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Many people today have been introduced to Irish dance through stage productions such as Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. They are unaware that the demanding step dancing performance they are seeing is only one form of Irish dance. But Irish dance is not carried by the single thread of its solo performance form. It is a rich tapestry of interwoven solo and social dance forms: the solo step dances and set step dances, the céilí dances that directly reflect several of the forms and movements of the step dances, the set dances that also reflect many of these same movements but retain different aspects from those emphasized in céilí dances, and even the waltzes and other couples dances which are danced by the Irish in forms that reflect the cultural dance heritage.
It is unfortunate when adherents or practitioners of one form or another of Irish dance feel the need to diminish one of the other forms as being “foreign”, “inauthentic”, or “non-traditional”. This is especially so in the context of the Irish culture which, for many centuries, was systematically suppressed and outlawed. That so much has been able to be reconstructed is close to miraculous. That so little represents an unbroken continuity is tragic. Of the nearly 150 céilí and set dances danced today, only four have a record of being continuously used as social dance forms for the past century. But this in no way lessens the stature or meaningfulness of the other dances as traditional dances.
There are two different ways to explore the relationships among the various Irish dance forms: structurally and historically. The structural root of Irish dance is found in step-dance while the historical root lies in céilí dance. It is important to recognize that no detailed descriptions of Irish dances have been found from before the mid-nineteenth century, and that all of the forms of Irish dance seen today were present in the culture by then. Even the Irish words for dance, damhsa and rince, derive from the French danse and the English rink [to skate on ice], respectively. However, the general outlines of their history are known. “The Story of Irish Dance” by Helen Brennan, Mount Eagle Publications, Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland, 1999 [ISBN 0 86322 244 7] contains much more information than is provided here.
History: Céilí dances represent an informal tradition of dance that is common to much of humanity since prehistory. Many are structured as sword dances, round dances, line dances, and progressive line dances. The Normans have been credited for introducing the round dance into Ireland around the 12th century. The “rince fada” [long dance] is actually a family of dances, one of which was described in the end of the 17th century as performed by “three persons moving abreast, each of which held the end of a white handkerchief, followed by the rest of the dancers in pairs”. The Gaelic Revival in Ireland in the late 19th century destroyed the practice of dancing these dances so effectively that when the Gaelic League decided to resurrect them in the 1920′s, they had generally been lost and new dances had to be codified to write the “Ár Rinncidhe Fóirne”. Many of the modern céilí dances have known authors. For example, the “Fairy Reel” was composed by An t-Athair Ó Flannagáin around 1930, to a tune written by Neil Gow for the Fife Hunt Ball in Scotland in 1802.
Structure: The modern Céilí dance form was codified early in this century by the Gaelic League who was simultaneously establishing the form to be used for step-dancing competitions. As well as the often noted “hands at the sides” aspect, céilí dance today emphasizes the height, turn-out, dancing on the toes [not the same as the ballet stance], extension of leg and foot, long reach and quick movements seen in the step dances as well, but tends to de-emphasize the use of battering and foot percussion.
History: Step dances evolved as the creation of Irish dancing masters, subsequent to their appearance in the late 18th century. Dancing masters would often travel from town to town, teaching basic dancing steps to those interested and able to pay for them. Since the basic folk dances had been done for centuries in their absence, one must suspect that their appearance was motivated by a desire to learn the “upscale” dance styles then beginning to be introduced from France. The dance masters often paraphrased these dances to fit the traditional music available and, in doing so, laid the basis for much of today’s traditional Irish dance – céilí, step, and set. The dance masters taught steps, the 8-bar units out of which most Irish traditional dance is constructed. The steps involved both the movements needed for various dances and the foot percussion, called battering, used for rhythmic emphasis. Competitions were often held in which the demonstrations of steps by masters were performed on a table-top or similar small stage. In fact, dancing in a limited space was viewed as such an important aspect of the style that one of the greatest tributes to be paid to a dancer was to note that they could “dance on the top of a plate”.
Structure: The codification of style that defines modern step dance took place in the 1920′s and provided a basis for judging of competitions. Although none can deny the great response and popularity induced by competitions, they also tend to push style into emphasizing extremes in preferred characteristics rather than overall balance of effect. The early [sean-nós] dance style for step emphasized a close form and posture – legs kept together, no high kicks, little or no turning and, obviously, no traveling. The preferred style for competition step-dancing changed through the 1950′s and 1960′s. The availability of lorries, then small stages in halls, and then larger stages, especially in the larger cities made it possible to perform the traveling steps, circular lead-in’s, sevens-and-threes, and turns we see as a characteristic of modern step-dance.
Part of modern step-dancing competition involves the dancing of steps to certain particular tunes. These are called "set dances". What characterizes these set dances are the particular tunes to which they are danced. Instead of the conventional 8-bar structure usually used in social dancing, the set dance tunes generally have a one or two part structure with 8 or 12 bars in the first part and 12, 14, 16, or even more bars in the second. Associated with each of these tunes is a corresponding solo dance. The footwork and the movements are supposed to particularly interpret the set tune.
History: The Irish Set Dances [as distinguished from the set step dances] are the evolutionary descendants of the Quadrilles danced at the French court in the late 18th and early 19th century and other related dances from Scotland, and elsewhere. These dances were brought to Ireland and taught by the early dancing masters who adapted them to Irish traditional music and modified and elaborated them to show off their dancing prowess. In time, various regions of the country retained and danced the local "set" at crossroads and in homes, even when the Catholic Church used the Public Dance Hall Act of 1935 to try to stamp them out. While the céilí dances have a nearly universal uniformity around the country, the set dances vary widely from place to place. Set dancing survived best in those parts of the country that held most strongly to their traditions. Although the céilí dances were held by some to be more Irish, the only dances that could be found in places like the Kerry gaeltachta were the sets. The Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and the Gaelic Athletic Association began to sponsor competitions in the 1950's and 1960's and the 1980's and 1990's have seen a large-scale revival of the popularity of set dancing. Today, we can count approximately 100 different sets gathered from localities in all parts of Ireland, although it has been said that the dancing of only a few of them have never lapsed, including the Caledonian, Connemara, Cashel, and Sliabh Luachra.
Structure: Set dances are danced by four couples, generally [but not always] arranged on the sides of a square. They are generally divided into several [usually 5 or 6, but ranging from 2 to 9] "figures". Set dances are danced flat on the feet, and generally avoid the leaps and traveling movements of the céilí dances, although the feet of some of the dancers from Cork and Kerry are only occasionally found near the floor. Unlike the céilí dances, set dances retain and feature strong regional variations in the style of the dance. Sets from Cork and Kerry lean heavily on the jigs and polkas played so well by the musicians of these counties, while the sets from Clare feature the reels of which those people are so fond. Sets, like the Clare Lancers, from North Clare are danced with a smooth, gliding style while those from other parts of Clare are danced with battering reminiscent of that introduced by the dancing masters of old into their step-dancing performed on small platforms.
Very little has been written on the subject of the Irish origins or adaptation of Waltzes and other dances. Well-loved dances like the "Stack of Barley", the "Gay Gordons", "Schottische", and "Shoe the Donkey" are a regular part of the program at many céilí's, as are the waltzes which are interspersed with the céilí or set dances. While the waltz, like the quadrille or even, perhaps, the round dance may not have originated in Ireland itself, the Irish adapted the dance form to suit their own style, leading to lovely dances like the "Pride of Erin" and the "Waltz Marguerite" or "St. Margaret's Waltz" with its set-dance-like weave of advance/retires, ladies chains, and house-arounds.