About Irish Dance
Your guide to Irish Dancing Terminology
Like many activities, Irish dancing has a vocabulary of its own, complete with many terms you may not know yet, but which will become second nature over time. Our comprehensive glossary below will help you familiarize yourself with some of the most common Irish dance terms, to help you on your journey through this wonderful sport and art.
Alphabetical LIst of Terms
An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha
Lord of the Dance
Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne
Soft Shoes (Boys)
Soft Shoes (Girls)
Teaching and Adjudicating Exams
The Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America
The North American Irish Dance Championships
The World Championships
Tír na nÓg
World Medal Holder
Types of Dance
Whether or not they choose to compete, dancers across schools can expect to learn, at a minimum, the following four dances. Dancers who choose to compete at the grade level will compete in all four of these dances, while dancers at the championship level will compete in two per year, as determined by their age and gender. Dances are choreographed according to traditional Irish music styles, which are standardized across all CLRG competitions.
Also called: Jig
Perhaps the most famous Irish dance, the Heavy Jig is one of the four principle competition dances, performed in hard shoes, in 6/8 time. Jigs may be performed at traditional speed (92 bpm) by dancers who are earlier in their dancing journeys, and at slower speeds (73 bpm), with more intricate steps by more advanced dancers.
One of the four principle competition dances, performed in hard shoes, in 2/4 time. Hornpipes may be performed at traditional speed (138 bpm) by dancers who are earlier in their dancing journeys, and at slower speeds (113 bpm), with more intricate steps by more advanced dancers.
Perhaps the most commonly performed Irish dance, the Reel is light shoe dance, performed in 4/4 time. Typified by sharp and powerful movements, many dancers begin their Irish dance journeys by learning the reel, with steps getting more intricate as dancers move through their dancing journeys.
One of the four principle competition dances, the Slip Jig is danced in soft shoes in 9/8 time and is traditionally only performed by female dancers. Slip jigs are a dance and tune form unique to Irish dancing, and are typified by light and graceful movements.
While most Irish dances are choreographed according to a predetermined speed and time signature, and can therefore be danced to any tune that fits these requirements, set dances are choreographed to specific tunes, selected from a pre-determined list set by the Irish dancing commission (CLRG).
Also called: Modern Set, Own-Choice Set
A contemporary set is a dance choreographed to a tune selected from a pre-determined list, typically for dancers dancing at the championship level. Contemporary sets are choreographed by the dance teacher, and are often customized to the individual dancer. The contemporary set round is typically the third round of a major Irish dancing competition, and is typically reserved for the group of dancers who have been selected for overall placement.
Dancers who are given the opportunity to dance their contemporary set at a major competition will often be called to compete a set in contrasting timing to their heavy shoe round. This means that dancers who compete jig for their heavy shoe round will be required to dance a set in hornpipe timing, and dancers who compete hornpipe for their heavy shoe round will be required to dance a set in jig timing. Local feiseanna do not typically require a contrasting set, although guidelines are always provided in the competition syllabus.
A traditional set is a dance that is performed to the same tune, with the same choreography, by dancers regardless of their school or region. Most of these dances are over a century old. Dancers typically begin learning their first traditional set soon after beginning to learn hard shoe dancing and may continue dancing these steps throughout their dancing careers. Traditional set competitions are offered at the local and regional levels, with many major competitions choosing to incorporate traditional sets into their syllabi as well.
Beyond the core dances, danced by a majority of dancers, there are a variety of other dances that dancers may choose to learn, perform, and compete in. Some of these will be required, or strongly recommended, at the grade level, with others being offered at special competitions, or performed at shows at both a school and professional level.
Fast Jig or Hornpipe
Also called: Traditional-Speed Jig or Hornpipe
The fast, or traditional-speed, hard shoe dances, are typically performed by dancers who are new to hard shoe dancing, particularly at the advanced beginner and novice levels. These dances are performed to faster music than championship-level dances, and feature simple moves designed to cement strong technique.
The light jig is a dance in fast 6/8 time, performed in light shoes. This is typically one of the first dances learned by new Irish dance students, and is popular both at shows and in grade-level competitions.
Also called: Hop Jig
The single jig is a fast light shoe dance, typified by bouncing rhythms and simple, quick steps. This dance is often taught to dancers to emphasize agility and strong technique.
A treble reel is an intricate dance danced in heavy shoes to fast music in reel timing (4/4). Treble reels are very popular performance pieces and are often seen in St. Patrick’s Day performances, in school showcases, and even in touring shows like Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. While the treble reel is not a traditional competition dance, many competitions will offer treble reel specials, often to raise money for charity.
Irish dance offers a wide variety of opportunities for group dancing. These beautiful dances typically make use of simple moves to create intricate figures. Group dancing can be a wonderful chance for dancers to learn the value of teamwork, and can provide a wonderful opportunity to dancers who may want to try out performance or competition, but don’t want to compete solo.
A ceili is a type of group dance, featuring traditional movements in intricate shapes. Ceili dances performed in competition are selected from a book of traditional dances, and typically feature 4, 6, or 8 dancers. Ceili competitions are available at all levels of competition, from the local to world level.
A dance drama is a story-based team dance, performed in character costumes, often with props, that narrates a story that reflects Irish culture. While all moves used are Irish dance-based, the choreographic emphasis is more on the narrative arc than on forming traditional figures. Dance drama competitions are available at all levels of competition, from the local to world level.
An eight-hand refers to a ceili team dance performed by eight competitors. The positions are held by four “gentlemen” partnered with four “ladies,” although it is not required to strictly have an even mix of four men and four women and eight-hands are often performed by eight girls or ladies.
A figure dance is a story-based team dance, typically performed in school costumes. Figure dances typically use traditional moves to create intricate formations, similar to a ceili dance, but with customized choreography and a larger number of dancers. Figure competitions are available at all levels of competition, from the local to world level.
A four-hand refers to a ceili team dance performed by four competitors. The positions are held by two “gentlemen” partnered with two “ladies,” although it is not required to strictly have an even mix of two men and two women and four-hands are often performed by four girls or ladies.
A six-hand refers to a ceili team dance performed by six competitors. The positions are held by two “gentlemen” partnered with four “ladies,” although it is not required to strictly have an even mix of two men and four women and six-hands are often performed by six girls or ladies.
A two-hand is a team dance performed by two competitors. Unlike many other team dances, the emphasis in a two-hand is less on creating intricate figures and more on performing as a pair. While dancers may use some moves more typical of ceili dancing, the steps in a two-hand typically mirror those of a simple solo dance, with dancers holding hands in a traditional style and performing the steps in synchronization.
Shoes & Clothing
Irish dances are typically divided up into two types of dances, corresponding with the types of shoes worn by the dancer. “Heavy” dances are danced in percussive hard shoes, while “light” dances are danced in soft-but-supportive leather shoes, which allow dancers to silently execute powerful moves. New dancers will typically start with soft-shoe dances – often even beginning in ballet slippers or jazz shoes – and move onto hard-shoe dancing once they have mastered their basic light dances.
Also called: Heavy Shoes, Jig Shoes
Hard shoes are the traditional shoe used for the heavy jig, hornpipe, and other percussive dances. Hard shoes are made of supportive leather, with fiberglass tips and heels, allowing dancers to create loud, intricate rhythms.
Soft Shoes (Boys)
Also called: Light Shoe, Reel Shoe
Soft shoes worn by boys are used to dance the reel, or other light shoe dances like the light jig or single/hop jig (boys do not typically dance the slip jig). These shoes are made of leather, with fiberglass heels, allowing dancers to move silently across the floor, while also accentuating their steps with sharp heel clicks and stamps.
Soft Shoes (Girls)
Also called: Ghillie, Light Shoe, Pump/Pomp, Reel Shoe
Soft shoes are worn by girls for reel, light jig, slip jig, and single/hop jig dances. These shoes are made of leather and laces, in a traditional style, and allow dancers to move silently across the floor.
Depending on a dancer’s goals, they may wear various clothing to Irish dance throughout their career. This may include comfortable street clothes, worn for practice, a simple and beautiful costume worn for a show, or a more traditional Irish dance dress for a competition.
A blackout costume is an all-black outfit generally consisting of a black leotard, black skirt or pants, and usually black tights to be worn in place of other costumes like a school costume or solo costume. The purpose of a blackout costume is to promote a focus on the technical dancing aspect of the competition. Depending on the guidelines, the blackout costume may also dictate simpler hairstyles and makeup (i.e., no wigs) and no bling (crystals, buckles, crowns, etc.). The black leotard and skirt should follow all the normal costuming guidelines; no scoop/v-necks showing the collarbone, appropriate length of the skirt, and suitable materials like velvet or lycra. Logos should not be obvious. While some Irish dancing competitions actively require blackout costumes, they are allowed at all competitions, with many dancers choosing to wear blackout costumes in lieu of a more elaborate costume.
Also called: School Dress
A class costume is an Irish dancing outfit designed by each individual dancing school and typically worn for school performances and team competitions. For many dancers, a class costume will be their first Irish dance outfit as they begin to perform, or compete through the grade levels. These typically consist of a dress, or skirt and leotard, for girls, and a jacket, waistband, or shirt to be worn with simple pants for boys. Class costumes typically incorporate a school’s colors or logo, and often feature traditional embroidery inspired by the Book of Kells.
Poodle socks are white, calf-length socks, with a distinctive bubble pattern, typically worn by girls in Irish dancing competitions.
Practice clothes are typically very casual, and simply consist of whatever will allow the dancer to move comfortably, stay cool, and dance to the best of their ability during dance class. A majority of dancers choose to practice in a simple t-shirt, paired with shorts, leggings, or a skirt. Some schools may have a school t-shirt and shorts available for purchase, so that all dancers feel they are part of the team and are dressed for a great class.
Dancers who choose to compete in solo dancing have the option to buy a bespoke – and often sparkly – costume: typically a vest or jacket to wear with pants for boys, and a dress for girls which is often enhanced with crystalled hairpieces and the wigs that are so distinctive to the Irish dance look. These options offer an exciting opportunity to dress up and get in performance mode, though they are not required, and many dancers choose to compete in simpler options, such as a leotard and skirt for girls, or a simple shirt and pants for boys.
Competitions, Shows, & Exams
Shows are an important part of Irish dance history and culture, with many dancers performing in shows around their local community (especially at St. Patrick’s Day). Many dancers will go on to perform in one of the many touring Irish dance shows, which spread our art form around the world.
A popular Irish dance show, debuting at Eurovision in 1994, where lead dancers Michael Flatley and Jean Butler introduced the world to an entertaining and exciting show of Irish music and dancing. Producer Moya Doherty and Director John McColgan have brought Riverdance worldwide, employing top dancers from across the globe. Composer Bill Whelan has been recognized for his success on the soundtrack, winning a Grammy in 1997. The show’s ongoing success continues to keep Irish dancing in mainstream culture, and Riverdance can be recognized in television shows, movies, and more.
Lord of the Dance
Another one of the most famous Irish dance shows, Lord of the Dance was created by Michael Flatley in 1996 and has since become a worldwide phenomenon, performing on Broadway, The Oscars, and many illustrious locations around the world.
Many dancers choose to challenge themselves and their dancing through the extensive competitive circuit. Competitions range from the local, all the way up to the world level, and offer opportunities to dancers of all ages, genders, abilities, and goals.
A local Irish dancing competition, with competitions open to dancers of all ages and levels. Feiseanna are typically run on weekends by dance schools or local organizations. Dancers may choose to compete exclusively on the feis circuit or use these competitions as an opportunity to qualify for regional or national competitions if they desire.
A major competition describes a championship operating at the national or world level. These prestigious championships typically have strict qualification criteria, which may be achieved at local, regional, or other major competitions, depending on the championship. Examples include the North American Irish Dance Championships, the Oireachtas Rince na hEireann (All-Ireland Championship), the All-Scotland Championships, the Great Britain Championships, or the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne (World Championships). These championships are typically held at large convention centers, and take place over several days, attracting dancers from all over the world.
Also called: Regionals, Regional Championships, Qualifiers
Each region in North America (Southern US, New England, Mid Atlantic, Mid America, Western US, Eastern Canada, and Western Canada) hosts a qualifying championship event in the fall, usually in the weeks before and after Thanksgiving. The championship or Oireachtas is a qualifying event for dancers who place in the top of their age category to go on to compete at the North American Irish Dance Championships or even the World Championships. Dancers in Preliminary Champion and Open Champion are qualified to compete at the Oireachtas in the solo categories, and depending on the age(s) sometimes teachers are allowed to send more dancers at their own discretion. In addition to the solo competitions, there are also a number of categories for teams and traditional sets.
The North American Irish Dance Championships
Also called: NAIDC, NANs, Nationals
The North American Irish Dance Championships (NAIDC) are a prestigious annual event hosted on a rotating calendar by the seven regions of the IDTANA, with support from the IDTANA. The NAIDC is recognized by the CLRG as a secondary qualifier event for North American dancers to qualify for the following year’s World Championships and attracts competitors from around the world. Dancers can qualify for the NAIDC through local competitions or through their regional championships each autumn.
Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne
Also called: The World Championships, Worlds
The Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, often referred to as “Worlds,” is the pinnacle of the Irish dancing competition world. Qualification is determined by strict standards, and can be achieved through high placements at a dancer’s regional championships, at the All-Ireland Championships, or, for North American dancers, at the North American Irish Dance Championships. This competition takes place annually over Easter week, and features both solo and team competitions.
Other Competitive Terms
The Irish point system is a unified system of awarding points in an Irish dance competition to ensure consistency in the judging process. Under this system, each adjudicator ranks the dancers in a competition in numerical order. These dancers are then awarded a set number of points from a pre-determined rubric, according to their ranking, with 100 points awarded to the first-place competitor, 75 points to the second-place competitor, 65 points to the third-place competitor, and so forth. The points for each dancer, from each judge, are then added up to determine the final tabulation.
A national qualifier is a dancer who has qualified to compete in a solo competition at the North American Irish Dance Championships (sometimes simply called “Nationals”). Dancers can attain this qualification by earning a placement at the regional Oireachtas, or by moving from Preliminary Championships into Open Championships prior to the May 1 deadline. All dancers in Open Championships are qualified for NAIDC/Nationals.
World Medal Holder
A world medal holder is a dancer who as achieved a medal-holding placement at the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, or World Irish Dancing Championships. A world medal confers an automatic qualification for the following year’s world championships. Dancers who hold world medals are not counted toward the overall world qualification maximum at a regional championship. Should they attain a qualifying spot, their qualification will be passed to the next placing dancer who does not hold a world medal.
A world qualifier is a dancer who has qualified to compete in a solo competition at the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, or World Irish Dancing Championships (sometimes simply called “Worlds”). Dancers can only attain this qualification by earning a placement at certain competitions. A dancer’s primary qualifier is their regional championships. Dancers may also attempt a qualifying placement at their secondary qualifier (for North American dancers, this is the North American Irish Dance Championships) or at the Oireachtas Rince na hEireann, or All-Ireland Championships.
Whether or not a dancer chooses to compete, they may participate in our examination system as a way to measure their progress and celebrate their accomplishments.
CLRG Grade Exams provide a structured framework for Irish dancers to progress towards an achievable goal. The syllabus has been designed to provide a strong foundation in Irish Dance by developing a candidate’s physical skills, stamina, expression, musicality and an appreciation and knowledge of the traditional dances and culture. Grade Exams are unlike competitions in that each candidate is individually examined and receives a detailed written assessment of their performance and knowledge of the grade being attempted. They are open to both male and female candidates regardless of age and ability. Grade Exams consist of an optional Preliminary Grade followed by a further 12 grades with each grade becoming increasingly more demanding on the candidate’s skill, knowledge and ability.
Each Grade must be passed and certificate awarded before a candidate may attempt the next level. A dancer who successfully completes all Grades will be awarded “The Diploma of the Irish Dancing Commission”. All 12 Grade Examinations must be completed to be eligible to apply for the TCRG Examination.
Teaching and Adjudicating Exams
Once a dancer completes all 12 grade exams, those who wish to become teachers can apply for the teaching certification test. Dancers must be at least 20 years of age in order to apply. The vigorous three-day exam includes performing all required solo dances for the examination panel, teaching both solo and team dancing before an examination panel, a written examination on the approved syllabus of team dances, and a music examination on the recognition of the approved syllabus of traditional music that accompanies Irish Dancing.
The grade levels of Irish dance include the Beginner, Advanced Beginner, Novice, and Prizewinner competition levels. Dancers at this level typically compete in all of the required dances, including heavy jig, hornpipe, reel, slip jig, and/or light jig. Many dancers at this level also choose to compete in traditional set competitions at both the local and regional levels.
A dancer who has been dancing for less than a year.
A dancer who has been dancing for more than a year, who has not yet received the necessary placements to move up to the novice level. Dancers at this level typically compete in light shoe dances, such as the reel, slip jig, and light jig. Some also choose to compete in hard shoe dances like the traditional jig and hornpipe and traditional sets.
A novice dancer has achieved the required placements, as determined by their region and teacher, to move up from the Advanced Beginner level. Dancers at this level typically compete in both light and hard shoe dances, such as the reel, slip jig, light jig, treble jig, and hornpipe. Many dancers at this level also choose to compete in traditional set competitions.
A prizewinner dancer has achieved the required placements, as determined by their region and teacher, to move up from the novice level. Dancers at this level typically compete in both light and hard shoe dances, such as the reel, slip jig, treble jig, and hornpipe. The light jig is less popular at this level, as most dancers are preparing their dances to move into the championship level, at which the light jig is not competed. Many dancers at this level also choose to compete in traditional set competitions.
The championship levels of Irish dance include the Preliminary and Open Championship competition dances. Dancers may begin to compete at the championship level once they have obtained the requisite placements in their grade dances, as determined by their regions and dance teachers. Dancers who achieve this level may qualify to compete at national or regional championship competitions.
Also called: Prelim
A dancer at the preliminary championship level has achieved the required placements, as determined by their region and teacher, to move up from the prizewinner level. At this level, dancers will compete in a style that more closely reflects the competition structure at major competitions, typically featuring a two-round competition focusing on the two required dances for that age group. Preliminary championship competitions typically feature an award ceremony and special prizes for dancers who excel in their light or heavy rounds.
Also called: Open
The highest level of feiseanna competition is Open Championship. The rules vary by region, but generally a dancer can only rise to this after winning a pre-determined number of Preliminary Championship competitions at local feiseanna. At the Open level, dancers are expected to perform three rounds (hornpipe or heavy jig, reel or slip jig, and a set dance). The Open Championship level qualifies dancers automatically to dance at several major competitions, including the NAIDC and the All-Ireland Championships.
Other Competitive Categories
Also called: Adult Grades, Adult Championship
An Adult dancer is defined as any dancer who started Irish dancing at the age of 18 or older OR any dancer 18 or older who has not competed in at least five years in a youth competition. Dancers who are in the Adult categories cannot enter any competition other than Adult specified competitions. A dancer who wishes to return to any category other than Adult must remain out of Adult competitions until they retire from dancing for five consecutive years. As with other age groups, the Adult category are offered at both the grade and championship levels at local, regional, and national competitions.
Some regions offer special competitions for dancers who compete in the Adult category but who previously competed in Irish dance as children.
Also called: Tír na nÓg
A first feis competition is an opportunity for young dancers participating in their first competition to show off their steps and experience the feis environment without competing for actual placements. First feis competitions typically feature abridged dances, and prizes for all dancers.
An abbreviation for “Scrúdú Teastas Rince Céilí” or certified ceili dance teacher. This certification is awarded by An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha (CLRG), the worldwide Irish Dancing commission, and certifies the holder to teach competitive ceili dancing only (team or group dancing).
An abbreviation for Teagascóir Choimisiúin le Rinci Gaelacha or commission Irish dance teacher. This certification is awarded by An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha (CLRG), the worldwide Irish Dancing commission, and certifies the holder to teach both competitive solo and team (ceili) dancing.
An abbreviation for Ard Diploma Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha, or certified dance adjudicator. This certification is awarded by An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha (CLRG), the worldwide Irish Dancing commission, and certifies the holder to judge Irish dancing competitions.
An abbreviation for Bun Grad. This certification is awarded by An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha (CLRG), the worldwide Irish Dancing commission, and indicates that the individual is a certified TCRG and ADCRG, and has further successfully passed the CLRG examination to become a grade examiner. This enables them to adjudicate individuals for levels 1-10 of the required grade exams that are a prerequisite for a dancer to be eligible to take the TMRF and TCRG exams. BG’s are however not full examiners, and can not adjudicate individuals for their TMRF, TCRG, or ADCRG certifications, or for grades 11 and 12.
An abbreviation for Scrúdaithoir Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha or Irish dance commission examiner. This certification is awarded by An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha (CLRG), the worldwide Irish Dancing commission, and indicates that the individual is both a certified TCRG and ADCRG, and has further successfully passed the certification to become a full examiner for the CLRG.
An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha
Also called: CLRG
An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha (CLRG) is the worldwide commission for Irish dancing, based in Dublin, Ireland. IDTANA operates in tandem with CLRG, and requires all teachers to be certified members of CLRG before joining IDTANA. CLRG is responsible for running and sponsoring the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne (World Irish Dancing Championships) held each spring.
The Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America
Also called: IDTANA
The Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America, Inc., is a not-for-profit membership organization representing over 1,000 certified and vetted Irish Dance teachers in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. You can learn more about the organization here.
The seven regions within the IDTANA are each governed by their own regional association. These associations are responsible for setting the rules for feiseanna operating within their region, as well as for organizing regional oireachtaisi, or qualifiers for the world championships.