How to Dance an Irish Reel

Benna Crawford
Irish dancer

On St. Patrick's Day, everybody's Irish. But at a feis, a traditional Irish arts and culture festival, everybody's an Irish dancer. There's often a chance to join in the merriment by stepping out on the dance floor. And the music most likely to be playing for seasoned stepper and total beginner alike is a classic reel.

The Reel Deal

If you've yet to be tapped by Riverdance, you'll want to start with the simplest step-and-shuffle you can. It's always tempting, and definitely possible, to up your game once you've mastered moving to the lively music.

The reel is both Scottish and Irish -- a dance tune written in 4/4 time, or common meter. The music repeats in 8-beat segments. Downbeats are 1 and 3 in a reel; you get a feel for them as you listen to the music. Accent those downbeats when you're stepping. You can do the math or you can get out of your head and just move to the music. A sense of rhythm counts as much as fancy footwork when you're trying to keep up.

Here are a few -- very few -- moves to get you out on the floor and into the action. This is the simplest footwork you can attempt, but it looks impressive when you perform it at speed.

  1. Begin by walking forward heel - toe, heel - toe with alternating feet for four steps.
  2. Then, walk backward toe - heel, toe - heel --with alternating feet for four steps.
  3. Repeat forward (1) and back (2) again.
  4. Standing in one place starting with your right foot touch your heel out to the side and then tap the tip of your toe to the center. Do it again and then bring your foot down flat to the center with your feet opened out so toes are pointed to the side. Move slightly forward on each "down" for two steps on each side.
  5. Repeat step four. Add the finesse of touching the toe down just behind the heel of the supporting foot only on the backwards move.
  6. Stay with the beat and circle to the right using shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. (A shuffle is a familiar tap move. Pick up your heel as you move your foot back and brush forward using the toe to tap the floor, then back still using the toe. Switch feet. When you execute a shuffle, the taps are very fast and make a staccato sound.)
  7. Jump, landing flat on two feet.
  8. Keep circling round and shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.
  9. Jump, Jump. (Make those 2-footed jumps almost simultaneous, explosive and loud.)
  10. Repeat the two sets of shuffles taking you back to start.
  11. Immediately resume the first move: heel - toe, heel - foot down - and repeat the entire sequence but stop right after the final "Heel - Foot Down" (before starting the Shuffles) and bring the right foot flat down on the floor angled just in front of the left supporting foot to end the sequence.

You don't have to worry about hands and arms while you're pounding out the beat. Your arms stay straight at your sides or, if you really need something to do with them, you could rest your hands lightly on your hips.*

Here's what it looks like with music.

Variations

There are a number of different dance steps employed in the reel, and you can master a few of them such as pointing feet and tapping the knee with the toe, a showy move performed in soft shoe (see video below). Reels are historically danced in soft shoe, but conventions have loosened over the years and those rules now mainly govern competitions.

Hop-Steps

Hop-steps, changing feet from back to front and back, are even simpler. Riverdance offered the following brief video to absolute beginners who wanted to join a massive Riverdance Gathering in Dublin, a way to keep everybody moving to the music, whether or not they could count.

The reel is a traveling dance. The dancers complete a figure as they move, often choreographed in a circle onstage, but planned for a long line through the streets for the Gathering. Add this neat step to your other reel moves and you've got the start of a repertoire that could take you through a geometric pattern from start to finish.

For inspiration, here's a complete Riverdance reel to take your breath away. This level of Irish dance is a major athletic feat, but its sheer fabulousness could motivate you to master your beginner moves and join the dance. Look closely and you'll recognize a few of the steps.

The Music That Makes You Dance

The reel, not as fast and frantic as that other staple of Irish gatherings, the jig, is an irresistible foot-tapper. Musical instruments you'll hear at traditional and informal performances are the fiddle, the Irish flute, the uilleann pipes, the tin whistle or penny whistle, the bodhran or frame drum, and the Celtic harp. The reels themselves have wonderful names like Cooley's Reel -- Put the Cake in the Dresser and Toss the Feathers.

Emissary From the Isles

Reel music is not only common in Ireland, but also in Scotland. Historically, the music came to America and Canada through immigrants from the British Isles. The distinctive sound is featured in parts of Atlantic Canada and Québec, but you can find it in any North American community with an immigrant Irish or descended-from-Irish population. Dance classes for children and adults offer lessons in reel, jig, hornpipe, and slip jog. You'll learn the basics, get some help finding proper Irish dance shoes, have the chance to perform at feis, and develop a new appreciation for the lively art of an irrepressible culture, or for your own Irish heritage.

How to Dance an Irish Reel