Irish Dance on Repeat: Archiving the Dance and Dancing the Archive
Again. And again. One more time. And...again. I always agonized over this never-ending refrain from my teachers, who called it out as we drilled a tricky rhythm bit or tried to get that perfect foot placement, sweaty, our calves aching. My classmates and I would sigh and roll our eyes, but I secretly loved the repetition—the pursuit of getting something just right, in the pocket, locked in. This is what has always kept me coming back to Irish dancing: the quest to lock in to these repetitive sequences that are passed down from teacher to student and to feel grounded by the ongoing effort to perfect these rhythms.
I think a lot about the repetitive nature, the “again-ness” of Irish dancing: how we persistently drill a two-bar phrase, compete with the same steps for years, or practice traditional set dances that have been passed down through generations. Many of us become known for our steps. Certain steps are even associated with famous dancers past and present who made up steps in their own notable styles.
Irish step dance is mostly a solo endeavor and there is little room for telling a story – at least not one with an identifiable plot. Although some set dances allude to story-like elements, like the “horsey” movements of Kilkenny Races or the“retreat” to the back of the stage in Bonaparte’s Retreat, I was never taught to dance with a particular story, theme, or emotion in mind when it came to Irish dance. However, when I dance my steps, I do feel like I am expressing a certain kind of story, a history that flows through my feet from my dance teacher’s feet and her dance teacher’s feet before her. My last set dance before retiring from competition was the Drunken Gauger. The jig rhythm made me feel buoyant, with high front clicks, toe stands, butterflies, and rolling trebles. The set ended with a loud, confident stamp that felt triumphant every time I did it. That was my story. I danced for my teacher, for my mom and grandma, and for myself, putting a stamp on another successful performance.
I experimented with jazz dance when I was in high school and it was in those classes that I first heard the concept of an“archive” used to talk about how dances are remembered, preserved, and passed down. In jazz we spent most of the class doing conditioning exercises like pliés, tendús, and battements, with only a few minutes at the end devoted to dancing a full combination. Each week my jazz teacher taught us a new combination, but sometimes we revisited a dance from “the archive,” as she called it: a combination that we had learned and set aside months before. In jazz, the purpose of learning a new combination was more about how good we were at picking up new material and less about retaining it in our long-term memory. It was so different from my Irish dance classes, where we learned and perfected our technique by dancing the same steps over and over. At the time, I didn’t think too much about this practice but, looking back, I see that the way we drilled steps into our bodies was like dancing an archive, day in and day out.
I remember when I was going off to college and my Irish dance teacher, Laureen O’Neill-James, who is originally from Glasgow and has taught in the Washington, D.C. area for over 50 years, told me that I should always practice all of my steps. This meant all of my reels, slip jigs, light jigs, heavy jigs, hornpipes, and set dances, from beginner to championship level. It was also around this time that I was starting to make up my own steps. When she gave me this reminder, I think she had in mind that I would someday take my teacher’s exam, in which I would need an arsenal of steps to show my skill at teaching students at any level. If I stopped practicing all my steps, she said, I would forget them and regret the loss. I don’t know how literally she meant for me to take that advice, but her warning instilled in me a deep desire to hold onto the steps that had been imprinted on my body throughout years of practice.
It was her words that first made me think about what an Irish dance archive is and how it comes to be. Is there one collective archive that we all share? Do we each develop our own unique archive of knowledge within us? What happens to our steps when memory fails or the body changes? I became fascinated by the idea that the dancing body contains a vast number of unconscious patterns, accumulated over a lifetime of training. These patterns, I imagine, are encoded into our bodies during practice, connecting us to a lineage of dancers. It is through our steps that we produce and sustain great communal knowledge when we perform. These patterns are also, I believe, activated by the music we dance to. When I hear “The Blackbird,” for example, neurons begin to fire. Even if I’m not actually moving, I feel the dance light up inside me. My toes start to twitch and I feel my breathing sync up with the melodic rhythm. When I dance the archive, I feel as if I’m connected to something bigger. I am just one dancer in this Irish dance tradition, but I am a node connected to a network of movers.
But when we die or move on from our practice, do our steps, these neural patterns we’ve crafted in our practice, simply vanish?
Taking my dance teacher’s advice, I became obsessed with retaining my archive of steps. In college, my solo practice sessions became about compulsive repetition. I started writing my steps down, which I never did when I was younger, when I seemed to just trust my memory. As I started teaching and making up more steps, my practice time grew to nearly three hours with old and new steps combined. Now I had to decide which steps to rotate from week to week to maintain consistency and which to leave behind. I cut steps from my regular practice with some sense of grief. There was something about the potential loss of these steps in my body’s memory, like saying goodbye to old friends, each of which had a story and a feeling associated with it—a person I had learned from, a period of time in my life, a phrase or variation that delighted me. After years of practicing in this compulsive way, I realized that the task I set myself– to remember – had become emotionally and physically exhausting. I was tired and overwhelmed.
About five years ago, I decided to create a digital database of steps that I’d learned or created over my 30 years of Irish dancing based on old notes and videos and, of course, body memory. Some steps I recalled easily, but many of my notations were indecipherable or incomplete. What does “one treble and two treble hop down/one treble and toe-back-click and slide 2 3” mean, exactly? Some of the older videos I had taken were horribly pixelated, but I managed to piece together about three hundred steps. I painstakingly catalogued them by date, location, teacher, and rhythm, and I wrote code to connect a step with its “relatives” if they came from a similar period in my life or if they were a variation of another step. I re-recorded some videos and filled in each entry with additional details, like who I learned the step from and when, plus any fun personal anecdotes, like the beginner treble reel that I struggled with in class but somehow clarified in a dream.
It was difficult to record myself performing steps as an older dancer. I wasn’t completely out of shape, but I was certainly not as buoyant and precise as I was in my prime. I was still practicing some of my most advanced competition material when I began creating the database, just to keep it in the body, but it hurt. I had chronic Achilles tendinosis in both legs from all the repetitive practice. I watch these videos in my personal database now with a combination of self-criticism and relief. Although the steps weren’t danced perfectly, now that I have finished the database, I feel a certain release from the pressures of maintaining and retaining the steps in my memory. I am comforted by the knowledge that I can go back to remind myself of steps if I want to dance them again or teach them to someone else. I also feel more creative since wrapping up the project, inspired to start making up my own new steps again. My concern for maintaining an embodied archive throughout years of practice stifled my creativity. I was so worried about remembering and holding onto my younger dancing self that I was afraid to make up new steps that would be, perhaps, better suited to a more mature dancer, and let the others go.
Now that I have my own database, I wonder what a public global database of Irish dance steps would look like, and who would it serve? I also wonder why there isn’t one already, like thesession.org, which catalogs tunes in Irish music. But, while musicians use more standardized notation practices, I know that finding a uniform notation system or agreeing on traditional step names and variations would be a challenge for the dance community. However, the possibilities of collecting stories alongside our steps would give us insights into different styles around the world. What would we gain from engaging with our dance tradition in this way? Could Irish dancers use this kind of tool to preserve our cultural memory?
But sometimes I also wonder if archiving steps in this way is antithetical to oral or kinesthetic tradition, the embodied passing down of steps from one person to another. Even by activating various record-keeping strategies—video and audio files, notation transcriptions, names, and stories—databases still do not capture the community that creates this knowledge. Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Archive, created and produced by Jean Butler in partnership with the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library, hits on this missing element—it engages in an organic archival process through the combination of oral histories and live transmission events designed for younger to learn from older. Irish dancing is built on people keeping the steps alive by dancing together, working together to fill in gaps in memory. The live breakdown of a pattern during class, along with the rhythmic singing that often accompanies it, is crucial for the encoding of steps in the body. Nothing compares to standing behind or next to your teacher or friend and sharing not just steps, but a whole way of being. In these moments of communion, the step doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be shared.
Kate Spanos is a dance scholar, educator, and arts administrator from the Washington, D.C. area. She is an Irish dancer with experience in a variety of percussive styles and has published articles about dances of resistance from Brazil and Montserrat, West Indies. She holds an M.A. in traditional Irish dance performance from the University of Limerick and a Ph.D. in dance and performance studies from the University of Maryland, College Park. www.thekatespanos.com.
Thank you to Nic Gareiss and Colin Dunne for encouraging me to share my writing, to my editor, Rachel Miller for her clarifying questions, and to Jean Butler for opening up this space for Irish dancers to dialogue.