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Sean-nós dance is the "old style" of traditional solo Irish dance. It is most closely related to the casual form (as opposed to the more formal competition-oriented form of) Irish Stepdancing. "Sean Nós" in the Irish language means "old style" and refers to various sean-nós activities, including sean-nós song and sean-nós dance. These less common forms of Irish dance and traditional Irish singing have been documented by folklorists and song collectors (AKA ethnomusicologists).


Irish traditional dance

The most widely-known form of traditional Irish dance is competition-oriented Stepdance. Other popular forms of Irish dancing are for couples and group social dancing, such as Set Dance and the casual dancing at a gathering called a Céili (AKA Céilidh). A specialized form of dance is the Broom Dance (AKA Brush Dance). Less known is the traditional freeform solo type called sean nós or "old style" dance.

Sean-nós dance

Sean-nós dance is characterized by its "low to the ground" footwork, free movement of the arms, and an emphasis upon a "battering step" (which sounds out more loudly the accented beat of the music). By its nature, it follows the music closely. In the absence of any musical accompaniment, the rhythmic nature of sean-nós dance results in a percussive music of its own. It frequently is danced by only one person, and even when danced in pairs or small groups, there is no physical contact between the dancers. Because it is a freeform, solo type of dance, it is not necessary for a pre-arranged routine to be decided upon by the dancer, and spontaneous expression is considered normal. Therefore, it is less common to see groups performing synchronized sean-nós dance (which requires choreography in advance). Instead, the dancers may dance in turns, playing off the energy of the other.

Difference between sean-nós dance and Irish Stepdance

Sean-nós dancing is similar to the more formal, competition oriented Irish Stepdance, but is more freeform in its expression. Stepdancing is recognizable by its stylized traditional dance clothing, that the arms are kept rigidly to the side, and the dancer's face is supposed to be expressionless. In comparison, the Sean-nós dancers will be wearing their street clothing and their arms will most likely be moving to the rhythm, with the hands optionally nearly meeting either in the front or the back of the person.[1]

Competition oriented Irish Stepdancing can be danced with a soft or a hard shoe, depending on the type of dance. Sean-nós dancing is done exclusively with solidly-built shoes. The sound of a sean-nós dancer's footwork has a rhythmic quality unto itself, so it can be danced without musical accompaniment. An audience or a dance partner isn't essential either, as this is a solo form of dance that a person can break out into simply for the joy of dancing—akin to the spontaneity of an Irish Jig.

Sean-Nós Dance: This is an old style traditional form of dancing that originated in the Connemara region (west coast of Ireland). This is a low to ground stepping out to the music, very relaxed, similar to tap dance, but it is not the stage show event like the Step Dancing you see in productions of Riverdance. Sean-nós dancing is a very impromptu, rhythmic, and low key accompaniment to a lively traditional Irish band. The footwork "battering" is great fun to watch and listen to. These are typically done as a solo performer or in very small groups and are well suited to all ages. (oftentimes the best sean-nós dancers, are the old timers in the dark corners of the pub).[2]

Controversy over what authentic sean-nós dance comprises

The roots of this form of dancing pre-date modern records. Debate exists about whether the dance steps have evolved over the centuries. Differences in sean-nós dance between different regions of Ireland exist, so there is no singular definitive standard.

Folk Music & Dances of Ireland, Brendan Breathnach writes: "The good dancer danced, as it were underneath himself, trapping each note of music on the floor, and the use of the half-door and table for solo performances indicates the limited area in which he was expected to perform."[3]

"They used to say, `A good dancer could dance on a silver tray, and a really excellent dancer could dance on a sixpence.' Now, any modern Irish dancer would fill the whole stage." But, why compare the two? After all, says Patrick O'Dea, they are two entirely different dances - one, a traditional "old style" of step dancing, and the second, a newer and less traditional outgrowth or variation.[4]

Traditional sean-nós dance surfaces can vary from a standard dance floor, to a door that has been taken off the hinges, a board placed across two supports, or even the top of a stool. In those cases, the skill of the dancer is shown by how well he can produce the various steps within the narrow bounds of the dance surface.

Sean-nós dancing in the Irish Diaspora

As the Irish peoples migrated to other lands, they have taken sean-nós dance with them. This form of dance then has influenced various other forms of traditional solo dance extant in those other lands—such as Tap Dance or American traditional informal freeform solo folk dancing. Sean-nós dance in America may differ from how it is practiced in Ireland, because it in turn has been influenced by other culture's dance styles there. Sean-nós dancing in America and Canada is most commonly seen at folk festivals and informal Irish music session, possibly mixed in with casual Irish Stepdancing and other regional styles. However, some dance workshops in America are beginning to introduce the style more widely.

Minimalist means of preserving Irish music and dance

The practice of sean-nós dance, sean-nós song, Lilting (AKA "mouth music"), and "the bones" (a simple percussion instrument convenient to carry in a pocket) represented a minimalist means of preserving musical and dance heritage. Why so? Maybe partly because of poverty, and the cost for the peasants of buying instruments into the middle 1900s[5].

See also

Sean-nos Dance website with Resources and links


  1. ^ Video: Canadian stepdancers Jon and Nathan Pilatzke, Dan Stacey and Irish Stepdancer Cara Butler stepdancing with Seven Nations in Cleveland
  2. ^ Hoilands FAQ -What's a ceili, sean nos and set dancing ?
  3. ^ Folk Music & Dances of Ireland, Brendan Breathnach
  4. ^ Sean Nos Step Dancing - It's A Living Tradition, Kieran Jordan
  5. ^ Irish Step Dancing - A Brief History, Don Haurin & Ann Richens

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