You listen to Toss the Feathers and immediately you can picture in the back of your mind a dancing troupe dressed exquisitely in traditional Irish dance clothes, forming intricately coordinated formations and going tap-tap-tap! Irish dance is one of the most difficult and swift dances of all. It requires amazing coordination, and really strong legs! Irish dance originated in the Land of Bagpipes, Ireland. Along with being light-footed, you need a good sense of beat and rhythm to be able to pull off even some of the basic steps of this dance. Much of the aesthetics of the dance come out through the Irish music that accompanies it. But a good Irish dance performance will, at some point of time, have almost zero orchestration - and it is in these few seconds that Irish dancers most undoubtedly manage to leave every viewer completely flabbergasted (that is, if they have failed to do so till that point!) - "How in Merlin's name can they move so fast?!" Dancers usually perform a duet with the Bodhrán-player and imitate the rhythm created by the instrument by making sounds with merely their feet! This extraordinary feat needs special shoes for it to work out, and I am here to tell you about them.
Types of Irish Dancing Shoes
Irish dance encompasses a group of traditional dance forms that have been categorized as soft-shoe and hard-shoe dances. As must be evident from the name, the kind of shoes worn in the two dance types are different. There is not just a single option actually, as many people tend to think. Below are the different shoe options for Irish dance.
Soft-shoe dance forms include the traditional Irish dance forms such as the reel, slip jig, light jig and single jig. These dance forms include intense footwork, except that no sound is made on the dance floor by the steps that the dancers perform. To achieve this effect, all these dance forms require "soft" shoes that won't make sound against the floor. Soft Irish dance shoes hence, include the ghillies for the girls (shown in the picture alongside). Ghillies resemble the modern-day tie-ups or gladiators. Ghillies are worn only by female Irish dancers. Boys accompanying the girls usually wear reel shoes. Reel shoes very closely resemble jazz shoes. However, the main difference between the two is that - reel shoes have a harder heel than jazz shoes. Even though soft shoe dances are meant to have no sound coming out of the footwork of the dancers, soft-shoes for men usually do end up contributing to the rhythm.
The Irish dance forms such as the treble reel, hard jig, hornpipe and traditional sets are included in hard-shoe dances. These dance forms include intense footwork as well - however, here the footwork greatly contributes to the beat of the song. Shoes meant for these kinds of dances hence have hard, firm soles that make a distinct 'tapping' sound against the dance floor. The Celtic hard shoes (shown alongside) are the traditional hard-shoe dance shoes. They are much similar to tap dance shoes. However, unlike tap dance shoes that have metal heels with nails driven into them, Celtic shoes usually have fiberglass heels. This makes the shoes a lot less bulky and dancing much easier. This is required because Irish dance steps actually involve lifting your feet off the floor, unlike tap dance in which more footwork is with the feet merely slid and tapped on the floor without lifting them up.
Many female Irish dancers use pointe shoes in place of ghillies, or if ghillies are unavailable. Pointe shoes or ballet shoes (left-most picture alongside) are a lot more flexible and soft than ghillies, because they are not made from leather. However, they are designed in the same basic pattern, and can make-do in place of ghillies. Male Irish dancers on the other hand, can opt for jazz shoes in place of reel shoes (middle picture alongside). In place of Celtic hard shoes, one can try using the conventional tap dance shoes (right-most picture alongside). For the unaccustomed dancer, tap shoes may feel heavier. They may obstruct footwork, making it clumsy. But tap shoes give the same effect against the dance floor as do Celtic hard shoes.
So these are the different shoes you can choose from for an Irish dance performance. If you are a beginner, I would suggest you first learn the chosen Irish dance form wearing the traditional Irish dance shoes. The kind of shoes we wear shape our feet and affect movement. If you get used to doing the Irish dance steps with the wrong kind of shoes, it can affect your performance. Also, it may lead to injury - because specific shoes support your feet in specific ways and make doing certain steps easy (or difficult, if you are wearing the wrong ones). Once you master the dance, you can switch to alternatives. Keep dancing!