Irish dance basics: The heel of the reel


The Paris Opera Ballet School celebrated over 300 years of dance tradition in 2013,  and I recently saw a lovely documentary focusing on the experience of young dancers starting out and doing an orientation of the company. I was entranced by their passion and commitment, particularly their gentle and considered approach to every aspect of the school and it’s tradition.

Part of that tradition is where all the youngest & newest members of the ballet school participate in the annual défilé– a parade of all balleParis Opera Ballet School -defileballett school and company members prior to a proper ballet performance. Everyone is on show, and careful attention is paid to all aspects of the défilé slow walk. One young dancer said her teacher told her to imagine that our heels light up the room.”

I’m quite taken by that idea- every time you lift your heel there’s a bright shining light that illuminates.

However, it’s all very well to do that in a slow, deliberate ballet walk but trying to light up the room at a fast Irish reel pace can be quite a challenge. Here is some information about reels that might help you.

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Irish dance music: It’s child’s play


Great music is tSeamus_Begleyhe lifeblood of dancing and fortunately, Ireland has it in abundance. One of Ireland’s most beloved musicians and singers, Séamus Begley reveals more (hear audio link below) about the unbreakable bond between Irish music & dance when being interviewed by Joan Armatrading for the BBC.

As he says, his experience of playing music on his accordion was only for dancing and when there was no dancing, he was told to “put it away”.

So, how do you tell a jig from a reel? Or a polka from a slide?

As with most things Irish, it’s complicated. The intricacies of music mathematics can be a difficult thing to get your head around: even the best musicians seem to struggle to explain how it works mostly because there are style differences in the playing, in some cases. In addition, some of the names sound like musical timings – eg, “treble jig” and  “light jig”, but are actually names of a dance rather than a specific musical timing. So, thinking about all this too much will not help your understanding.

Happily, one of the best ways of learning this difference is by moving or by singing/ humming to each different signature timing, and this also goes for musicians who are learning to play Irish music. And why not try to remember each different type – hornpipes, reels, jigs, waltzes, polkas, slides– by what we did when we were kids?

By having fun – playing, clapping and singing to nursery rhymes, and using pictures and word games to remember the basics.

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Irish dance – whatever happens, don’t laugh!

I came across this little gem some time ago, and initially thought it was a pretty good explanation of some of the different styles of Irish dance. Re-visiting this, I was struck by some of the comments made by Ray McBride  being interviewed by Gaybo on the RTÉ Late, Late Show about his recollections about some of the most important aspects of learning Irish step dancing when he was a boy.

He starts with Irish step dancing with what he calls an easy reel (over 1,2s), then a light reel and then into a treble or tap reel.

You might also notice the complete change in his demeanour when he starts doing Irish sean nós (which he introduced as Tennessee clogging)  and then moves into what he calls the “John Travolta sidestep“.I think that last side step could easily pass for Irish sean nós dancing.

What do you think?

Nora Stewart
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