The voice on the public address system boomed.
“Foireann 101 damhsa ar an spól tras.”
A courtesy translation followed for the English speakers in the 2,000-seat auditorium.
“Team 101, dancing the cross reel.”
Eight members of the Notre Dame–Saint Mary’s College Irish Dance Team took the stage. Marching in a line, the four pairs stepped in coordinated time to their marks, as they had done at least a hundred times during rehearsals over the last few months. This occasion was different, of course. If that reality wasn’t obvious, they needed only glance at the brightly colored banner upstage. There, with an outline of the Emerald Isle in the middle, was the phrase that defined the special significance to the team’s next 90 seconds: “Oireachtas Rince na hÉireann” (All Ireland Dance Championships).
The middle two pairs of dancers split from the line and took several steps in rhythm stage right and stage left. The front pair turned 180 degrees with two coordinated steps, forming a square. The team smiled — for the judges, for each other.
Front feet turned out. Toes pointed. The musicians at stage right played a couple warm-up notes. For a moment, time froze.
Then the music began.
Today, an estimated 80 million people across the globe claim Irish ancestry. The Irish diaspora is one of the largest in history, and evidence of this fact abounds. It’s the reason St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with such gusto in the U.S., where the Irish population is roughly seven times that of Ireland itself. It’s the reason a walk around Dublin’s City Centre turns up dozens of storefronts where visitors can trace their family lineage — and for a few Euros, leave with a miniature woven tapestry with a heraldic crest and family name emblazoned on it. And, at least in part, the diaspora is the reason that the native dance of Ireland enjoys popularity the world over.
Irish dance is today one of the most recognizable dance forms. Like most things Irish, there’s a fair amount of lore surrounding its practice and development, perhaps because tracing the historical roots of Irish dance is not easy. Records of dance as part of everyday life in Ireland don’t appear until roughly the early 16th century, and even then those notes are mostly observations of visiting Englishmen. Nevertheless, modern history describes Irish dance as an expression of Irish nationalism that collided with the country’s destiny in at least two pivotal moments.
Tara MacLeod, professor of Irish language at Notre Dame’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, notes the first such moment emanated from a revival in late-19th century Ireland that sought to reinvigorate pride in Irish heritage and, importantly, distinguish Irish culture from English customs. This pursuit of identity was part of the purpose of the Gaelic League, a body formed to encourage events promoting Irish language, literature, music and dance. The group organized the first official céilí (“KAY-lee,” which roughly means “a gathering”; the group dance is usually performed with up to eight people) on October 30, 1897, in Bloomsbury Hall in London — a notable spot at the time for a celebration of Irish heritage and perhaps a harbinger of the tensions to come. The majority of the individuals who staged the 1916 Easter Rising were members of the Gaelic League.
While these efforts were directed toward Irish both at home and abroad, and the nationalism they proclaimed was nonetheless influenced by the cultures where dispersed Irish lived. This took an interesting turn when it came to dance; the Gaelic League sought to promote solo movements that exuded restraint, in addition to skill and coordination. The result was the development of the now-familiar placement of the solo dancer’s arms and torso — arms at the side, back straight.
“They wanted to promote an Irish culture that would hold its ground in the parlors of London,” MacLeod said. “Free form movements with the arms was seen as not very sophisticated, so that (style) was pushed aside.”
At least that’s the official account. Legend has it that the straight arms were a ploy to throw off ever-watchful priests. The story goes that villagers would dance in their homes and keep their arms straight at their sides while their feet and legs set about in frenzied movement, so that if a priest happened by their window he would see only the chest, shoulders and heads of the inhabitants and be none the wiser what they were really up to. (There’s no telling what this hypothetical priest would make of the dancer’s peculiar and sporadic vertical bobbing.)
If the explanation is wanting in fact, it is perhaps useful to illustrate the unease with which many Irish Church leaders viewed dancing just after the turn of the century. Numerous records include warnings to young people of the licentiousness associated with dance and the dangers of spending too much time in dance halls. Though it should be stressed these admonitions centered mostly around solo dance, and especially a new type of dance craze Americans enjoyed from the swing era of the 1920s, described as “jazz dancing.” Céilí was generally viewed with less concern; it was commonly performed after Mass on Sundays and had a much closer, traditional tie to Ireland. It may be an overstatement to say the Church’s influence helped to “purify” the institution of Irish dance, distilling it from outside influences, but its involvement was certainly noticed. Indeed, the fact that today’s Irish Dance competitors still wear wigs adorned with countless tight curls is a sign of the Church’s influence: Girls participating in céilí dances after Mass did so in their Sunday best, which frequently meant curling their hair.
The Gaelic League’s work to use dance to help define “Irishness” succeeded at least in taking Irish dance from a common activity in local communities and villages to a trademark of Ireland. The global interest Irish dance enjoys today is owed in large part to a phenomenon that began as intermission filler for the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, broadcast from Dublin to an estimated 300 million television viewers. Within six years, theatrical records the world over would be shattered as Riverdance captivated audiences with an explosive display of Irish dancing that would eventually become a defining cultural characteristic of its homeland.
Scholars suggest that the timing of Riverdance's release and ensuing popularity is symbolic of the economic fortunes of Ireland in the mid- and late-1990s. At that time, the “Celtic Tiger” roared to economic power and was hailed as a shining example of the emergence of the new Europe. Indeed, some went so far as to say the storyline of Riverdance featured metaphors for the vitality of the capitalistic triumph of Ireland at the time. This much is indisputable: Riverdance ushered in an era of popularity of Irish dance not seen since the first céilí in London approximately a century before. It is another point at which Irish dance heralded an influx of Irish culture on a global scale.
It was around this time that many members of ND-SMC Irish Dance Team discovered Irish dance for themselves. Robert Black ND ’17, the coach of the céilí team that competed in Belfast at the All Irelands, owes his introduction to dance to Riverdance. And his father.
“Riverdance came to the U.S. in 1995, and in ’96 they performed at Radio City Music Hall,” Black recalled. “My dad brought home a recording of that performance. I saw it, and I started (dancing) almost right away.”
It’s really a ‘bug’ that bites you, and once it does, you don’t want to stop.
Other members of the team have similar stories of their initial exposure to Irish dance. Often it was love at first sight. Club co-presidents Caitlin McGarry SMC ’17 and Christine Kerrigan ND ’17 also started at a young age — Kerrigan by way of her father and aunts who had danced and McGarry after a fateful day in first grade.
“I walked by our school auditorium and I saw a bunch of girls on stage dancing,” McGarry said. “I was like, ‘What are they doing? That is so cool!’ I’ve been dancing ever since.”
The eight-member céilí team is part of the larger ND-SMC Irish Dance Club, 70 members strong. The club is made up almost entirely of women; Black is one of two men in its membership. All grew up training at one of the more than 280 certified Irish dance schools in the U.S. and competing at local and regional competitions called feiseanna (“FESH-ee-ahna;” feis or “fesh” for short). Some club members knew each other long before their college years; Kerrigan and two of the céilí team, Laurel Wilson SMC ’17 and Rachel Kepley SMC ’17, all trained at the Burke School of Irish Dance in Youngstown, Ohio.
“I’ve known these girls since I was six,” Kerrigan said. “It’s like this club you have that no one else knows about. Some of my friends at school knew I was in dance, but they didn’t know my ‘dance friends.’ It’s like another world that no one really gets.”
That may be an understatement. For all the success of Riverdance in bringing Irish dance into popular vogue, very few casual spectators understand the effort, passion and outright grit the dancers channel for the craft. McGarry said she spent three hours a day in the studio while she was in high school, not to mention the hours spent at home practicing. Other team members logged similar hours. That much time spent on an activity that requires pointed toes, turned feet, leaps and high kicks takes a toll on the body. McGarry broke her fifth metatarsal and an ankle when she was a sophomore in high school. Black retired from competition at age 16, in part because of mounting injuries. Two members of the team that traveled to Ireland did so only after getting clearance from their doctors, who prescribed medical walking boots to be worn when the girls were not practicing or performing. One underwent foot surgery shortly after her return to the States.
So why do it if the risk of injury is so great? The Irish ancestry of many team members helps to explain some of the initial lure. Enduring the rigorous rehearsals and competition schedule requires something more.
“It’s really a ‘bug’ that bites you, and once it does, you don’t want to stop,” said Katie Grennan ND ’10. Grennan began her dancing career at age eight because her father wanted his children to appreciate their Irish roots.
“I immediately fell in love with it,” she said. “There was just something about dancing to that music, the steps, the whole atmosphere.”
To the uninitiated, the atmosphere at an Irish dance competition can be overwhelming. Feis are equal parts pageant and performance, power and presentation. It’s a dazzling, dizzying spectacle of sound and color and movement, and after a first-timer sees a few competitors take the stage and perform, the dance’s allure becomes much more understandable.
In their training, dancers learn a number of categories of steps: reel, jig, slip jig, hornpipe to name a few. In feis competition, three types of jigs are usually performed: light, single, hop and treble. It is important to note that the defining characteristic of the dance is the time. The actual steps — the foot movements, leaps and more — are usually choreographed by the instructor at the dancer’s school. As a result, there are countless variations of solo dances even if there is a prescribed duration and order. Each step lasts eight bars of music and starts on the right foot. The sequence is repeated on the left foot to complete the step. As any Irish dancer can tell you, working on the myriad and increasingly complicated combinations of toe taps and foot and leg movements can be habit-forming.
The open-ended nature of the choreography also means the sport is still evolving. New trends pop up from time to time, but very rarely is there a seismic shift in the way Irish dance is performed. Riverdance may have been one such dramatic shift. Overall, Irish dance continues to adhere largely to a traditional “look” — toes pointed, feet turned out, arms at the side, and of course, the wigs. Yet while the arms and wigs are cultural progeny, there is a growing number of people in the Irish dancing world who fear the sport is drifting a bit from its heritage. As Grennan opined, “Right now I fear the Irish dance community is perhaps lacking in some of the appreciation for the cultural tradition of dance, and the music and the culture itself.”
To put it another way, there are many who believe the style of modern Irish dance is drowning out its substance. One needs to look no further than the flamboyant dresses the female competitors wear for an example. The dresses — usually featuring untold number of sequins and blinding fluorescent colors — can cost upwards of $2,000. The wigs sometimes run a couple hundred dollars more. In recent years, an unexpected trend of self- and spray tanning among competitors sprang up; the Irish Dancing Commission has since outlawed fake tans for competitors under age 10. The belief is that if the youngest competitors eschew tanning early on, they’ll be less likely to do it later on in their careers, and the trend will eventually fade, to use an apt term.
To whatever degree this "drift" is indeed occurring, it is still the case that Irish dance maintains a relative purity of form and aesthetic. This is because of the existence of a governing body that maintains strict requirements to be certified as an Irish dance instructor, and also because of the passion and respect for the craft shared by the competitors. Most members of the ND-SMC Irish Dance Team are at the end of their competitive careers, if not outright retired. Yet the student club allows them to indulge this passion that was in many cases an integral part of their early years, but with a more reasonable schedule that allows ample time for schoolwork and other activities. And for the céilí team that traveled to Ireland, it was a chance to take the stage in a competitive context for a final time.
The club’s involvement in the All Ireland competition began with Grennan. She had competed in All Ireland as a soloist, and researched a way the ND-SMC group could , participate as well. It turned out there was a division for “club” teams — that is, teams that are not associated with a certified Irish dance school. The caveat, however, was the team had to be vouched for by a certified Irish dance instructor. For this year’s team, Grennan is that instructor. The ND-SMC team has competed five of the last six years, their only absence the result of a change in the timing of the competition. The club holds various fundraisers throughout the year to pay for the trip and all related expenses. Working a concession stand at a Notre Dame home football game has proven to be a particularly lucrative endeavor, partially because club members have been known to put on a small exhibition for hungry patrons waiting in line.
“I’m so proud of the fact that this hasn’t been just a one-time experience, but it’s been something they’ve done year after year,” Grennan said. “The coaches have been really good about passing down the expectations and the knowledge of the competition.”
Every year that they’ve gone, they’ve won.
That fact wasn’t lost on the women of the 2016 céilí team in the final weeks of practice before the November trip. The team members auditioned the previous spring, and used the summer to prepare. Their regimen sounds more like an athlete in training camp – a routine of Russian twists, cardio exercises, planking and more. It sounds extreme, but Black insists it’s necessary for the team performance.
“Normally, a solo performance in Irish dance is somewhere around 30 seconds,” he said. “The dance we’re doing at the competition, the cross reel, is a minute and a half. Ninety seconds might not seem like a long time, but when it’s three times what you’re normally expected to do, you have to be up for it.”
Céilí features steps all dancers learn early on in their careers. The arrangements for the competition are choreographed by the school instructor or coach. (Black in the case of the ND-SMC team.) Yet the fact that the movements are considered “basic” brings its own challenge: Because they are so common, the expectation of perfection is much greater, and the margin for error much slimmer.
“You have the steps, but the skill is continually being improved,” Kerrigan commented. “You lose the turn-out, lose the muscle, so you still have to practice, still have to keep up.”
“You have to cross your feet just a little more, go up on your toes even that one extra centimeter,” said Bridget Pruzin ND ’17. “When you get into competition, it’s all about being in line with one another. If one person is an inch off, the judges can tell.”
“It’s harder than it looks,” Kerrigan added. “I think we make it look easy because we’ve been practicing for so long. But it’s harder than it looks.”
Another challenge is creating the ensemble of team members that are both highly skilled and highly complementary. An outstanding solo dancer may not be the best fit for a céilí team, according to Black. “Can you be led around by another dancer? Can you follow direction? Can you take criticism? All those factors go into determining whether someone will be a good fit,” he said.
Precision and timing are keys in competitive céilí. At the start, four pairs of dancers form a square with each pair facing inward toward an opposite pair, and adjacent to pairs on the left and right. The dancers must maintain a center point and a balance to their positioning lest the whole affair become a tangled mess of kicks and wigs. Thus the considerable rehearsal schedule. Even after months of repetition and practice, there was still room for improvement. Then the trip was at hand.
Once in Ireland, the team made a point of visiting several cultural and historical landmarks. The first was a visit to Trinity College, its famous library and spectacular Book of Kells, a manuscript dating 800 A.D. The book, extravagantly illustrated, contains the four Gospels and other religious texts. The manuscript’s origin is the subject of much scholarly debate, but its name comes from Kells, a town in County Meath, where Scottish monks, the original artists, were said to have fled for safety after their monastery in Iona, Scotland, was raided by Vikings.
Yet its most stirring attribute may be the ornate artistic expression in the book’s 680 pages, considered the finest of its kind. At least three artists contributed to the illustrations and fanciful designs found on its pages, presumably with the aim of accentuating and emphasizing the message of Jesus’ life and teachings. The monks’ handiwork had the added effect of producing a distinct style of design that many today would identify generically as “Celtic,” featuring intricate line patterns and curvatures that join at sharp points, among other characteristics.
Viewing the book was doubly significant for the dance team. Every certified Irish dance school develops their logo and patterns featured on their competition attire based on designs found in the Book of Kells. If the Irish dance community is drifting from its foundational cultural origins in some ways, it still maintains a connection to this most sacred book.
Also in Dublin, the team paid a visit to the O’Connell House, which serves as a base of operations for Notre Dame’s Dublin Global Gateway. The University operates five such campuses around the world that serve as a hub of scholarly pursuit for Notre Dame students and faculty, as well as other academics. In Dublin, Notre Dame partners with Trinity and University College of Dublin to offer a broad array of internship and research opportunities that allow students to “learn through the soles of their feet,” as director Kevin Whelan puts it.
More than 300 students have studied at O’Connell House, and each takes a course on Irish culture taught by Whelan. The team visited Whelan’s class, dined with their fellow Notre Dame students, and offered an exhibition of the routine they would perform several days later in Belfast. It was warmly received, of course, even if the jet lag had not fully abated among the team members.
An early wake-up call began Day 3, as the team headed north to view Giant’s Causeway, a geological formation along Northern Ireland’s coast. The series of some 40,000 interlocking hexagonal basalt columns was created by an ancient volcanic eruption. The day provided precious downtime before the competition. Final preparations would begin tomorrow.
The 2016 All Ireland competition was held at Waterfront Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Several of the ND-SMC team members had previously witnessed this spectacle. It is one of only two international competitions in Irish dance. Not the largest competition — the World Championships will be held in Dublin in April 2017 — but for Irish dancers, there is a certain and enviable distinction that comes from winning the All Ireland. Success in Irish dance at its namesake competition is a jewel in any competitor’s crown.
It’s an attraction for the industry that has sprung up around Irish dance as well. The Waterfront was packed with vendor booths where dressmakers, shoe companies, wig makers, and photographers hawked their wares. It could be easy to mistake the scene for a trade show, if not for the rhythmic thunder of hard shoe dancers practicing in the concourse and wig-sporting girls scurrying from dressing rooms to practice venues, ringlets bouncing madly.
Solo competitors are brought onto stage in groups usually of two or three. Musicians begin playing, and dancers start their routine according to the prescribed steps. Despite sharing the same stage with other dancers who move from one end to the other in rapid succession, there is rarely a collision.
The ND-SMC team was here not representing a school; they were here because of a love for Irish dance.