Tuesday, September 14, 2010

HIStory and the Irish dance show

Michael Flatley is the reason thousands of kids dance to this very day I think the best way to understand the Lord of the Dance himself. He started dancing at the age of 10 in Chicago. (not Ireland like his Irish accent would have you believe.) He went on to become the first American to win the World Championship. Then Mr. Flatley toured alongside the Chieftains where he met Jean Bulter, who would later become the female lead in Riverdance. At this point in the world of Irish dance that was as high as one could go. If you win the worlds and tour with the biggest Irish band most people would usually say, “I’ve had a good run,” that person would then take the exam to become a teacher and fade off into the sunset. This was simply not enough for Mr. Flatley; he helped to choreograph the original version of Riverdance. Now this would not be such an accomplishment in itself but it was featured on 1994 Eurovision Song contest intermission with such a large audience, people were shocked that someone could move their feet that fast. It caught on like wildfire. Now this was before youtube, so no one could replay the dance over and over, but in a way I think this helped because the people who did not see it originally heard about it secondhand and this allowed the legend to grow. Once Riverdance began to tour it had this large audience either wanting to see whatever they saw, again, or to see what everyone was talking about. Once the show had attained craze status Michael Flatley created Lord of the Dance. This was far flashier that its predecessor and loosely based on Irish fairytales. There was more glitter and less fabric and was almost exclusively Irish dance. (Riverdance not only included Irish dancers but also flamenco, Russian, and later, tap dancers.) This also spawned its identical twin brother Feet of Flames, which was the exact same show just with more red on the backdrops and costumes. The latest show to arise from the mind of Michael Flatley is Celtic Tiger. This was supposed to be a spectacular that explored the history of the Irish through Ireland and into America. What the show actually demonstrated was the least possible amount of clothing that can be worn while using every Irish-American stereotype short of drinking green beer onstage. (There is literally a part of the production when a girl walks onstage in an America flag bikini for no reason whatsoever.) While his shows are still touring, they are not nearly as popular as they once were. Many shows, like Riverdance, have taken the Cher route and have been on their “farewell” tour for the last six years. Lord of the Dance has just recently started touring through Asia where Irish dance is being seen for the first time. Now this brings up the question that many Irish dancers shutter to think about, “Is Irish dance simply a passing fad that the public is already sick of?” The diehard dancers, like myself, want to think that Irish dance will always continue to grow on into eternity. The reality is that the success of these shows is a barometer for the future expansion of Irish dance and when these shows finish with their farewell tours and tours in Asia it might be a signal that Irish dance itself will no longer have the vast numbers of people it once had in the heyday of the Irish dance show.   

Blandish: to coax using flattery She tried to blandish the dancer into teaching classes for free.
Buffet: To strike with force She buffeted the floor with her hard shoes

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Irish dance and its identity crisis

Every ice breaker game I have ever played someone will ask the group to write and/ or say aloud a sport  I play. I always say Irish dance and inevitability some smart ass kid will tell me Irish dance is not in fact a sport. According to dictionary.com sport is defined as:
an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature, as racing, baseball, tennis,golf, bowling, wrestling, boxing, hunting, fishing, etc.
I would include Irish dance in that category. Unlike most forms of dance, Irish dancers compete regularly and it is these competitions that help to dictate how the culture of Irish dance evolves and progresses. It take a great deal of athleticism to do many of the modern Irish dance steps especially as a dancer moves up levels. An Irish dancer trains just as hard if not harder than your average football player or baseball player. A friend of mine spent five days a week for four hours a day practicing in preparation for the world championships. Some people may have a hard time calling a form of dance a sport, because dancers are usually trying to express emotion or feeling through the way they move their body. Many say the expression of emotions and feelings does not belong in the realm of sports it belongs in the art world. Maybe these people are right but I would also say that some people might think that when a quarterback throws an 85 yard touch down with two minutes left in the game a work of art. Would that mean we categorize football as an art form? Probably not but I think there still is real merit in calling Irish dance a sport. The average person has probably only been exposed to Irish dance in the form of performance though Riverdance or some St. Patrick's day related event, so all this talk of competition might be confusing. In reality almost every dancer onstage in Lord of the Dance is either a world medal holder or World Champion. They have all competed at the highest level for years. Many of those jumps where the girl just seems to float in the air or the beats that progressively get faster and more complex with every twist of the ankle were born not because of some choreographer in search of dance steps for a show but a dance teacher trying to make their student more competitive. Many other dancers who something more established, like ballet, say that calling dance a sport cheapens the art form and having dancers compete is blasphemy. Competition in Irish dance is nothing new nor was it some "look-at-me-I'm-better-than-you" American conspiracy. Competition has been taking place in Ireland for at least 150 years and not only that but there is an official regulating commission like the NFL. Elizabeth Bowen said it best when she said, "Sport and death are the two great socializing factors in Ireland." She did not say art and death and I would say Irish dance is quite social so it must be a sport. :-)
To read the opinions of other dancers on the topic go here or to read what Irish dancers think on the topic go here

Aspersion: A curse, an expression of ill-will The dancers casted aspersions toward each other after they competed  
Assiduous: hard-working, diligent She qualified for worlds after four years of assiduous practice 

Monday, August 30, 2010

First Day, First Dance

Over the years I have heard many different ways to say, "Irish dance." People have asked me if I am a clogger, riverdancer, step dancer, or tap dancer. My absolute favorite description of hobby turned addiction was when someone asked my little sister, who also Irish dances, "Do you do the leprechaun dancing with the clogs?" Most of these are horrible things to say to an Irish dancer. We will be nice the first time you say one of these things but after that I cannot ensure your safety when you tell an Irish dancer that you liked her tapping. I would liken it to telling a football player that he made a nice home run in the game. Irish dance, clogging, and tap dance are all three very separate and distinct forms of dance. I hate to sound like the father from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but give me a dance and I will show you how the Irish came up with it first. Tapping and clogging can traced back to the old country but it does not mean they are all the same thing. Irish dance has become far more controlled, aggressive, and in my opinion, complex then these other two. Now I say "has become" because Irish dance has gone through a very complex evolution in a very short amount of time. This is due to a number of factors, but the main reason is because of one man, Michael Flatley. If you do not know his name you know of him. He is the guy who would prance around stage in a big puffy white shirt and move his feet really fast. I am sure your mother or grandmother has pulled you to one of his many shows sometime in the 90s. He started with Riverdance, and moved onto create Lord of the Dance, (or LOTD for those in the know) Feet of Flames (it's the exact same thing as LOTD) and Celtic Tiger. It is these shows that helped to propel Irish dance outside of its strict cultural boundaries and onto the world's stage. It was this man prancing around in a puffy white shirt that got me interested in Irish dance in the first place, like many of my Irish dancing peers. Before him Irish dance was only danced by the kids who went to Catholic school and had reels and jigs drilled into them by Irish nuns. With this explosion in the number of Irish dancers it helped to not only expand the audience and the number of dancers, but it also pushed from a simple folk dance to a competitive sport.

Abhor: To detest I abhor curling my hair for a feis.
Abscond: To run away I absconded with all the medals from the awards table.