Irish dance in Australia is incredibly vibrant at the moment, with 99 approved Irish step dance schools and untold informal Irish dance classes and events that include céilí dance, set dance and sean nós dance.Australia is hosting an inaugural International Oireachtas at the end of May this year.
A 10-part TG4 TV series following Australian Irish step dancing champions in their bid to get to Ireland for the World Championships in 2011 – Damhsha Down Under– has been recently released to YouTube by TG Spraoi (say SPREE, which means to play or have fun!).
It makes fascinating watching as it follows the journey of four main characters – Thommy, Brent, and the thoughtfully-named Melody and Céilí – supplemented by sweeping views of Sydney Harbour, Melbourne cityscape and the high-rise Gold Coast beaches. Each episode is approximately 30 mins each – about 5 hours of viewing in total, which gives you some idea of the intensity of the competition and desire to win. As they rightly say, it’s unique, exciting and very serious.
However, my instinctive response was “Wow! So like the story of Strictly Ballroom*”, a Baz Luhrman film inspired by a cut-throat Australian ballroom dancing scene in the 1980’s.The similarities are uncanny- the desperate drive to win, a relentless and dedicated approach to training and to have the most colourful and sparkly cos-cos-costumes and cosmetics. There is some effort on setting a good example and being role models to younger dancers but this a bit over-shadowed by the race to win.
The parallels with Strictly Ballroom is demonstrated beautifully in a scene when the two lead dance characters, Scott and Fran, visit her Spanish family in inner-urban Melbourne and get some sage advice about dancing the Paso Doble – the Spanish bullfight.
There is more than just earthiness that links Irish sean nós song and dance with Flamenco/Spanish/ Morrocan song and dance. The Spanish connection in Connemara is well-documented, and indeed, Flamenco dancing was a feature in the original Riverdance show, that brought Irish dancing to popular attention.
However, like Scott, who’s quest is to dance his own original and authentic ballroom steps, I find the spirit of the dance is missing, and a deeper connection with the tradition and character of Ireland. To me, there is a hollowness about this spectacle that is quite sad.
I wonder if Australia is destined to always being attracted to the more competitive and superficial elements of dance genres? Do we approach dance the way we approach sport?Or is that just part of a special Australian-Irish relationship similar to Aussie rules football?
I don’t know the answer to this. What is evident is the intensity and connection needed to create a deep soulfulness that communicates by itself, an expression of individuality that produces something way beyond the music and the steps, a bit like this dancing:
I’m not saying this is easy to do or that even I do this in my own dancing, but when you experience it, you know it and I think it’s worth striving for.
* By the way, if you’ve never seen Strictly Ballroom and you enjoy a good story, great dance spectacle, wonderful actors and a laugh i.e really being entertained, this is Baz Luhrmann’s very best work on film, in my humble opinion. Do yourself a favour and get hold of the DVD.