Irish Step Dancing, as we know it today, evolved in the tradition of the traveling dance master, a figure who emerges in the 1700's in the Irish countryside.
Traveling dance masters would move from village to village for a period of six weeks at a time teaching dance steps and deportment to rural children.
The solo Step Dance tradition, seem commonly today in shows like Riverdance, emerged from the idea of making sounds with ones feet. Percussive, battering steps that grew from the man's work boot.
The weather in Ireland is very rainy, the climate is quite wet and the shoe leather would rot fairly easily. To protect the shoe leather men would place small hobnails in the sole of their shoes. These hobnails created the means for them to insert percussive or battering steps into the social dances of the time.
Irish Step Dance, during the Gaelic revival emerged from a cultural context into a competitive context. Through the competition circuit and successive waves of Irish immigration the dance steps traveled throughout the Irish diaspora across North America and parts of Canada and the United States to England, South Africa and Australia.
As dancers completed in Irish Dance the form became much more technical and highly evolved. Steps such as the Bicycle were inserted into the Irish Dance tradition as Irish Dance borrows from moves that are commonly found in tap dance and ballet.
Competitive Irish Dance set the stage for the popular show Riverdance, a large commercial success that really brought Irish Dance to the main global stage during the mid 1990s.
As you can see throughout Irish Dance history the form has traveled from cultural context to competitive context. And today to commercial settings.