Riverdance: Have we lost what captivated us so?

22 years ago, when the Eurovision song contest was being held in Dublin, there was a filler act for the interval that was initially met with modest, uncertain applause when it started. What happened after that performance  is now history, but I wanted to go back and have a look at the performance to see what it was that so transfixed us all.

Quite simply, it was beautiful, effortless and dream-like. It looked elegant and it sounded amazing, from the incredible singing introduction from Anúna, the gorgeous lyrical music and those stunning percussive rhythms, dancers synchronised playing off and responding to drums and each other. It had a story moving from the spiritual spell of water to a slick, modern city backdrop, in a kind of Clannad-meets-An-American-in-Paris moment.

And people responded in their hundreds of thousands, flocking to unprepared, dazed Irish dance schools, wanting a piece of that dream they had glimpsed and experienced. I know, I was one of them. Up until Riverdance, Irish step dancing had been something that young Irish girls and boys and those of the diaspora did as an obligation, taking their weekly classes or more often than not, skivving off and spending their sixpence on sweets (I’ve heard that story from many a dance friend).

The image of Irish step dancing was a little old-fashioned, a bit dowdy but reliable. As a student, you knew the rules, you knew the repertoire of dances, what to do to pass an exam and you got on with it. Costumes were modest, competitions and performances were regular and classes were strict.

young irish step dancers 1970s

Young irish step dancers 1970s. Image: www.crossexaminer.co.uk

Now, with the influx of thousands of young hopefuls, the sheer volume of interest has begun to move the dance in a whole different direction: a tidal surge causing it to lose it’s mooring of grace, rhythm and a deep connection with the music.  I am concerned about much of what that means for the dancing, the dancers and the Irish culture it supposedly represents.

It’s now all about the extremes, intensity and deadly seriousness, and a slightly nasty edge that comes with all that- I have written more about this from an Australian viewpoint. For many dancers, there is an expectation of very intensive training, that dancing on pointe and extreme ballet turnout is the norm, that getting injured is de rigueur, that money is no object and that dancers will do almost anything to win including moving schools – sometimes even moving country to improve their chances of winning a competition.

Irish world champtionships 2015

Modern champions. Image: www.PhotoMagic.ie

And those dresses, wigs and make-up – what can I say. It is natural that styles will change over time and is part of all development. However, t’would give the haute couture of Louis XIV, Sun King of France a run for his money. And look what happened to him and his court!

Louis the sun king

Louis XIV The Sun King

Gavin Doherty design DSC_62212

Image: Gavin Doherty Design

The saddest part for me is seeing the music applied like wallpaper – a background only for the dancing, and not integral or cherished in any way.

There seems to be very little attempt to fit the steps to the music and to really connect with the complexity and beauty of it. Irish music is so full of character and life and much of the music I see in many Irish step dancing performances is pretty dreary stuff, in my opinion.

Not a patch on those beautiful compositions of Bill Whelan, nor any of the thousands of wonderful recorded uplifting music tracks available online for a few dollars. Music and dance work best in harmony, not submission.

So, while I genuinely applaud the interest in Irish step dancing, I am hopeful we will come full circle, back to a more beautiful and elegant form of dance that appreciates it’s cultural roots, more reflective of the emotion and rhythm in the music and just plain joyful and free.

Food for thought, I hope.

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

irish bliss globe of world flags

10 thoughts on “Riverdance: Have we lost what captivated us so?

    • Thank-you. Don’t really know but Irish step dancing was only formalised and codified in 1929, so it was only going 10-20 years at that stage. Happy for other comments on this. Thanks again. Nora

  1. Thank you for these thoughts. I started step-dancing in my late 30s in an effort to inform my Irish fiddle playing. I can relate to the emphasis on competition and over-the-top costuming especially among CLRG schools, and to the faux-traditional music that is generally used (heavy emphasis on a strong beat and after that pretty much anything goes). I look forward to learning some of the more casual (and lower-impact!) forms of Irish dancing. It’s great fun to browse through your website and start learning some of these steps!

    • Me too! Although, I could go back to it if it had a bit more authenticity or connectedness or similar. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Pingback: Irish Step Dancing | Patricia M. Robertson

  3. Thanks Nora, so true. My daughter started out Irish dancing 20 years ago and was constantly told to dance to the rhythm – not the music. I am glad to say my daughter still dances to the music with grace and elegance, Jean Butler can’t be wrong.

  4. Late entry, but completely agree. Step dance has become more gymnastics – beautiful at that – but at feisanna, I see little joy; rather, just waiting around for one’s own chance, and little interest in
    or enjoying another dancer’s time. I take set and sean nos over the wigs and makeup, for the joy of social interaction and fun.

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