Festival Irish dance

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Festival dance is a form of Irish dance traditionally associated with Northern Ireland. It separated from the "feis" movement in stepdancing in the mid-20th century and became stylistically and administratively distinct. The form is practised competitively in Northern Ireland, England, and parts of mainland Europe.


In the early 20th century, the Gaelic League, an organisation devoted to the promotion of the Irish language in Ireland, established An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha (CLRG) to standardise and promote traditional Irish dance, as part of a broader Irish nationalist cause. However, the organisation was criticised for its emphasis on certain regional styles and traditions at the expense of others.[1]

In 1951 dance teacher Patricia Mulholland was suspended from teaching by CLRG for six months after participating in a dance event where the British national anthem was played.[2] Mulholland decided to leave CLRG and create a new form of Irish dance, described as a form of "folk ballet", in order to appeal to Protestant and Catholic heritages.[3][4]

A group of dancing teachers from Northern Ireland met in Belfast in 1971 and formed a new organisation, initially known as An Comgall, but later renamed to the Nine Glens Association. The Association hosted various annual competitions, and became the Festival Dance Teachers Association in 2003.[5]


There are stylistic differences between festival dance and modern stepdance as the predominating forms of solo Irish dance. Teachers of festival dance emphasise the importance of individualism in performance, and encourage storytelling in the interpretations of each dancer. It is described as less rigid, and proponents highlight the "art and personal expression" involved. Set dances,[note 1] which are standardised by An Coimisiún and other stepdance organisations, are originally composed for individual festival dancers.[7]

In competition, festival dancers depart from the highly embellished costumes that became prominent in An Coimisiún competitions after the debut of Riverdance at the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. Competitors do not wear wigs, and makeup and fake tan are frequently prohibited. Costumes for girls are typically free-flowing velvet dresses, which create a perception of fluid movement in the style of the dance.[8] Hard shoes are worn which resemble those of stepdancers, but ghillies (soft shoes) are made of canvas and are closer in construction to ballet slippers.[citation needed]


The Festival Dance Teachers Association (FDTA) promotes and coordinates Irish festival dance, predominantly in Northern Ireland. The FDTA describes the Ulster Championships as its most significant competition.[5] Competitions are held for both solo and team dances.[8]

The Festival Irish Dance Teachers Association (F.I.D.T,A.) promotes and teaches Festival Irish Dancing in Somerset, U.K. The Association was formed by Catherine Bartlett in 2000. They have welcomed schools from Northern Ireland to their Irish Dance competitions in Somerset alongside other styles and Associations. They have hosted The European Championship giving dancers from Northern Ireland the opportunity to compete against the rest of the world whilst maintaining Festival style and traditions.[9]


  1. ^ "Set dance", in this context, refers to a solo Irish dance which is danced to a specified tune,[6] and should not be confused with set dancing, a style of group Irish dance.


  1. ^ Cullinane, John (2003). An Coimisiún Le Rince Gaelacha: its origins and evolution. Dublin: Dr John P. Cullinane. ISBN 0-9527952-4-8.
  2. ^ Shay, Anthony; Sellers-Young, Barbara (2016). ""In A World Of Our Own": Competition versus Creativity in Irish Step Dance". The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Ethnicity. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190493936. Retrieved 8 August 2017.
  3. ^ "Irish dancers staged for Holywood return". Belfast Telegraph. 5 May 2011. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
  4. ^ McGonagle, Suzanne (7 March 2015). "Irish dancing legend honoured". The Irish News. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
  5. ^ a b "About Us". Festival Dance Teachers Association. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
  6. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions - Traditional Sets vs Set Dances | Aniar Academy School of Irish Dance". Aniar Academy School of Irish Dance. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  7. ^ Nawaz, Joe (3 February 2011). "Festival Dance at the Core of the Matter". Culture Northern Ireland. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  8. ^ a b Dorrity, Christie (28 May 2015). "Interview with a Festival Dance Teacher from Tir Na n-Og Irish Dancing School". Antonio Pacelli. Retrieved 12 April 2017.
  9. ^ Foley, Catherine E. (2016). Step Dancing in Ireland: Culture and History. Routledge. p. 238. ISBN 9781317050056. Retrieved 12 April 2017.