It’s thrilling to see and hear—and sometimes even feel—the effects of an Irish dancing performance. Over the past few decades, the style has taken the world by storm, which is a funny way to put it since the average performance generates a sound and fury that matches any sudden thunderstorm and downpour. But Irish step dancing involves more than the hard clatter and bang of a dozen performers dancing in unison. It’s about precision, discipline, and fabulous footwork. For this and other reasons, specific tools are needed—not the least of which are the different kinds of Irish dancing shoes. Here’s a very quick breakdown of the different types of Irish dance shoes.
These soft shoes resemble ballet slippers or pointe shoes and are similar in that they lace up, but the similarities end there. Ghillies are made of black leather and are only worn by girls and women and lace up to the ankle. They are intended to be quieter and are worn for dances like the jig, light jig, single jig, slip jig, and reel, as well as in numbers with larger groups of dancers.
Reel shoes are like ghillies in that they’re also soft shoes made of black leather but are worn only by boys and men and possess a heel, so the dancers can punctuate their dances with clicks and taps. Not all male dancers wear the heels, but reel shoes are the shoes meant to help dance more traditionally “male” routines and steps. Some sites compare reel shoes to jazz dance shoes.
Hard shoes, or heavies, are the ones that make that classic, hard-knocking sound. Hard shoes share many similarities with modern tap shoes but are constructed differently. Modern hard shoes’ or heavies’ tips and heels aren’t made of metal. Instead, they’re constructed of fiberglass and are a bit heftier. In fact, the original hard shoe soles used in Ireland were made of wood or leather and had nails to provide the distinctive percussive effects. To keep the hard shoes lighter and louder, manufacturers first used resin before making the switch to fiberglass.
As a side note to the different types of Irish dance shoes, all Irish dancers begin by wearing soft-shoed ghillies or reel shoes and usually must complete two or so years of dance training before graduating to hard shoes. A very big step, so to speak!