What is the Difference Between Highland and Irish Dance?

What is the Difference Between Highland and Irish Dance?

Having both originated from Celtic countries, Highland and Irish dance are often mistaken for each other. Both are full of fascinating history and rich cultural traditions – but they don’t have as much overlap as the general public might think.

While we at Saorsa Studio can’t speak for the Irish dancers of the world, we know that as Highland dancers, the confusion gets brought up a lot! 

So, read on to learn the distinctions between these two delightful (yet different) styles of dance!

What is Highland Dance?

The following is a very brief summary of a long and winding history. For a detailed reading on the history and progression of Highland dance up until the present, you should read our previous post, What is Highland Dance?

The History of Highland Dance

Highland dance originates from Scottish military traditions in the 11th or 12th century. Ancient kings and clan chieftains used Highland as a test of their soldiers strength and agility to find the best among them. Each Highland dance carries a specific story – preserving Scottish folklore among the steps and movements. 

David Cunliffe, 1853

Queen Victoria’s love for Scotland triggered a resurgence of Scottish culture in the mid-19th century, which gave rise to the first Highland Games and the first Highland dance competitions. 

Originally, women were not permitted to compete in Highland dance competitions, until one brave Jenny Douglas competed for the first time, dressed as a man. Since then, more and more women have found a love for the sport. Today, upwards of 95% of Highland dancers are women.

Over time, Highland dance has spread throughout the world. And while it is no longer used in the Scottish military, it continues to test and push the strength, power, stamina, and limits of the human body. 

What is Irish Dance?

Irish dance is difficult to write about at times because there is very little written history of how it came to be. Here is what we do know:

The History of Irish Dance

Irish dance is hard to trace because there is little written history surrounding it, but it is believed to have originated in the 15th century in Ireland. Its origins likely lie with early forms of Celtic pagan dancing in worship of the sun. These dances involved repetitive foot tapping, along with other elements of modern Irish dance. 

Over time, this traditional pagan dance evolved to include reels, semblances of quadrilles from France, and elements of English country dancing. 

Throughout the 18th century, Irish Dancing Masters began travelling throughout Ireland and spreading their knowledge of dance. The Irish Dance traditions this produced relied heavily on French dancing etiquette and recreated the tradition of teaching set steps to be performed with local preferences. The customs begun by the Irish Dancing Masters was carried on by their pupils – further evolving over time into the dance we recognise today. 

Image Via Celtic Steps

In 1951, the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, (Society of the Musicians of Ireland) was founded, triggering a vibrant revival of traditional Irish set dance and music. Across Ireland, people danced Ceílís and sets.

In 1970, competitions among different communities began, which allowed different local styles of set dancing to be shared. This not only began the modern practice of Irish dance competitions, but also inspired different locales to find pride in their traditional sets. 

Image Via Newport This Week

Rapid Fire: Key Identifiers

Highland Dance

  • The vast majority of dances are danced danced individually, with the exception of the Reels, which are danced in groups of four (dancers are judged as individuals in competitions) and group choreographies, which are danced only sporadically in competition, and mostly used for performance.
  • The dances are categorised as follows: traditional Highland dances, National dances, jig, and hornpipe.
General Dance Composition
  • Generally, Highland dance includes a lot of jumping, sharp movements, and extensions. 
  • The knees are turned out consistently, positions and movements are reminiscent of ballet. 
  • Dancers use their arms – generally placed on the waist or above the head
  • Dancers wear soft, black, leather ghillies in all dances, with the exception of in the Irish Jig
  • Dancers with long hair wear their hair in a slicked back bun
  • Dance costumes are heavily regulated, with room for variation on colour and some small adornments. Costumes for male and female dancers are generally similar, with gender-based variations.
    • The traditional kilt outfit includes a kilt, argyle-pattern wool socks, and velvet jacket or waistcoat.   
    • Tartans are either traditional plaids which are often associated with specific clans or places, or are “dress” tartans, which include white. Dress tartans are used are used for competition.
    • The aboyne outfit, created for women for the national dances when Highland dance became popular women. 
    • The Irish Jig outfit, which includes red, green, and white, and Irish motifs including hard shoes and a shillelagh and paddy hat for male dancers. 
    • The Sailor’s Hornpipe outfit, which resembles a Sailor’s uniform.
A Dancer Wears A Competition Kilt Outfit In Dress Lime Green MacKellar Tartan - via Paul White

Music for Highland dance is primarily played by bagpipes. This can be upgraded to dancing to a full pipe band, including different types of drums. Modern Highland dance sees choreography music include fiddle, guitar, piano, and other instruments which can enhance bagpipes. 

Irish Dance

  • There are six general Irish dance styles:
    • Traditional Irish Step Dancing
    • Modern Irish Step Dancing
    • Irish Set Dancing
    • Irish Ceili Dancing
    • Irish Sean Nos Dancing
    • Irish Two Hand Dancing
  •  Each style includes different traditions – we recommend you read further to learn about each individual style.
General Dance Composition
  • Generally, Irish dance includes a lot of shuffling and tapping of the feet in quick succession. Easily recognisable are the occasional high kicks used by dancers. 
  • The knees are typically considered to look turned in.
  • Arms are typically kept by the sides
  • It is common for Irish dance schools to have their own particular colours and designs to be worn on costumes
  • For solo dances, dancers often choose colours, patterns, and adornments that suit themselves and the dance with the goal of standing out from competitors
  • It is common for competitive female Irish dancers to wear wigs styled in ringlets that bounce along with the dancer’s movements. Wigs are worn in combination with a tiara
  • Dresses worn by female Irish dancers typically reach almost to the knee, cover over the collarbone and down to the wrists, and are covered in intricate Celtic knot imagery, and eye-catching sparkles, vibrant colours, and other adornments. 
  • Male dancers typically wear trousers, a shirt, and a coloured sash.
  • There are soft shoe Irish dances and hard shoe Irish dances – the shoe worn depends on the dance and the skill level of the dancer. Irish soft shoes, like in Highland dance, are called ghillies. There are very subtle differences in the shape of the shoes.
Irish Dance Ghillies via Scoil Rince Ní Bhraonáin
Highland Dance Ghillies via Tori Claire Photography

Music for Irish Dance is typically composed featuring instruments including the Bodhran (an Irish drum), accordian, Uiliean pipes, concertina, Celtic harp, tin whistle, and banjo. 

See it in Action!

Highland Dance

Demonstrated here by multi-time World Champion Marielle Lespérance is the traditional Sword dance.

Danced here is the Scottish lilt, one of the National dances.

For a sample of a non-traditional iteration of Highland dance, check out New Brunswick’s own Shanachie dancers

Irish Dance

One popular iteration of Irish dance you’ve probably heard of before is Riverdance.

Demonstrated here is a solo dance performed by Mariana C. Horton.

Demonstrated here is Walls of Limerick, a Ceili dance.

Highland and Irish share some commonalities, but in many ways, these two styles of Celtic dance are no more similar than Tap and Ballet do. Both are steeped in tradition and history, and modern iterations continue to spread throughout the world.

Are you looking to try Highland dance?

While we at Saorsa can’t do much for Irish dance, you can try a free introductory Highland class by clicking the button below!

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