Hobnails and Horse Skulls

I often think about shoes to dance in and floors to dance on; certainly, this isn’t a mystery.  As a dancer and teacher, I’m often in the business of helping dancers with new shoes.  Whenever I set up a performance, I consider the surface we’ll be dancing on and which shoes might be best suited to the task at hand.  There were many places and spaces for dance in Ireland – homes, crossroads, bothies, barns, hedgerows – wherever people could gather, they danced.  There is even an Irish word for ground that has been packed down and leveled by years of dancing: bánóg.

I didn’t wear shoes for my first feis.[1]  We had one pair of pink ballet slippers and my sister got to wear them.  It was a small comfort to learn that the Dancing Master, Din Moore, preferred to dance in his socks, which gave a lightness in his steps.[2]  On the Aran Islands, men would wear soft traditional shoes made out of cowhide which allowed their feet to move silently through their steps. Others danced in clogs.  Some danced in heavy, work boots, often times with hobnails,[3] or even donkey shoes affixed to them.  Most commonly, people danced in leather-soled shoes.  People wore what they had to dance in; no specialty footwear required.  And their choices often reflected their aim for dance – soft and light, or heavy and loud.

Dance surfaces have changed quite significantly since the late eighteenth century.  Before the Public Dance Hall Act (1935), dancing frequently happened in people’s homes.  In particular, dancers liked dancing on flagstone floors, as they provided great sound,[4] especially with the hobnails tapping out the rhythm.  The hobnails and donkey shoes on the flagstones could also generate sparks when a dancer got going; “knockin’ sparks” became another way to say “dance.”  Because clean and clear rhythms was such an important part of dancing, people often boosted the flagstone’s resonance by digging out a hollow under the stone in front of the hearth and depositing a horse skull in it – sometimes more than one![5]

Space limitations were often a feature of the homes where people danced.  The kitchen saw a lot of dance activity.  In a class with Edwina Guckian, she described how the tables were designed to flip up against wall, and how the benches would be pushed to the outside of the room for musicians.  Sometimes the doors would be taken off to make room for more people.  When Edwina taught the final movement A Stack of Barley, she called it “around the house, but mind the dresser” because the dresser was where the dishes were stored and there was a risk that they would all come crashing down if someone bumped into it.

Because of where people danced, it became an art to dance on the smallest space possible.  Helen Brennan quotes one old-style step dancer as saying that there was no “skating around as in modern dancing.”[6]  Dancers performed roughly within 3’ by 3’ space.  The most impressive dancers could dance on the spot.  Clean footwork with clear rhythms was the goal.  It would even be a competition to see who could dance on the smallest surface: on top of a table, a barrel, or in a cast iron pan.  Frequently, they would stack these surfaces one on top of the other, thus linking daring and dancing together.[7]  The personalities of the dancers, however, was paramount.  No two dancers danced alike; though “dancing in a ‘wild manner’ was not generally admired.”[8] 

At Kaleidoscope Studio, we have a sprung floor, so there’s no need for us to dance the ground level, nor to deposit a horse skull under the floor boards.  We wear a variety of shoes, some of which are designed specifically for dancing, some of which are not.  We do, however, explore steps that keep us in one place and imagine ourselves “knockin’ sparks” as we do.

[1] A feis is a local Irish dance competition.

[2] Helen Brennan The Story of Irish Dance (Dingle, Co. Kerry: Brandon, 1999), 81.

[3] The Southwark Heritage Centre’s Cuming Collection has a great image of a hobnailed boot, which you can find here.

[4] Caoimhín MacAoidh, Between the Jigs and the Reels: The Donegal Fiddle Tradition (Nure, Manorhamilton, Co. Leitrim: Drumlin Publications, 1994), 107.

[5] Allison C. Meier, “The Horse Skulls Hidden in the Dance Floors of Ireland,” in JSTOR Daily, July 30, 2018, https://daily.jstor.org/the-horse-skulls-hidden-in-the-dance-floors-of-ireland/ (Accessed December 14, 2022).

[6] Brennan, 80.

[7] Brennan, 77.

[8] Catherin E. Foley, Step Dancing in Ireland: Culture and History (New York: Ashgate, 2013), 98.

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