Why Do Irish Dancers Keep Their Arms At Their Sides ?
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Read The Various Ideas Behind This Unusual Feature Of Irish Dancing.

One of the most asked questions people ask when first watching Irish Dancing is why are their arms so stiff ?

The straight forward answer is that they don’t. Well at least for most Irish dances, Its mainly in the Step Dancing that the dancers use this unusual feature of Irish dancing with the stiff-arm tight at their sides. In other styles of Irish dancing like Set Dancing, Sean Nos and Ceilí  they are able to move like any other dancer. With the explosion of  Michael Flatley and his Riverdance shows we see traditions getting relaxed and now see more use of arms in Irish dance.

But why is Step Dancing still traditionally taught by Irish dance schools across the world with straight arms ? 

The truth is that no one knows for certain why this traditional and unique style of dance evolved, but here we can have a look at some of the theories behind it.

One explanation is that it was in protest by the dancers who were forced to dance for Queen Elizabeth I who was responsible for starting the plantations of Ireland. The story goes, that a group of Irish dancers were brought to dance for the Queen. As these dancers had no choice, they refused to raise their arms to her, and kept them rigidly by their sides as they danced out of defiance, and possibly to show their fellow countrymen they were not enjoying themselves as they danced for her and the English.This may be possible as Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed the Irish jigs and it is recorded that “dances of Irish origin” were danced in her court regularly.  

Another idea although a bit far fetched, is that it dates from the time when Ireland was continuously rebelling against rule of the British over them. With in turn the British trying to dominate the culture by stamping out all traditional aspects of Irish identity, including traditional Irish songs and dance.

The Irish then had to started to their dancing behind the hedge rows, stable doors and behind the bar in pubs with their upper body straight and arms tight by their sides, so if spotted by English soldiers they wouldn’t be able to see them dance. Although a great story it seems a bit of a stretch to believe that a soldier wouldn’t know what you were up too with all the bouncing up and down in the same spot whither behind a bar or not.   

Another common idea of why the straight arm dancing is the Catholic Church. The tradition says that the clergy of that time didn’t want the young people to get too carried away with their dancing and this in turn might lead to some smooching. So they made the dancer carry a heavy stone in both hands so that they had to keep them by their sides when dancing with the opposite sex as to prevent them from holding hands during the dances. 

Beyond the whimsical tales and folklore lies a slightly more practical reason for keeping arms at the sides in Irish dance. Picture a crowded Irish pub, the scent of ale mingling with the sound of fiddles and laughter. In such close quarters, there’s hardly space for a grandiose display of arm movements. Keeping the arms close to the body not only conserves space but also ensures that dancers don’t accidentally elbow their neighbors mid-reel.

The most likely explanation, however, is more straightforward than any of these other theories. ,

Possibly the most likely explanation and more straightforward than the other ideas is it was the style preferred by the dance teachers of the 18th century. As the teachers of dance in that time disliked the flailing of arms during the Sean Nos dancing and made their students dance with their arms in a fixed position as it looked more dignified in their eyes.

So, the next time you find yourself marveling at the lightning-fast footwork of an Irish dancer with their arms steadfastly at their sides, remember the whimsy, the history, and the practicality behind this cherished tradition. Irish dance isn’t just about the steps; it’s about the stories, the laughter, and the joy of sharing a piece of Ireland’s rich cultural tapestry with the world.

And who knows? Maybe the next time you’re out for a jig, you’ll find yourself keeping your arms at your sides, channeling the spirit of the Emerald Isle with every step. After all, in the world of Irish dance, tradition is key – and a little bit of whimsy never hurt anyone.