As a child, Gene Kelly was my on-screen dance hero.I loved his athleticism but mostly, it was his mega watt smile and that extra bit of spontaneous lift that really made him unmissable. He radiated joy when he was performing (even though, according to his wife, on the day he filmed the famous Singing In The Rain dance number, he was extremely unwell with a temperature of 104ºF!)
So, it’s with these images in my head that I sometimes wonder how so much Irish dancing became so stiff, so formal and so obviously lacking in delight.
I have often had friends and others telling me how, when they were small, they were sent off to learn the irish dancing only to be whacked with a stick to make them straighter, shouted at to jump higher and to pay attention. Continue reading →
Great music is the lifeblood of dancing and fortunately, Ireland has it in abundance. One of Ireland’s most beloved musicians and singers, Séamus Begley (RIP 2023) reveals more (hear audio link below) about the unbreakable bond between Irish music & dance when being interviewed by Joan Armatrading for the BBC.
As he says, his experience of playing music on his accordion was only for dancing and when there was no dancing, he was told to “put it away”.
Seamus Begley and Joan Armatrading. Audio not working? Try another browser if this doesn't play!
So, how do you tell a jig from a reel? Or a polka from a slide?
As with most things Irish, it’s complicated. The intricacies of music mathematics can be a difficult thing to get your head around: even the best musicians seem to struggle to explain how it works mostly because there are style differences in the playing, in some cases. In addition, some of the names sound like musical timings – eg, “treble jig” and “light jig”, but are actually names of a dance rather than a specific musical timing. So, thinking about all this too much will not help your understanding.
Happily, one of the best ways of learning this difference is by moving or by singing/ humming to each different signature timing, and this also goes for musicians who are learning to play Irish music. And why not try to remember each different type – hornpipes, reels, jigs, waltzes, polkas, slides– by what we did when we were kids?
By having fun – playing, clapping and singing to nursery rhymes, and using pictures and word games to remember the basics.
I love my Irish heritage – very proud of that and no more than on St.Patrick’s Day, when everyone wants to be Irish for the day. It does feel sad to me, however, that despite such a rich, creative and complex culture, that it all seems to boil down to one thing on the one day: drink.
Now don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy a glass of wine or two, have been known to enjoy the odd Irish coffee and love mellow Irish hot whiskeys in the winter.
But not when I’m dancing. If you ever want to feel like you’re really part of a slow-motion 3D movie, then half a dozen pints and then on to dance the Clare Plain Set is your man.
Most people who’ve been dancing a long time recognise that dancing and drinking don’t really mix, and the ones that don’t, look in the mirror the next morning and hope nobody recognises them. Continue reading →
I was reminded yet again this week that most people are only aware of one style of Irish dance- Irish step dancing, brought to world fame by the Riverdance production. However, there are many other Irish dance styles – at least six that I am aware of. The biggest difference in style is being whether the dance is balletic – with pointed toes and high on the balls of the feet – or a relaxed, flatter, gliding style with more use of the heels.
Have a look at the videos below and see if you can spot the difference? Whatever the style, the essence is that they all use Irish music, are very rhythmic and should be fun to do!
1. Irish Set Dancing– FLAT DOWN STYLE
Social dancing with four couples in a set of eight dancers; feet flat, gliding style, relaxed body and arms, having fun!
Set dancing is a vibrant and fresh style of dance, based on dancing Quadrilles, which originally came from France. The Irish have added their own unique steps and music to this dancing to make it energetic, rhythmic and great fun.The style is with the feet very low and flat to the floor, sometimes silently pushing and swishing around the floor, and other times making a rhythmic tattoo on the floor that is hypnotic. Set dancing uses the whole body in a relaxed stance. Irish set dancing has similar roots to American square dancing, although sets have a more disciplined structure determined by the structure of the music.
I came across this little gem some time ago, and initially thought it was a pretty good explanation of some of the different styles of Irish dance. Re-visiting this, I was struck by some of the comments made by Ray McBride being interviewed by Gaybo on the RTÉ Late, Late Show about his recollections about some of the most important aspects of learning Irish step dancing when he was a boy.
He starts with Irish step dancing with what he calls an easy reel (over 1,2s), then a light reel and then into a treble or tap reel.
You might also notice the complete change in his demeanour when he starts doing Irish sean nós (which he introduced as Tennessee clogging) and then moves into what he calls the “John Travolta sidestep.”
I think that last side step could easily pass for Irish sean nós dancing.
It was ten years ago now in 2004 that I went to my very first Irish dance workshop to learn the sean nós or old-style of Irish dancingfrom Kathleen McGlynn. Kathleen has an inclusive and encouraging approach to teaching and she put everyone at their ease – as much as you could have with about 50 of us keen learners crammed into the smallest space imaginable at the venue An Grianán in Co.Louth (the workshops have since been moved to bigger venues). Continue reading →
I love trawling YouTube for Irish dancing of all different styles, and I find myself going back to the older recordings – not that long ago, but not contemporary.
They have a grace and class that I don’t see in newer recordings – even in most of my own, I have to confess. RTE, the Irish national broadcaster, did a lot of filming of Irish traditional music, dance and song in the late 60s’ through to the 1980’s and produced some wonderful stuff. Most of the best of these recordings are available in the “Come West Along The Road” series of DVDs.
I understand the need to update, move and change with the times to inject new influences and trends into Irish dance but a lot of what I see seems to be a move backwards from what was. In Irish set dancing, the trend to play faster and faster music means that the nuances of the tunes are lost, and the rhythm and flow of the dance is completely overtaken by tempo-not nice to dance to really.
In Irish step dancing, it’s hard not to laugh out loud (LOL) at some of the get-up- the bouffant hair matched with the bouffant dresses – a real distraction from the dance itself. The amazing athleticism and skill of the dancers is impressive – it must take a huge amount of time and commitment to be able to pull off some of those moves, and that is a truly admirable quality.
But mostly, I am left cold watching these performances, as the experience seems lacking in joy and spirit, the music is like wallpaper – just background, and not integral to the rhythm and meaning of the dance. Perhaps I am expecting too much?
As I write, I have just seen a nice bit of updated Irish dancing (to Michael Jackson music) that has much of what I am talking about – rhythm, graceful dance and looks like they are enjoying themselves!
So there is hope. What we had once we could have back again, and even better, if we tried and took a bit more thought and care with the beautiful Irish tradition.
An áit a bhuil do chroí is ann a thabharfas do chosa thú.