Irish Dance – Céilís and More

Emily’s already posted a little bit about Irish dance, but I wanted to talk more about the different kinds. I danced with the Karl Drake School of Irish Dance for seven years, so I definitely wanted to write about it. What Emily was comparing to tap is called hard shoe – hence the similarity. There is another kind of Irish step dance which uses soft shoes, called ghillies. The two kinds of shoes are pictured below. The socks are called poodle socks and are traditional attire. For performances and competitions (called feises) you use a special glue around the top to ensure that they don’t bunch up around the ankles as you dance.


Hard shoes


Have a bonus photo of me and my very serious dance face! This was (I think) my second competition; I don’t like them very much, but as I got older they were required to be part of the school. For my first one I just curled my hair, but for this one I am wearing a crazy heavy Irish dance wig! Feises have a tendency to turn into fashion shows. Many of the performers are very young, but the amount of money and time spent on wigs, solo dresses, makeup, self-tanner, etc. is frankly ridiculous. Here I’m wearing a wig but my school’s competition dress instead of a solo dress. Solo dresses have a lot more sequins, pictured here:

Solo Dress

Both hard shoe and soft shoe are types of Irish step dance, which is what you will see in feises and performances and is the type of dance I most often practiced. Within the division of hard shoe and soft shoe there are subdivisions of types of dances, based on the time signature. In my experience, there are three types of soft shoe dance (a reel, a jig, and slip jig) and two kinds of hard shoe dance (a treble reel and a treble jig), but there may be more kinds that I wasn’t exposed to.

However, Irish step dance is only part of the Irish dance tradition. Step dancing is usually solo but can be part of a group as a performance. There is another type of dance, called céilí, is a social dance. Céilís can be performed in two long lines or with partners in a set of eight dancers (this is sometimes called Irish set dance and considered distinct from céilís, but the tradition I’m familiar with called both formations céilís as a catch-all for social dances). Céilís were also a lot of fun because we only ever got to do them rarely and they’re a social dance! It’s always more fun to dance with other people!

Group dances can be done as part of a performances (we would often perform them when we visited assisted living places or schools or something similar to perform) but in places where more than just one group of elementary – high school girls know how to dance, they are usually part of parties or the focus of the party. Dances can be called, with a caller yelling (or using a microphone) the step before they happen. You need to have knowledge of the steps, but this can be picked up fairly easily. With a caller, a group doesn’t have to practice a dance beforehand, as one would for a performance. Everyone knows what’s about to happen with the help of the caller!

Group dances are really a lot of fun, and if you’ll excuse a little plug, the Haverford Folk Club is having one tonight! It will be contra dance, not Irish dance, but it will wonderful, with a live band, lots of great people, and a caller, so you don’t have to know the dances! There’s a beginner’s lesson at 7:30 to learn the basic steps, and then dancing from 8-11! It would be fun to see some of y’all there! Founders Great Hall, today, 7:30! Be there or be square (that’s a pun because it’s another type of social dance)!

Celtic Hair History

I’ve had an interest in intricate hair styles pretty much since I’ve had hair long enough to braid. After I’d exhausted the books I’d been given on the subject, I turned to other forms of media. The braids in faux medieval fantasy movies where always the best: ridiculous amounts of both braids and hair, pinned and woven in ways which were a struggle to figure out – and a great triumph once I did so. Because of this interest, I decided to research the history of hair keeping and styling among the ancient Celts and then recreate any styles I found described as well as styles which are currently considered “Celtic.”

Generally, the Celts wore their hair long. Soldiers were sometimes an exceptions; they also wore their hair in rounded, bowl cuts. The Celts were usually described as blond, whether naturally or through the use of chalk or lime-water to lighten the hair. Both those substances change the texture of the hair as well, which would allow soldiers to shape their hair into spikes or tufts as a form of intimidation. Upper class men wore both mustaches and beards, which were usually forked or squared, while lower class men wore simply long mustaches, often curled at the ends. Both men and women wore their hair long, often braided or in curls. Women also wore their braids pinned to the head and also incorporated knots and buns in their hairstyles. Decorative pins, golden beads, ribbons, and precious metals and stones were also incorporated, with the materials differing throughout the classes. Both men and women sometime wore bands of cloth or metal across the forehead, and women sometimes wore similar bands across the crown of the head. Combs were made out of bone or horn.

I’ve decided to recreate three hairstyles: one involving a Celtic knot, one described in a primary text, and one with the numerous braids and adornments which characterized ancient decorative Celtic hairstyles. I’ve used modern tools in all but the first one, like bobby pins, corkscrew pins, and hair elastics, but they would all be possible with the Iron Age tools described above, especially for hair more textured than mine.

The first is a recently popular half-back style called a Celtic knot, which is, as far as I can tell, completely unrelated to any actual historic Celtic hairstyles depicted in art or literature. However, the design is reminiscent of traditional, interwoven patterns portrayed in Celtic art, and women were described as wearing their hair knotted.

Celtic Knot

The second is derived from a description of a beautiful woman in the Irish prose epic Táin Bó Cúlaigne. She wears three braids wrapped around her head, with a fourth hanging down her back to her ankles. There is not a description of the configuration of the braids, and obviously my hair doesn’t reach to my ankles, but I’ve taken my best shot.

Táin Bó Cúlaigne

The third is based on a totally untraceable picture from the internet. Despite my best reverse image searching skills, I couldn’t find the original creator of this style. It’s one of many similar styles which are usually described as Celtic or elven. I apologize for the lighting; the sun went down as I was braiding this one, and I had to take the picture indoors.

Celtic Braids

(Please excuse the messiness. I only got one go at this, and some of the braids came out slightly uneven.)

I hope y’all have found this informative and interesting – and maybe even aesthetically pleasing! I really enjoyed the research and the braiding.

Work Cited

Riley, M. E. “Clothing of the Ancient Celts.” 1997,, 15 February, 2017.

Sherrow, Victoria. “Celts, Ancient.” Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History, Greenwood Press, 2006, pp. 77-8.