Dance Spirit Magazine: Stepped-Up Tradition--Thanks to Competition, Irish Step Dancing has Evolved into One of the World’s Most Complex Folk Dances

Dance Spirit Magazine
October, 2001

“Stepped-Up Tradition--Thanks to Competition, Irish Step Dancing has Evolved into One of the World’s Most Complex Folk Dances”
by Kimberly Gdula

“Alot of people are under the impression that Riverdance changed Irish dancing.  I think Riverdance was a product rather than a cause,” says former World and Senior All-Ireland Champion Niall O’Leary.  Adds his step dance partner, Darrah Carr, “The competitive world of Irish dance influenced those shows.  The steps have existed for a very long time, but the nature of competition is what caused the steps to evolve to such a degree.”

Traditional Irish step dancing, explains Carr, was not performed at the frenetic speed today's step dancers are accustomed to and steps were lower to the ground.  Also, it wasn’t as improvisational as it is today, with top teachers rivaling each other for creative approaches to the standard vocabulary that must be demonstrated by competitors.  Innovation is acceptable, but tricky.  Artistry is often limited to arranging the required steps in engaging ways.

Of course, outside the competition scene, master steppers develop their own styles, with signature moves that only their students are familiar with.  O’Leary, whose schools of Irish dance are located in every borough of New York City, uses a recent performance at Town Hall, just off Times Square, as an example.  While he and Carr enthusiastically met the challenge of performing with dancer Donny Golden (former North American Irish Step Dance Champion) and his troupe, he says the show could have been a disaster.  “There are certain steps that everyone knows, but it’s not possible to meet someone on the street and do a good show because everyone (also) knows different steps,” O’Leary clarifies.

Town Hall’s “Irish Music & Dance Fest” was anything but a disaster, with breathtaking dancing and exceptional live accompaniment led by Dr. Mick Moloney, visiting professor of Irish music at New York University, and featuring singer/songwriter Robbie O’Connell.  Because rhythm is so important to step dancing, music is a driving force and, Carr notes, “The live music element makes it fun.”  Unless you get nervous, that is.  Competitions don’t give entrants a chance to rehearse with the live musicians hired for the event.

Mastering the trademark components of Irish dance can also be tough.  Take the complicated patterns of traditional sequences, known as figures, the technical proficiency of competitors and the precision displayed by large touring shows.  If that’s not enough to work on, you also need to train yourself to maintain erect posture, even while jumping, and keeping your arms by your side.  For the latter, Carr suggests holding a pencil behind your back, or making fists by holding quarters in your palms.  And don’t worry if jumping isn’t your forte.  It will be.  Constantly dancing on the balls of your feet will strengthen your calves and legs, enabling you to shoot up higher than you think. 

Interestingly, there are probably more Irish dancers here in the States than in Ireland.  So, if you think you can’t compete with the big boys, you’re wrong.  But commitment is the key.  Carr says many step dance champions come from Ireland because of their intense training, which you can also get here, if you’re willing to sacrifice other activities.  For those of you who are still wondering what you would do with the skill, she adds, “Because of Riverdance, there’s life after competition.” 

Darrah Carr