About Irish Dance

Music & Musicians

The heart and soul of Irish dancing

Irish dancing is intimately connected to traditional Irish music. Irish music is so ingrained into the dance form that the dances themselves are named according to the type of Irish tune that is being played. There are 4 different Irish music types that are commonly used for Irish dancing, with thousands of tunes that fall into each category.

Tunes + Time Signatures

The 4 types of Irish music for Irish step dancing are Reels, Jigs, Slip Jigs, and Hornpipes. The time signature of the tune the musician is playing will determine what Irish dance steps will fit to that music, meaning a dancer can perform their steps to any tune that fits the correct time signature. For example, an Irish dance “Reel” is performed to Irish music set in 4/4 time signature, also known as “common time,” and an Irish dance “Jig” is danced to a tune set in 6/8 time signature. The speed at which the tune is played, and the type of dance shoes the dancer is wearing, will also determine what dance is going to be performed. The primary Irish dance music categories include:

  • Reels (including “Treble Reels” if wearing hard shoes)
  • Light Jigs
  • Single Jigs (also called “Hop Jigs”)
  • Slip Jigs
  • Treble Jigs (also referred to as “Heavy Jigs” or “Double Jigs”)
  • Hornpipes

Ceili and group dances  are also set to particular time signatures, or even specific tunes, to which they are meant to be danced.

Set Dances

Set dances describe a collection of dance tunes standardized by CLRG, to be performed solo by dancers in hard shoes, with choreography developed specifically for that tune. These tunes use the same time signatures outlined above, but often feature unusual structures and particularly exciting melodies.

Set dances come in 2 types; traditional set dances and non-traditional set dances (also called “modern set dances”). Traditional set dances are standardized, with very few variations. Besides some stylistic differences, most of the trad set dances are performed the same way from school to school to keep these historical dances from being lost or forgotten, as they are passed down from teacher to student and from one generation to the next. Each traditional set dance is danced to a tune of the same name and set to a specific speed. The seven most popular traditional Irish set dances are:

  • St. Patrick’s Day
  • Blackbird
  • Garden of Daisies
  • Job of Journeywork
  • Three Sea Captains
  • Jockey to the Fair
  • King of the Fairies

Modern set dances (also known as contemporary sets), are chosen from an approved list of approximately 40 tunes, and choreographed by the teacher or dance school. These dances aim to push the boundaries of solo Irish dancing by combining intricate footwork, movements, and rhythms. The list of approved set dances is comprised of old and new set dance tunes, with choreographers and dancers able to pick both the tune and speed at which the dance will be performed.

Irish Dance Musicians

If you attend an Irish dance competition you will virtually always notice a live musician accompanying dancers on stage. At smaller competitions, dancers may be accompanied by a single musician, while at larger, or international, competitions it’s common to see musicians playing in sets of 2 or more at a time, creating an incredible experience for both dancers and audience members. Popular instruments include accordions, fiddles, piano keyboards, as well as other traditional Irish instruments like whistles and banjos.