A strong dance tradition permeates all the Celtic nations and many of the styles and forms are common to all. But each region introduces its own particular twist – for example in the informal gatherings known a cèilidh (Scotland) céilí (Ireland) troyl (Cornwall) and twmpath (Wales).
In Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall, you will see step dances that share many features in common. And dances centred on particular festivals and times of year – among them, Cornwall’s furry dances and the Isle of Man’s hop-tu-naa – remain vibrant reminders of centuries old traditions.
Dance remains a powerful expression of national identity as well. Perhaps nowhere more so than Brittany, where the communal element of dance has helped to bolster the region’s efforts to retain its distinctiveness in the face of a centralising national government.
From the huge popularity of Irish and Scottish dancing in the United States to the global behemoth that is Riverdance, dance has become a beacon for Celtic culture around the world.
The world of Irish dance today is varied and vibrant. Dances are either solo or in groups and are put on for performance, competitive or purely social reasons.
Manx dancing underwent something of a revival in the 20th century. Though it obviously has a much longer history, the collection and publication of Manx folk dances between 1938 and 1983 by cultural activist Mona Douglas was a key catalyst, alongside the Manx folk revival of the 1970s. From the latter emerged a number of dance groups that reconstructed many of the dances from Douglas’ researches.
Dance and music have always been more than just a form of entertainment in Brittany. They are also one of the most powerful expressions of identity in a country that has frequently been hostile to efforts to sustain Breton individuality.
Dancing has been an important part of Cornish culture for centuries. Legends sprang up in mediaeval times that the standing stones making up the many ancient stone circles scattered across the landscape were people who had literally been ‘petrified’ for dancing on the Sabbath. The megaliths of the Nine Maidens on the Penwith peninsula are one famous example.
Traditional dance is a hugely vibrant and popular pastime in Scotland today. There are numerous variations throughout the country and many of the styles have much in common with their Irish counterparts. However, four main categories cover the majority of Scotland’s dance scene.
Folk dancing was once common throughout Wales, with the ordinary people gathering for open-air events and festivals as the upper classes danced at grand balls. But it very nearly disappeared altogether in the 18th and 19th centuries thanks largely to the efforts of the Nonconformist sects to eradicate what it saw as a sinful custom. This, combined with the decline of rural communities that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, meant that by the 20th century, folk dancing was no longer a part of everyday life.