Keeping Time: An Overview of Our Steps

Siobhan Burke
Image by Jean Butler

I never gave much thought to where Irish dance steps came from, back when I spent Saturdays practicing them at an American Legion hall in Old Wethersfield, Connecticut. It was obvious: They came from my teacher, who was right there in front of me, demonstrating the reel or jig or hornpipe, etching rhythms into any available floor (linoleum in the kitchen, cement in the basement, wood in the main hall). Any curiosity about the past, about the history of what my body was doing, gave way to more immediate concerns: figuring out the intricacies of the step, trying to remember it, wanting to win the approval of teachers and judges. How would I fare with this step in competition? Would I be good at it? Would I be able to win?

Talk to most competitive Irish dancers today, and they’ll likely tell you something similar. As the standard of competition grows ever more demanding — steps filling up with more beats and more tricks — dancers and their teachers rarely carve out adequate space to pause and reflect, so strong is the drive to accelerate and excel. Within this race forward, Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Archive is a deep breath. Jean Butler, after more than four decades of immersion in Irish dance, is inviting her fellow Irish dancers, across generations, to slow down and look back.

Jean embarked on this project following the deaths, in a span of two years, of four influential Irish dance teachers in New York: Jimmy Erwin and Jerry Mulvihill in 2013; Michael Bergin and Peter Smith in 2014. With their passing, she realized, the history of a generation was slipping away. What would happen to the steps they had created, the knowledge they carried? And looking ahead, what about the steps and the stories of their students, many of whom had become teachers themselves?

While recognizing the impossibility of a comprehensive archive, Our Steps begins an urgent process of preservation, through the passing down and documenting of solo Irish set dances (those performed in competition) and other solo steps (as opposed to group or céilí dances) dating from the 1940s to 1994. This period starts around the time of the 1948 emigration, from Belfast to New York City, of brothers Peter and Cyril McNiff, who popularized the Ulster style of Irish dance in the United States. More elegant, and done to slower music, than the Munster or Kerry style — the leading style in New York at the time, taught chiefly by James McKenna — the Ulster style is the direct predecessor of competitive Irish dance today. The chronological scope of Our Steps ends with the 1994 birth of Riverdance, which transformed Irish dance from a close-knit cultural practice into a global commercial phenomenon.

Jean has started close to home, with her own dance lineage, or what she sometimes calls her “family tree.” The first Our Steps residency, in July 2018 at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, focused on the steps of her own teacher, Donny Golden, a student of Jimmy Erwin, who was a student of Cyril McNiff. A highlight of those two weeks was a visit from Cyril’s sister, Joan McNiff Cass, whose delicate precision — at the age of 79, no less — held everyone in the studio captive. (The library repurposed one of its galleries as a dance studio, complete with a new sprung floor, for the duration of the residency.)

"How do dancers today relate to material from 30, 40, 50 years ago? How have trends and techniques evolved, or not? What can or should be recovered from styles of the past?"

While Jean could have simply asked teachers to demonstrate what they remember, she has chosen instead to film the messier, lengthier process of reconstruction and transmission: of piecing dances back together, mostly from memory, and passing them on to a younger group of current competitors. This has allowed for a study of generational differences: How do dancers today relate to material from 30, 40, 50 years ago? How have trends and techniques evolved, or not? What can or should be recovered from styles of the past?

To dig further into the stories behind the steps, Jean has also invited guests to be interviewed through the Oral History Project of the library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division, to narrate their experiences in Irish dance for future researchers. These recollections situate the physical practice of dancing within a broader context, a framework of personal and cultural memory. Narrators speak of gathering in the back rooms of bars for class; of sprawling summer days spent at feiseanna with friends and family (back when a feis was typically an outdoor communal event); of teachers both inspirational and intimidating, even physically abusive in some instances. They attempt to articulate what dancing feels like, a subject not often discussed in Irish dance, which prioritizes doing over feeling, much as it values quantifiable achievement over the less measurable work of knowing your history.

As an oral history collector, I’ve found this question — “How did/does dancing feel in your body?” — to be revealing. The answer is rarely direct and often relates to music. As Joan McNiff Cass told me, “Well, the physical sensation . . . I think it has more to do with the music. It’s keeping time with the music.” Her answer leads me to consider that keeping time is a feeling, perhaps of stability or control. Of her favorite dance, the slip jig, Cass said, “You feel like you have control in a sense, don’t you? . . . I used to think, ‘I can do this. I could be perfect at this maybe.’ ” Perfection, accomplishment, getting it right: These are themes that, throughout the oral histories, arise again and again. They are fundamental to the culture of Irish dance.

What to do with all this information, much of which is being recorded for the first time? Linda Murray, the Dance Division’s Dublin-born curator, has noted that in the library’s vast and diverse dance collection, the largest in the world, Irish dance has always been underrepresented. Helping to fill this gap, all oral histories and video footage from Our Steps will enter the collection and be available to the public. This influx of new research materials lays the groundwork, hopefully, for new strides in Irish dance scholarship and advancements in the field of Irish cultural studies. It will also serve as the jumping-off point for Jean’s new installation and performance, The Stepping Fields, set to premiere at Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy in 2021.

At a second Dance Division residency in June 2019, Jean turned her attention to fine-tuning dances taught the summer before. Learning a sequence of steps is one thing; understanding their original textures and rhythmic nuances is another. “Less muscle,” she told one dancer, summing up a key distinction between today’s extreme athleticism and the more relaxed style she grew up with in the 1980s. In learning steps from decades past, one of the greatest challenges for the current competitors has been, not surprisingly, to slow down, to resist the urge to fill every millisecond with sound. For them, perfection and speed are inextricably linked; they have learned to keep time at a different pace that, at least for the purposes of competition, shows no signs of relenting. Our Steps proposes that slowing down is not only acceptable; it is essential for moving forward with the integrity of knowing where you came from.

[1] Our Steps focuses on the competitive circuit overseen by An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha, the largest and oldest governing organization for Irish dance.

[2] This essay was written before the Covid-19 pandemic. The opening of The Stepping Fields has since been postponed, along with Our Steps’ first European residency tour of Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow, and London.

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