Celtic Dance/The Reflection of Gendering in Irish Dance

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Introduction[edit | edit source]

Irish Dance, along with any matter and topics in society and social discourse, is subjected to genders in one way or another. The gendering of dances generally happens due to a dominance of one gender to the other, making it a stereotypical feminine or masculine dance. One popular example for such a claim is the assumption of ballet male dancer being homosexual, as the dance is generally viewed as a feminine dance through gender categorization (Polasek, Rosper, 2011). Irish Dance is not exempted from this endless discourse that is the gendering, or gender categorization. This analysis aimed to further speculate how Irish Dance was impacted by this phenomenon. This shall be done through the speculation of 2 renowned areas of Irish Dance performances: Competitive Irish Dance and Riverdance; then, the presence of genders in Irish Dance shall be discussed; afterwards, the analysis shall shift to how heteronormativity and toxic masculinity can be a causing factor for the gendering within Irish Dance.

Video Case Study: Irish Competitive Dance and Riverdance[edit | edit source]

Irish Competitive Dance and Riverdance can be seen as two distinct sides of Irish Dance that the wide audience is well aware of. competitive Irish Dance was first created by the An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha to promote Irish Dance as national representation, but it was overtaken by the importance of competition and competitiveness (Hall, 2008, 5). However, the performance in the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne, or the World Irish Dance Championship, in English, which is held by the An Coimisiún, can still be viewed as authentic traditional Irish Dance. On the contrary, Riverdance is a reimagination of the traditional Irish Dance, and was commodified to appeal to the global audience. (O’Connor, 1997, 60) The performance has taken great creative liberty and creatively innovated the dance, while keeping the core Irish culture at heart (O’Connor, 1997, 60) Along with the signature Irish step dance, Riverdance also features many spectacle elements like theatrical choreography (O’Connor, 1997, 54), synchronization of the hard shoes worn by a big number of dancers on stage dancers on stage (O’Connor, 1997, 59), the clever incorporation of orchestral music on stage (O’Connor, 1997, 58) etc. These two dance performances are embodiments for the traditional and modern aspects of Irish Dance, which can provide a more complete picture of gender in Irish Dance.

Competitive Irish Dance[edit | edit source]


The video is a compilation of clips from the 2019 Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne. Through speculation, it can be easily seen how competitive Irish Dance is very heavily impacted by gender categorization. First of all, female contestants are greatly dominating male contestants in number. The video was sectioned into three parts: Reels, Heavy Jig, and Set. The first part, Reels, starting from the beginning to timestamp 3:42, featured thirteen girls and only 3 boys. Then the Heavy Jig part, from timestamp 3:43 to 5:56, included twelve girls and absolutely no boys. Finally, the third part, from timestamp 5:56 till the end, has 25 performances, with only 5 from boys and 20 from girls. In total, there are 53 contestants featured in this video, with the female to male ratio being 45:3. This ratio is a snapshot demonstrating how dominating female dancers are in competitive Irish Dance. Furthermore, the number is not the only difference between the two genders. As can been seen, female contestants had much more colourful dresses with many accessories and outstanding hairdo. Contrastingly, male contestants’ attire is much simpler, being tuxedo suits with added shimmering. In fact, the added glamourous factor is the effort in appealing to the judicators outside of the three adjudication categories: timing, carriage, execution (Hall, 2008, 19). However, this is not an explanation for why male and female attire has such a significant difference. Below is a documentary on the subject of competitive Irish Dance, named Jig. In this video, more inside information is reviewed to the audience on how competitive the dance can be, along with a slightly more obvious gendering undertone.


In the documentary, out of the eight contestants documented, only three are male, similar to the phenomenon shown in the previous video. The video also provided more facts about the costumes. At timestamp 3:26, the audience learned more about Simona, one of the older contestants that her mother has to make the costume herself because of how expensive it is, and they cannot afford it. Later on, it is revealed that these costumes, especially for younger contestants, does not last long, as the dancers will grow out of it eventually, like Julia, a younger contestant and the world champion of that year, as her mother stated in timestamp 43:12 that Julia only wore her last dress for four to five times. The video provided multiple close-up shots on how dazzling and glamorous these dresses are, along with quite heavy face makeups and big wigs for girls. Furthermore, the documentary’s focus is not just about costumes and how expensive it is, as more gendering matter started to reveal themselves. At timestamp 12:01, the ten-year-old contestant John and his parents talked about how he was teased and called homosexual because of his dancing, which really shows how gendering has affected the world’s view on Irish Dance and its dancers.

Riverdance[edit | edit source]


The video is the original performance of Riverdance, a less-than-ten-minute performance of Irish dancing and choir at the Eurovision Song Contest 30 April 1994 in Dublin, that has become so iconic it has gained itself a full-fledged performance in the very next year.


The two performances share a lot of similarities, as one was derived from the other. A consistent feature of the two videos is that the male dancers within them is more profound, having a lead male, Michael Flatley, and several male performances. It can be said that the presences between two genders are equally matched, even though the number of females was till a bit more than males. The costumes have also experienced great deviation comparing to competitive Irish Dance, within more emphasis of the body and much less heavy on the décor. According to Barbara O’Connor, competitive Irish Dance costumes are so dazzling and glamorous to distract eyes from the body by attracting it the Celtic elements of the attires, which is the direct opposite to how Riverdance depict these costumes (1997). As mentioned, the costumes have more emphasis on the dancers’ bodies, being more form-fitting for female dancers and the looser on male. The similarity between both of the costumes is that fabric is softer to create a sense of flow and flying for the dance, making the dancers into the element of spectacle. Shifting to the performance itself, the dance future some very refreshing takes on gender roles. At timestamp 11:30, the female dancers started dancing is soft shoes with soft and calming music to accompany it. The movement is also very flexible and flowing to fit more with the music. This part can be seen as a more stereotypical feminine part. Then, when timestamp 13:59 came, the tone shifted to a more stereotypical masculine: intense music, strong instruments like the drums, and three male dancers appeared as Jean Butler ran to the side. Then Jean Butler and the female dancers re-appeared with hard shoes, slowing dancing forward, asserting a sense of dominance towards to audience and the male dancers. This can be seen as a way of breaking through hegemonic masculinity that was still present at the time.

The performances for competitive Irish Dance and Riverdance can be seen as two ends of a spectrum, having quite many opposite components and characteristics, especially in the presentation and gender categorization.

Genders presences in Irish Dance[edit | edit source]

Through the previous analysis on competitive Irish Dance and Riverdance, it is obvious that the number of females in this field in very dominating, to the point where Irish Dance is viewed as a female dance, and males taking part in it may be viewed as feminine as well. This section will focus of the presences of both genders within the dance, and what has caused the domination of females within the art.

Surprisingly enough, competitive Irish Dance did not start off as a female-dominated art. In fact, there is only one woman in the League’s Control Board, and 2 women in the Dance Commission delegation, which accounted for less than 10 percent (Churchill, 2019). The dance’s divergent into being a more female-dominated dance started when the next generations of youths, especially boys, were more interested in other recreational activities and sports, which enabled girls to partake the dance, which slowly becomes the majority gender in the art, as Sarah Churchill quoted. One explanation for the withdrawal of young boys and the dominating number of young girls can be because of the girls’ higher dance confidence. Girls before the age of 16 use dancing, or as Peter Lovatt quoted, “social recreational dance”, as a fun recreational activity, which can be at home on their own, with other female friends, and/or in a dancing class (Lovatt, 2011). On the other hand, boys of the same age do not dance the way young girls would do, making their overall dance confidence at that age lower comparing to girls. Lovatt did discuss that the changes of the dance confidence as the girls and boys getting older, with males having increasing confidence through years, while female having their confidence declined because of their desire to appeal to the opposite sex through dancing (2011). As boys pass the age of 16 and around early 20s, social recreational dance becomes “part of the sexual selection, or mate selection, process” (Lovatt, 2011). However, this desire is only expressed in social dance settings, and Irish Dance, or competitive Irish Dance, in this case, did not correlate with that said desire, as it is always competitive, which helps the girls maintain their confidence within the art.

Sarah Churchill also commented that female also gained agency when the League started fostering younger females to the “subjugation of the dance master” (2019). However, this empowerment was only for levels lower than the executive level of the League, as women were “not necessary welcome” (Churchill, 2019). Churchill concluded that Irish Dance was gendered as a feminine dance as a result of “relational feminism”, which, as she defined, as the feminine agency that was unexpectedly extended to the public. However, this is still a problematic phenomenon, as this agency is still administrated by masculinity. (Churchill, 2019). As politics had taken over Irish Dance, even the women’s agency in what to wear was controlled. Women with too fashionable dress will be viewed as devoid of “political thought”, and those who did not take appearance into account were “castigated as unsexed” (Churchill, 2019). As a result, the kilt became the answer, because of its practicality and message. The kilt, comparing the previous skirt that is “bulky narrow, allows for more free movements, suitable for more modern and innovative changes to the choreography, like kicks and leaps (Churchill, 2019). This new attire also conveys a masculinity message, claiming “inclusion within masculinist narrative of nationhood and celebrate their professional gain” (Churchill, 2019).

The Impact of Toxic Masculinity in Irish Dance

As can be seen from the example of John, the ten-year-old competitive Irish Dance contestants in the Jig documentary, who was called homosexual because of his passion with the art form. This can be a result of heteronormativity and toxic masculinity.

When discussing the idea of gender roles in human society, one significant concept that is very common is gender archetypes. As quoted by Samuel Paul Louis Veissière, “gender archetypes usually describe worst-case and best-case ideal types of men and women.” (2018) Generally, the “best-case” type of men is a person who have strength, generosity and ability to protect others, while the “best-case” type of women would be “beautiful, caring and generous.” (Veissière, 2018) Veissière also commented that according to traditional standards, men’s role is protecting the family, toughening up their children and helping them in facing the outside world, while women pay attention to details. (2018) Speculatively speaking, these archetypes that society has molded for men and women is a part of how gender roles have such a big part in a person’s everyday life. Consequently, any individuals who did not apply to these standards are viewed to be lesser than others. These pre-determined archetypes that societies applied to are what created the phenomenon called heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is the concept that normalizes heterosexual, or the relationship between two binary sex, male and female, and marginalizing/discriminating any other sexualities that defy this concept (Pratt, 2009). In a way, heteronormativity can be the opposition to homosexual and any concept that is outside of the “normalized” heterosexual. This can be the cause of homophobia, or the aversion to the LGBT+ community.

At the very of the gender archetypes spectrum, it is safe to say toxic masculinity is the worst-case. First of all, to understand toxic masculinity is to understand hegemonic masculinity, a concept that is the exaggeration of masculinity, which can be characterized as the assertion and reinforcement of the pre-existing gender roles to maintain the dominance and power of men in societal structure. As terrible as it may sound, toxic masculinity is even worst than what hegemonic masculinity can be, as there is the added element of aggressive competitiveness in wish for domination over others (Parent, Gobble, Rochlen, 2019). Toxic masculinity is the manifestation of rigid heteronormativity in its worst form, endorsing and encouraging “misogynistic and homophobic views (Parent, Gobble, Rochlen, 2019). This negative ideology can possibly be a contributing factor to how dominating one gender can be in an activity, much like the female-dominated nature of Irish Dance. The idea of a male partaking in a generally female-dominated dance such as Irish Dance can be viewed through the lens of heteronormativity can be seen as a “glitch” with this system of gender roles and archetypes. With toxic masculinity, the male dancers, who are deemed not adhering to the masculine standards, are targeted and isolated, and may even be harmed both mentally and physically. Because of this pressure, many of them may choose to shy away from the art form.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

In a society where everything is being categorized for only either men or women, the deviation from these heteronormative standards can be seen as something incomprehensible. Even in the field of expressional art such as Irish Dancing, these “norms” are applied, restricting people from seeking to do whatever they desire. With the existing problem that is toxic masculinity, it is even more difficult to break out of these molds that might not be meant for them. The text has speculated two case studies, one on competitive Irish Dancing, and the Riverdance performance, which are the analogy for how gendering works in traditional and modern form of the dance. It is clear that Riverdance has shown promising progression on how gender roles are portrayed within the art, which can pave the way for male presence in Irish Dance, which, in turns, fight against the outdated gender archetypes and the poisoning nature of toxic masculinity. It sure is not impossible to dream of a future where gender is not an obstacle for a person to do what their heart desires.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

  • Churchill, S. (2019). Revolutionary Threads: The Mediation of Gender and Political Identity in the ‘New Irish Dance Costume’, 1917–37. Gender & History, 31(1), 153-177.\
  • Dancing Queens. (2019, June 15). Videos from the WORLD IRISH DANCE CHAMPIONSHIPS 2019! [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/dgXUoOKTzMw
  • Hall, Frank. 2008. Chapter 4: Dancing as Competition, In Competitive Irish Dance: Art, Sport, and Duty, 43-67. Madison, WI: Macater Press.
  • Lovatt, P. (2011). Dance confidence, age and gender. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(5), 668-672.
  • O'Connor, Barbara. 1997. "Riverdance". In Encounters with Modern Ireland, edited by M. Peillon and E. Slater, 51-60. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.
  • Parent, M., Gobble, T., & Rochlen, A. (2019). Social Media Behavior, Toxic Masculinity, and Depression. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 20(3), 277-287.
  • Polasek, K., & Roper, E. (2011). Negotiating the gay male stereotype in ballet and modern dance. Research in Dance Education, 12(2), 173-193.
  • Popcornflix. (2016, February 11). Jig (Full Documentary) Irish Dancing competitions [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/5G7nAjEVIwg
  • Pratt, G. (2009). heteronormativity. In D. Gregory, The dictionary of human geography (5th ed.). Blackwell Publishers. Credo Reference: https://cbu.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/bkhumgeo/heteronormativity/0?institutionId=7684
  • Quack. (n.d.). Riverdance 1995 [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/R9KkbU4yStM
  • Riverdance. (n.d.). Riverdance at the Eurovision Song Contest 30 April 1994, Dublin #Riverdance20 [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/w0v_pu6miJ8
  • Veissière, S. (2018). “Toxic Masculinity” in the age of #MeToo: Ritual, morality and gender archetypes across cultures. Society and Business Review, 13(3), 274-286.