Irish dancing 101: And why are their arms straight?

FARGO - Like any American with even a drop of Irish blood, I've learned how to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. I've worn the silly green hats, sipped green beer and made way too many shamrock-themed treats (see the Irish-themed sweets column include...


FARGO - Like any American with even a drop of Irish blood, I've learned how to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. I've worn the silly green hats, sipped green beer and made way too many shamrock-themed treats .

But Irish dancing is the one thing I've never tired - especially the kind made famous by Riverdance where dancers feet move in double time while their arms remain completely still at their sides.

Fortunately for me, the McDonald School of Irish and International Dance in Fargo is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for anyone wishing to channel their inner "Lord of the Dance." The school is run by Maureen McDonald-Hins, who also started Fargo's Celtic Festival in 2004.

Maureen teaches a number of different Irish dances to students from ages 5 to 70, so I was happy she agreed to teach me and my co-worker April Knutson how to dance. April is 25 percent Irish and I'm about 75 percent so between the two of us, I figured we make up one whole Irish person. That gives us a leg up, so to speak, in learning the dance. Watch our video on to see if that's true. (Hint: the Irish rhythm might have gotten lost at sea somewhere between Dublin and Ellis Island.)

Before we even set foot on the dance floor I had to ask a question that's been plaguing me since I first saw Michael Flatley tap his lrish feet on American soil: "Why do Irish dancers keep their arms so straight?"


Maureen says while Riverdance popularized that style in the '90s, not all Irish dancing has been done that way. The theories of the still, straight arms include the religious (the church didn't want boys and girls holding hands), to the mannered (dance masters thought straight arms showed proper etiquette) and the cramped (Irish pubs were so crowded that you couldn't move your arms.)

But Maureen believes straight arms resulted from British subjugation when the English forbid the Irish from singing, dancing, playing instruments or doing poetry that celebrated Irish culture. But that didn't stop the Irish from dancing indoors right under the noses of any Brit walking by.

"Irish parents started teaching children to dance with their arms down and still do the fancy footwork," Maureen says. "So for anyone passing by, it looked like the people inside were just meandering around."

Now it was time to dance. Maureen walked - or rather stepped - us through the many different kinds of Irish dancing, including Irish celli, set, stop and Sean Nós. She taught us how the dancers "kick their bums" as a way to flip up their skirts. Anyone who has watched Irish dancing will tell you the step, kicks and leaps look light and airy, but I can tell you it's a lot harder than it looks.

Maureen was patient as I clopped around like a leaden Leprechaun (the result, no doubt, of consuming too many of the aforementioned shamrock treats). April, who claims to be more Norwegian than Irish proved just the opposite. Her Irish blood was apparently prevalent enough to make this blonde, blue-eyed Viking lass pretty light in her Irish loafers.

The first few minutes were rough for me. But by the end I think I started to catch on a wee bit. Maureen took April and I by the hand and we almost seemed coordinated as we "leaped, 2, 3." Maybe we could tour the country with a new local troupe we could call "Red Riverdance."

Okay, maybe not.

But no matter, it's all about having fun. Maureen says whether you're doing The Hustle, The Funky Chicken or real Irish dancing today, on St. Patrick's Day anything goes.


"As far as the Irish are concerned, if you're moving and enjoying yourself, you're doing it right!" she says.

Tracy Briggs is an Emmy-nominated News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 35 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
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