By many accounts, the modern form of Irish dancing dates back to the appearance of Dance Masters about 1750. Forerunners of today's Irish dancing teachers, they typically traveled within a county, teaching their repertoire of dance steps and participating in competitions with other Dance Masters. Each step is eight measures or bars of music, hence the term step dancing.
Beginning dancers first learn the soft shoe dances. Girls and women wear soft shoes, or gillies. Boys and men usually dance the soft shoe dances in shoes with hard soles. All dancers use hard shoes with a sort of tap on the toe and heel for hard shoe dances.
Students soon learn two steps for the reel and two more for the light jig. Both women and men dance the reel to music in 4/4 time. As students advance and learn more complicated steps, the dance takes on lots of kicks and leaps. The light jig, and another soft shoe dance, the single jig, are danced to music in 6/8 time. The graceful slip jig, danced only by girls and women, is in 9/8 time. In the tradition of the dancing masters, each Irish dancing school develops its own steps to be used in each of the dance types.
After a student has mastered several soft shoe dances, s/he moves on to learn hard shoe dances such as the hornpipe, treble jig, and traditional set dances.
Competition is a major component of today's Irish dance world. A competition is known as a feis (pronounced "fesh", plural feiseanna, "fesh-anna") and usually sponsored by a local dancing school or Irish cultural association. Dancers advance to participate in regional competitions known as Oireachtas(pronounced "o-rach-tas") and at the highest levels to the World Championships in Ireland (Oireachtas na Cruinne). While competition among the young dancers is keen, the bottom line is that for each of them Irish dancing is FUN, and a link to their Irish heritage.