Legs- and feet-only work

If you have not heard of Irish dance before and terms like 'Riverdance' and 'Lord of the Dance' don't ring a bell either, I can tell you that Irish dance is all about the legs and feet. That seems like an open door, but in Irish dance, the complete upper body is as rigid as possible. Arms are being kept straight down with the fists slightly clenched. That takes a lot of effort, balance and endurance.

Solo and céili, hard and soft shoes

Irish dance is being performed either as a solo or group-dance. A group dance is also called a céili (pronounce: kayli) and mostly consist of complex patterns made by the dancers. Both in solo and céili dances, the dancers wear soft or hard shoes.
'Soft' and 'hard' really stands for the type of shoe being used for a particular dance. The soft shoe is not meant to create any sound upon hitting the floor and a well-trained dancer can seem to defy gravity, as high and gracious he (or she) is performing the moves.

Reel shoes and ghillies

There is only one 'but' when it comes to soft shoes: Soft-shoes for men show a great resemblence with jazz-shoes and are like a half hard-shoe. The heel carries a small piece of special material (a plastic or (glasfibre) reinforced material) meant to create sound on impact with the floor. The shoes are mostly called reel shoes.
Soft-shoes for women miss this hard heel and appear like ballet-feet. They are made out of black leather, have a flexible sole and laces running from the toe up to about the ankle. They are called ghillies.

Hard shoes, heavy shoes, Jig Shoes

Sound has almost everything to do with the hard shoes. Though fleet-footedness is still important, it will never be as light as a soft shoe dance. Even so, a skilled dancer can move his legs and feet so fast that you sometimes can't even tell how many times he or she hits the floor.
The heel and ball (the tip) of the shoes are equipped with a piece of material (a plastic or (glasfibre) reinfored material), meant to create as much sound as possible upon hitting the floor.
Hard-shoes do not differ in design, both men and women wear the same shoes although there are a few different models. They are mostly called Heavy shoes, Hard shoes, or Jig shoes. 'Heavies' is a popular abbreviation.

It looks so easy...

What catches many by surprise is the amount of effort both dances take. It looks easy, but demands physical strength and endurance. Abs, the muscles in the legs and back, joints: everything gets an extensive workout. Even people who have a reasonable bodycondition will find out that Irish dance is hard and that it is far tougher than they expected (and that it looks so easy on TV).

That does not mean that Irish dance is dangerous. You run a far greater risk to get injured during a game of amateur-football than with Irish dance. Top-level dancers are an exception to that rule. They have progressed to the level of topsport and it comes down to finding and pushing the limits.
In shows like Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, severe injuries are more a rule then an exception. As the dancers are pushed to their limits, one wrong move can have great consequences..