shift of weight because of the use of the heels instead of trebles.

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