Irish Dance Unbuttoned

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

Irish dance music: It’s child’s play

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.

Continue reading

Irish dance: Tips for Body Style

Body Style : The Sweet and Lowdown

So, you’ve got the hang of the steps that you’ve spent ages learning, and finally the rhythm is starting to come after lots of practice, and perhaps also the moves in the set if you’re doing set or céilí dancing. But there’s this other elusive bit that you see “the really good dancers” doing and you can’t just work out why you’re not quite as cool as they are! They’re doing something different and you can’t quite put your finger/ toes/ feet on it….

Well, each style of Irish dance has it’s own unique body stance or sometimes you get a choice! Most styles of Irish dance require bending the knees and hips while dancing to allow looseness in the lower half of the body, giving a bit of bounce and spring – think of car suspension acting like shock absorbers.  Lower centre of gravity also gives you a lot more control, particularly reducing uncontrolled sliding on the dance floor.

For those of you who have learned snow skiing, the same principles apply – bend ze knees and get control over your movements. (And no, leaning a long way forward  with your butt sticking out on it’s own doesn’t count as bending the knees…!)

I’m going to try to explain for each of the 6 styles of Irish dance using static photos of Martin (below) but it will become clearer when you see people dancing and moving, and you know what you are looking at. Continue reading

Irish dance: Change your shoes, change your style

All varieties of Irish dance are distinguished by one main thing: style. There are other differences, of course, such as rules and structure that guide the dances themselves. However, style – the way in which the dancer moves- is key.

I have written about 6 different styles of Irish dance and referred to body stance – hand holds low vs high, low to floor flat feet style vs high up on the balls of the feet with pointed toes, and pretty much everything in between. I will write more on body stance in next week’s blog post Irish Dance: Tips for Body Style

Continue reading

St. Valentine – from Ireland to Australia

Moved by the music – Annie Hayward Art

It is said, that Valentinus, as he was known before he became St.Valentine, was canonised for giving help to Christians, including marrying them, when this was a crime.

“He was arrested and imprisoned upon being caught marrying Christian couples and otherwise aiding Christians who were at the time being persecuted by Claudius in Rome… Claudius took a liking to this prisoner – until Valentinus tried to convert the Emperor – whereupon this priest was condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs and stones; when that failed to kill him, he was beheaded  on February 14th outside the Flaminian Gate, North of Rome.” Wikipedia

What not many people know that St.Valentine’s remains are in Dublin, in Whitefriar Church in Aungier Street, not far from St.Stephen’s Green. The remains of St. Valentine and “a small vessel tinged with his blood.” were a gift from Pope Gregory XVI to a famous Irish priest and preacher, Fr. John Spratt in 1836.

And, so it was that I also met my Valentine in Dublin in 1999, a long time removed from the third century and killing of christians.  Martin and I were fortunate to be living in a time and a country more concerned with attaining peace and love. We spent a lot of our energy together achieving that through Irish music and dance in Ireland – doing classes, going to festivals “down the country, connecting with people and the craic.

And we’ve continued striving for that here in Australia. And that’s what I’m hoping for everyone today and every day- peace and love to all.

Happy St.Valentine’s Day.

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

Grace, rhythm and a little bit of craic – still part of Irish dance?

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.

Your feet will bring you to where your heart is.


Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

Elvis is alive and… well… Irish dancing!

This is a bit of film I took in Ireland of the pretty-fabulous Brian Cunningham who danced and wowed us for a minute and a half in Tubbercurry, Co.Sligo in July 2012 (thanks to my friend Marian whose camera I commandeered in haste).

The question is – step dancing or sean nós dancing? What say you?

If you’d like to learn to dance freestyle Irish sean nós, see YouTube videos here

PS. By strange coincidence, the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, ACT, Australia is hosting an exhibition called “Elvis at 21” with gorgeous photos of the young man on the cusp of fame by Alfred Wertheimer. Went to see it today and it’s cracking.

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

Irish music: Thank-you for the Irish music

Session in the front garden

One of the wonderful things about dancing at home is that you get to choose the music. Don’t get me wrong. When I’m at a céilí or workshop, I’m happy to accept the music that has been chosen by others. Most of the time.

But when I’m at home, I go through phases of being absolutely in love with different tunes, different musicians and combinations of music and far beyond the usual recorded music specifically for set dances. Don’t you find that, too?

Some of the talented folk that really lift me are:

  • Andrew MacNamara Dawn 
  • Arcady  After The Ball and Many Happy Returns

    Martin dancing and Mark playing

  • Border Collies Unleashed!
  • Dennis Liddy & Elvie Miller Tradaree
  • Feenish Rabharta
  • Four Men and a Dog Barking Mad – should be called Four Mad Men and a Mad Dog!
  • Jack Talty and Cormac Begley  Na Fir Bolg
  • Mary Macnamara  Blackberry Blossom and Traditional Music of East Clare
  • Máirtín O’Connor & Friends  Crossroads
  • Micheál O’Raghallaigh The Nervous Man and Inside Out
  • Sharon Shannon Sharon Shannon
  • Sliabh Notes Along Blackwater’s Banks
  • 10 Years of Ceili House with Kieran Hanrahan (RTE) – Liz Doherty & Fiddlesticks medley: gives orchestral music a whole new meaning!

But a real treat is to have people play for you, in your own home! We are lucky enough to have talented and generous friends Mark (flute photo above), David (fiddle) and Ann (accordion) and Denis (banjo photo below) from Canada who occasionally are available to play for us
And look, it doesn’t matter whether you are a plumber, an electrician or a rocket scientist, come as you are, throw a few shapes and enjoy yourself!

David Game and Denis Lyons playing a tune

27 August 2014
Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss

Best foot forward!

Our home in winter here in Australia

Woke early this chilly winter morning in the bush, the sky is that very pale and deep blue on the horizon with snow threatening, forecast confirmed by the knowing birdsong of magpies.
Can’t dance today because I am recovering from a very badly scalded right foot- result of dropping a kettle of boiling water nearly 2 weeks ago and the healing has been slow. However, it’s coming good with the help of a regular covering of honey – Martin’s honey- and I am confident it will be good as new.

Then I can get on with practicing “The Priest & His Boots”, a gorgeous little old-style jig that I tried to learn from Celine Tubridy all those years ago in Ireland but without success.  Frustrating because I couldn’t follow what she was doing but also I didn’t have the skills developed for the basic moves that would have helped make it easier, like doing the shuffles.

But now with the help of YouTube and technology to slow it down, I’ve been watching her husband Michael dance it  beautifully with Maureen Culleton, really inspired to see such gentle, elegant dancing from people of an age where many are not advancing, but retiring.
I’ve been using the Amazing Slowdowner software to slow down a jig by Mary Macnamara to about 80% of it’s speed, and broken the dance into five parts. I don’t have each move exactly right yet but that will come with practice, when my foot gets better – I hope!
See you soon – dancing at home.

21 July 2013
Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss