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Step Dancing: From Terpsichore’s Step Child to Broadway’s Baby

ART TIMES December, 2004

Riverdance (Joan Marcus: Photo Courtesy Merle Frimark)

Irish dance is as exuberant as the Irish spirit, as fun loving as their sense of humor, as magical as their Celtic lore and as loud as their laughter, yet for centuries it was the step-child of Terpsichore.  Then in the mid 1990s it burst onto stages with a clamor and glamour that brought Broadway to its feet.  Now as Riverdance, the show that changed it all, prepares its tenth anniversary return engagement to Radio City Music Hall, and Michael Flatley’s offshoot, Lord of the Dance, tours the U. S., its time to take a closer look at its history, practitioners, and future.

Irish step dancing dates back to the seventeenth century.  Step dancers maintained their natural balance without the use of their arms while executing ever more complicated dance patterns with their feet.  At Feis (Irish dance competitions) carriage (rigidity of the upper body) and the intricacy of the footwork are two major scoring areas along with timing and execution. In World Cup competitions, make-up, hairstyles, costumes are now also a major part of the competition.

Originally a mostly male activity, over generations, women got into the act, a natural progression.

When Irish missionaries proselytized, they brought not only religion, but step dancing, along with them.   In the seventeenth century penal laws prohibited Catholicism and Irish culture. Dance went underground and was surreptitiously taught in kitchens, farms and country roads.  The richest farmer in each area housed the missionary or dance teacher.  Barn doors were taken off hinges and placed flat to give a hard surface for dancing, even though many farm people danced barefoot. It was a matter of national pride to dance ever more intricate steps with perfect balance while maintaining a stiff upper torso without using ones arms.  Every step dance teacher devised ever more complicated steps, in order to dazzle judges and win competitions. 

Individual step dancers went into annual dance competitions. Similar to the Olympic Games, albeit with less International fanfare, these are still held in Ireland, on a worldwide basis, in a different town each year. Local contests provided a well-known expression, origins of which were as obscure as was step dancing itself.  In small villages, a cake was often set on the table. The winner won it.  Thus the expression, “Takes the cake.”  

For centuries, step dance was deemed unsuitable for performance on stage or in variety shows. Irish dancers who wished to perform, also learned tap, ballet and acrobatics.

One such was Jo (“Mac”) McNamara, Dublin raised performer, who for 28 years taught Irish dance at New York’s Irish Arts Center.  She recalls,  “I toured New York schools years ago step dancing, especially around St. Patrick’s Day.  There was always a Q and A after, and always the same first question – why do you keep your arms so stiff?”

Theories of how rigid upper torsos evolved are almost as numerous as the itinerant dance masters who taught it. The two most popular are that Parish Priests forbid use of arms and the other, that the British, during their long anti-Gaelic period, prohibited all Celtic traditions. To keep Brits from knowing they were dancing, Irish lads kept a stiff upper body.

Niall O’Leary, former Dubliner, is an all Ireland and World Class step dance champ, and accredited Irish dance teacher who runs about the largest dance school in New York.  His theory is, “Traveling teachers used to teach deportment and step dancing.   Somehow the two got confused – so, no one’s to blame. I don’t believe in placing blame.”

Broadway dancer and choreographer Mary Beth Griffith who, along with sister Colleen, runs the Griffith Academy in Connecticut, says, “My Grandfather believed to defy the British. They danced with arms, so the Irish danced without them.”  This showed greater balance, since arms help retain balance. Her student, Keara Sullivan, now lead female dancer in the current U.S. tour of Lord of the Dance, subscribes to another popular theory  - when itinerant teachers came to town and barn doors were removed to dance on “It was so crowded, there was no room to use the arms.”

Jo Mac’s theory is:  “There was too much going on with the feet to worry about arms!” Was this rigid upper torso what kept step dancing from becoming popular outside Ireland?

In 1994, starting as a seven minute interval act at the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, Riverdance, soon grew and was seen by over 300 million people across Europe.  It played Radio City Music Hall four times, and toured the United States. Irish Dance had arrived.

What was different?

Several things.  To be more accessible to audiences unfamiliar with Irish dance, it added the use of arms to step dancing.  It also incorporated ethnic dances from the various countries it toured. Both augmented its huge success.

Niall O’Leary feels so many marvelous dancers on stage at one time, doing the same intricate dance routines, made the difference.  Prior to that, step dancing was a solo performance, or at most, very small groups of dancers might perform a routine at an Irish Ceili (dance festival.) I concur, since “chorus line” precision dancing has always brought audiences to their feet.

Michael Flatley, first American-Irish to win the World Cup choreographed much of the original Riverdance, which producer Moya Doherty conceived.  Later, Michael launched Lord of the Dance, adding a story line of good versus evil.

To purists these shows perverted Irish step dance.  As a result, there are now two schools of teachers - the classical, arms tight at the sides group, and the modern, who allow use of the arms, seeing it as a natural progression, like previous variations, such as “stage step dancing” with hands on hips, in Scottish fling style.  Now some people do Irish step dancing while seated, and many purists use their arms in a finale to a dance performance.

The most exciting result of Riverdance, which essayed to show the evolution of Irish dance, was the explosive interest in step dancing.  Attendance at dance classes skyrocketed.   Even purists couldn’t argue with that!

Niall O’Leary sees three types of new students: “Irish people now felt step dancing was cool so started dancing classes; People who took Irish dance as kids took it up again; non-Irish of various ethnicities wanted to learn it.”

It surprised me to learn step dance students begin with soft-shoe techniques. They move on to hard shoe as they progress. Told by all the teachers it is easier dancing in soft-shoes until one masters the complicated footwork of Irish dance, I can envision black and blue legs if hard shoes were used too soon!  Especially since dance teachers still try for ever-more dazzling dance patterns, many of which have names.  

For example, Connecticut’s Colleen Griffith, the first American female to win in an All World Dance Championship, created a dance in which one leg is kept in the air and the other hopped on.  Someone said it looked like a bird, and “The Bird” name stuck.

In order to compete in the All World Dance Championships, Irish dancers must have studied with accredited Irish dance masters, such as Niall O’Leary and Colleen and Mary Beth Griffith.   Rules are tough.  You cannot qualify to be accredited teacher until you are at least 21 years of age, no matter how long you have been dancing.  And many start learning almost as soon as they walk.

Keara Sullivan’s older sister was taking step dance lessons. Toddler Keara danced along, imitating what she saw.  Though only two, it was obvious Keara was born to dance, so she started lessons then. She and her sister played step dancing challenge games - each trying to devise better routines than the other – when they were kids. (In Ireland, too, at recess, school kids step dance, as a form of playing and a way of communicating.)  To cast Lord of the Dance for the road tour a few years back, accredited dance teachers were approached. Students they recommended submitted photos, resumes and a tape of their work.  That’s how Keara was selected for the company with which she now stars.  The Griffith School provided four dancers to Lord of the Dance and two to Riverdance.  Not surprising, given all of Colleen’s championship wins, and remembering that Mary Beth Griffith co-choreographed (with Agnes DeMille) the American Ballet Theatre’s THE INFORMER in 1988. Keara says she still thrills when audiences clap along with the music in the finale number.

The swell of interest in Irish dance has held firm since Riverdance premiered.   With its return, this Spring, one expects it will have another resurgence. Art, poetry, architecture, music have all evolved, why not Irish dance?

So, for making Irish step dance Broadway’s baby, Riverdance takes the cake, and Lord of the Dance is the frosting.

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