What I Learned as an Irish Step Dancer- Dance Week


I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right — I made one heck of an Irish dancer back in the day. Yes, that’s me in the pink sequined dress, one I wore proudly until the day I quit after eight wonderful years practicing and competing in Irish dance – not “River-dancing”, as some people refer to it, but traditional Irish step dancing that was made popular by the dance spectacular known as Riverdance.

Irish step dancing involves moving your feet in rapid and precise movements, usually while keeping your arms completely still. You may have also heard of another similar spectacular, Lord of the Dance, if only for the male lead Michael Flatley who is famously referred to in a Friends episode when Ross says that it frightens him how Flatley’s legs “move as though independent of his own body!” It is owing to earlier pop culture fixtures like Riverdance, Michael Flatley, and their particular spin on traditional Irish step dance that requires a certain amount of confidence (and self-deprecating humor) to share with people that I used to even compete in this artform. Yet, I can’t explain what attracted me to Irish dance without bringing up Riverdance.

I was seven years old when the thunderous dance spectacular was making serious headway in the US for its shows in New York City, but the show barely made a blip on my radar at the time. I was too busy fluctuating between softball, soccer, and anything else that would satisfy my adolescent requirement for physical fitness. True, I was no star athlete, but I would say it was my lack of dedication to any of one of those sports that was really holding me back from my full potential. Maybe it was due my lack of focus then that I didn’t notice that all of the girls in my grade had enrolled in Irish dance classes. Eventually, the trend caught my attention when I saw them show off their moves at recess and school talent shows, and I figured I would give it a shot.

Taking Irish step classes was the first time I demonstrated focus at something other than my schoolwork, and I was hooked from day one. As I continued to practice and excel, I went from a beginner level dancer to preliminary championship competitor. A big step for me was purchasing my first and only solo competition dress (known as a “feis” and pictured above) which I wore for the dance competitions. In Irish dance, I learned the grace and agility of my soft shoe routines which I danced in traditional black slipper shoes known as “gillies”, along with the power and precision of my hard shoe dances, which required footwear that looked like tap shoes made with fiber glass instead of metal tips. My favorite steps were in hard shoe, and I loved how satisfying it was to execute the taps, stomps, and clicks in my routines.

I don’t compete anymore now, but Irish dance hasn’t left me completely. I’ve been told that I have a “cheerful” bounce in my step, which can be squarely blamed on the fact I still turn my toes out when I walk. When I tell people I used to be an Irish dancer though, I find myself explaining the fashion more than my actual dancing. I’ll show them my costume and tell them about how I used to wear a sparkly dress and a curly wig, all topped off with a crown, and the whole explanation is cut with a tone of self-mockery. Why do I do this? I know for myself that being an Irish dancer is a mark of dedication and achievement, yet I’m also keenly aware that the type of Irish dance most people have been exposed to is limited to theatrics of Michael Flatley. In an effort to make my story my relatable, I pander to the stereotype of flashy costumes and insane spectacles, which are only part of a much wider world of traditional Irish step dance.

Similarly haunted by the ghost of Riverdance was the show’s former lead male dancer Colin Dunne, who recently premiered a show co-produced with the Irish Arts Center at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. Out of Time is an on-stage exploration of Dunne’s personal history as a traditional step dancer, with live performance interspersed with monologues and old video footage of Irish dance performance. Dunne opened up in a New York Times article about his frustrations as a traditional dancer trying to move on from the kind of work he did in Riverdance and Dancing on Dangerous Ground, a show he did with his former Riverdance co-star Jean Butler. The show was not as successful as Riverdance and closed after only six months.

The article recounts Dunne’s “frustrations with [himself] as a performer, the limitations of traditional dance as a form, the limitations of where it had gone in terms of performance.” Traditional Irish dance is rigid in both posture and execution, hinging on perfection through repetition. Finding a way to expand on that, understandably, was maddening. What he eventually found was that the trick to exploring new ways to expand his craft was by simply going back to the basics. The show is less about the flashy costumes, and is a stripped down and honest presentation of the dance as an art form.

What really struck a chord with me was something his former co-star Jean Butler said later in the article: “Irish dancers have a very interesting relationship with their form, if you think about it historically. We spent our lives doing something that people ignored or made fun of. And then to go through the transition of ‘Oh, isn’t that wonderful what you do, but, oh, now it’s a new cliché.’”

Granted, I have in no way attained the same level of mastery that she or Dunne have in the world of Irish dance, yet I wanted to find Jean Butler and personally shake her hand for summing up so perfectly the conflicted feelings I had about my own history as an Irish dancer.

Our paths could have crossed, oddly enough. I used to spend a week at the summer dance camp Rince Ceol located in East Durham, New York, and Butler sometimes taught master classes there. I never had the chance to meet her, but I did however have the pleasure of meeting Sheila Ryan, one of the first Americans to audition for Riverdance. Shelia was the co-director of Rince Ceol with her husband Tony, an Irish musician whom she had met while they working on the same show.

Sheila gave a talk back at the end of every session to answer our questions and during one session, she opened up about what she called her pet peeves in Irish dancing trends. Sheila was very old-school, especially concerning the constantly evolving modern fashion in traditional Irish step. She hated seeing colored tape on hard shoes instead of using traditional black, or when girls wore their white poodle socks up their kneecaps.

“They’re supposed to only go half-way up you calves!” she moaned, saying that wearing them too long was a bad idea. “Too long, and the judges don’t see the definition in your calf muscles.” From Sheila I learned that presentation is important, but it should never distract from your dancing.

The tension between technique and aesthetics is a constant balancing act for Irish step dancers. I do not disown or reject the vision of Irish dance in Riverdance, and having seen it for myself, I can tell you that the show is a stunning exposition of both skill and theatricality. It is a phenomenon in and of itself and remains a fixture in pop culture, but resulted in a major identity crisis for contemporary traditional dancers like Colin Dunne. Riverdance shaped who he was as a dancer, but it shouldn’t define him or any other dancer like him.

Practicing traditional Irish step dance afforded me an abundance of life skills. My posture is unnaturally well kept, and I am a whiz with liquid eyeliner. Not to mention, my college essay about what I learned from getting blisters on my feet from my dance shoes absolutely killed at admissions offices. As it turns out, the most important life lesson I learned from Irish dance would come from reflecting on my time as a dancer years later, and that is: the best way to rise above any stereotypes and cliches is to immerse yourself in the basics and go from there.

Written by: Mary Kate Polanin