The Irish Echo: Dancing on the Edge

The Irish Echo
January 18-24, 2006

Dancing on the Edge
By Ailbhe Jordan

Prior to the Riverdance phenomenon, few would have thought it possible to make a career out of Irish dancing.  The notion of giving traditional Irish step dancing a modern edge was unimaginable.  And yet, even beforeRiverdance exploded onto the world stage, one dancer had done both.

For the last decade, Ohio-born choreographer Darrah Carr has been pushing the boundaries of traditional Irish dance with her own pioneering dance style that combines traditional Irish step with modern dance.  Growing up in an Irish-American family in Toledo, Irish dancing was in Carr’s blood.  “I think my parents thought that I would never take it as far as I did, by the time they were at their 80th feis, they were like ‘Oh, my God!’” laughed Carr, when she spoke to the Irish Echo en route to Boston, where her dance troupe will perform next week.

After obtaining a dance degree from Wesleyan University in Connecticut in 1996, Carr, also an accomplished ballet dancer, moved to New York City in the hope of pursuing a career in modern dance.  Arriving just as Riverdance was breaking in the U.S., however, Carr found that her Irish dancing skills were in high demand.  Carr supported herself financially by teaching Irish dancing and performing duets with veteran step dancer Niall O’Leary, while off-stage she was creating a new dance genre that merged her two passions-Irish step and modern dance.  “I started combining elements of my modern dance training with my Irish dance training.  I was very interested in this idea of blending the two elements,” she explained.

Carr obtained a Masters’ degree in Modern Dance Choreography from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University before starting up her own dance company, Darrah Carr Dance, in 2001.  Since then, Carr has become a well known name on the Irish dancing circuit.  Calling her dance style “Celtic Ballet” Carr’s dance company has grown in size and reputation, performing at venues ranging from the Knitting Factory in New York to the Allied Irish Bank Arts Center in Dublin.  The company has toured all over the U.S., Ireland and Japan.

Last fall, Carr embarked on a new departure with the opening of the Darrah Carr Dance School, established to train children in Carr’s new brand of Irish dance, which she recently re-christened ModERIN (“It’s the perfect combination of words,” she said.)  “I think Irish dance offers a huge amount of structure,” she said.  “It’s very rhythmic, it has very specific spatial patterns and that provides a great format for the freedom of modern dance.  It’s kind of like looking at the two and saying this is a marriage of freedom and structure.   I found that very interesting.”

Carr spent the Summer months renovating a dance studio in Williamsburg and working out a core syllabus for her ModERIN program.  In September, she welcomed the inaugural ModERIN class, with students ranging in age from five to twelve years old.  Ultimately, Carr hopes the classes will produce dancers for a junior dance company, which will be called DCWee.  “My plan in developing ModERIN, ultimately, is to provide a training ground for the type of dancer who can do both the Irish dance and the contemporary dance,” she said.

How has her experimental take on Irish dancing been perceived in the traditional Irish dancing world?  “I find we’re often perceived as being too avant-garde, not traditional enough,” she said.  “There’s certainly that line--I’m always very careful to respect the tradition and respect the place where it came from.  But, there are people who look at us and say,’’That’s not Irish dancing,’ because we’re not in a straight line doing hard shoe pounding.  And in my head I’m saying, ‘Well, we’re not calling it Irish dancing.’”

“It’s about trying to exactly find that bridge between the two worlds,” she continued.  “There’s always going to be that group of people who don’t want you to play with the tradition too much.  But, in my opinion, if you don’t play with it, it’s not going to live.  It has to be a breathing, living thing that changes.”

Carr also runs an adult class, which she said is “more for fun.”  “I’m not pursuing this concept of developing ModERIN in their classes,” she said. “We perform at weddings.  We do pub-crawls and stuff.  It’s quiet a matchmaking circle, the adult class.”  Carr can vouch for that, having met her husband in class.  The couple married in August.  “His sisters take my class, but he’s just a social dancer,” she said. 

Carr’s ModERIN class started out small, with just 12 students.  “I started very small on purpose, with myself teaching the classes,” she explained.  “I wanted to try it out and see how the course material would develop.  This fall, I want to expand and to have my company members teach additional classes so that we have multiple classes on multiple days.”

The Darrah Carr Dance Company will tour Ireland in the Spring of 2007.  Carr, who traces her heritage back to Co. Kilkenny on her mother’s side and Co. Armagh on her father’s side, is always glad of the opportunity to visit.  “We’ve done the whole going back to Ireland and finding your roots thing,” she laughed.  “My husband’s family is also Irish.  His mom is from Cavan and his dad’s from Donegal.  They met in New York.”

For more information about the Darrah Carr Dance School, log on to

Darrah Carr