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Light in my Loafers: thoughts on queer Irish dancestry

Nic Gareiss
Our Steps Commissioned Essay, March 2021
Photo by Jean Butler

I first saw him on a wooden stage in a field in late summer. It was 1997—my eleventh birthday—and I was surrounded by 12,000 other folk festival attendees. Anticipation and fragrant white pines scented the air. As the moon rose, he appeared first with an ensemble that shuffled, whooped, and dazzled to the accompaniment of fiddle and acoustic guitar. After the fifth piece, the cast of dancers turned to file off. One young man remained, gazing at the floor as a different timbre emerged: flutes, fiddles, and a splashy electric guitar. Greeted by cheers, the man raised his arms, wrists flexed, and began trebling, striking the amplified wooden stage with notes clear as bells, alternating passages of Irish step dance footwork with buoyant upper body gestures. He fanned his hands palms-out, looking away as though shielding his handsome face, then defiantly tossed his arms back, sternum opening forward puckishly. The blue silk sleeves of his shirt billowed. His every move conveyed a sense of play, a sense of pleasure. He battered, front-clicked high above his head, and clapped his hands while lifting his feet and knocking them together, simultaneously light and electrifying. During his solo I had two libidinal revelations: the first was that I wanted to be a professional dancer, and the second: “that is a really beautiful man.”

I’ve been wondering lately whose Irish dance stories are allowed to be archived, and which parts of those stories we allow ourselves to forget. More specifically, I’ve been asking myself whether there is space for queerness in our shared memories of Irish step dance.[1]

The repetition of thousands upon thousands of batters, cuts, and clicks traces an archive in bodily memory, connecting dancers across generations as we learn gestures and rhythms from those who came before us. Percussive dancer and scholar Janet Schroeder calls this “dancestry,” a way of tracing connection “through the bodies of dancers…dancestry situates individuals within longer movement legacies by connecting bodily legacies of dance forms across generations….”[2]

I experience this tracing of Irish dance lineage when I remember Liam Harney’s 1997 performance. As Liam danced, he was creating dancestry: simultaneously reaching back to his teachers—his dancestors—while also reaching forward to future dancers like myself. This transmission across time connects to the heart of Our Steps’ project of dancers illuminating corporeal legacies. It also initiates a queer Irish dance archive in my own body, entwining questions of “who do I want to be?,” “what do I want to be?,” and “with whom do I want to be intimate?” Though I didn’t realize it then, Liam’s show at the Wheatland Music Festival would inextricably entangle dance and desire.

This entwining is created through the layered information dancestry offers. Along with the Kilkenny Races, Walls of Limerick, and endless light, heavy, and slip jigs, dancestry also passes on other kinds of knowing. Schroeder writes, “Dancestry also embodies ethnic, racial, and class-based cultural knowledge not necessarily transmitted by other means.”[3] I believe knowledge around gender and sexuality can also be offered through dancestry. In watching that performance on my eleventh birthday, I received a wealth of information about the embodiment of orientation and gender through Liam’s dancing. Observing his movement and hearing his sounds created a space for me to inhabit both the identity of dancer and the positionality of a queer person. For me, he is simultaneously a gay ancestor and a dance ancestor, and we are bound by a shared queer Irish dancestry.

Born in Walpole, Massachusetts in the late 1960s to Irish parents, Harney was already a two-time world Irish step dancing champion when I saw him perform near where I grew up in rural Michigan. He had also performed at Radio City Music Hall, originated roles in Charlie Lennon’s The Great Famine Suite, Flight from the Hungry Land at Lincoln Center, and later, created and starred in his own Irish dance show, Celtic Fusion. Liam runs highly regarded Irish dancing schools in Walpole, Massachusetts and San Diego, California, and has served on committees for the largest Irish step dance governing body, An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha, for many years. Liam began to explore his own queerness when he attended university in San Diego, and today he identifies as gay and cisgendered.

I remember being struck by the ways Liam performed gender in that 1997 solo. Liam’s way of doing manhood was somehow different—lighter—and I connected with that. In graduate school, I learned words to help describe this: that Liam refuses patriarchal masculinity. This kind of masculinity requires boys, as one of my Irish dance teachers told me, to “hit the floor hard” and “wink at the ladies in the third row.” Another well-known Irish dancer once related that his teacher directed the boys at competitions to “butch it up, just make sure you’re not too light,” requiring dancers to perform heterosexual manhood through heaviness, volume, and energy directed into the floor. Liam’s exquisitely light footwork and his refusal to wink at the ladies or “butch it up” stands in stark contrast. He calls this being “light in his loafers.” Liam has reclaimed this formerly-pejorative queer entendre as a source of empowerment—a more buoyant, softer way of doing his gender. The phrase “light in my loafers” emboldens me to consider lightness both in my own dancing and my gender presentation.[4] The queer dancestral knowledge Liam offered in his performance made space for me to think about new ways of dancing and other, queerer ways of doing my own gender and orientation.

Thinking about my queer Irish dancestral connection to Liam Harney made me curious about his dancestors. When I asked about his experience as a LGBTQ2IA+person in Irish dance, he spoke about Tim O’Hare (1961-2019), an Irish dance teacher and adjudicator born in Detroit. A multiple world champion, Tim performed at the White House, danced in a feature film directed by Jim Abrahams, and dedicated himself to his dance school for over 30 years. Tim also refused to be perceived as straight. Liam described Tim’s courage in coming out in the 1990s:

People like Tim O’Hare came out when it wasn’t accepted. He was so sure he was making the right decision. I was more in the closet then…. When Tim came out and walked the halls as brazen as he did, wearing what he was wearing, and it was clearly, ‘I’m not trying to confuse you, I want you to know who I am,’ I was profoundly impacted by that.[5]

According to Liam, Tim was a generous host at the feisianna he organized in the Midwestern United States. Tim’s husband, Brent Ochs, would help transport visiting dance teachers and adjudicators and host gatherings. The clarity and certainty of Tim’s choice to include Brent in these events made a very strong impression on Liam in creating a queer Irish dancestry through his offstage performance as a teacher, host, and adjudicator. Like Liam’s lightness for me, Tim’s choices opened spaces of possibility and LGBTQ2IA+ visibility for Liam. Liam reflected on Tim’s labor in creating such spaces:

Tim was doing a lot of work and he was breaking everybody down. He broke them down until they accepted that he was marrying a man, and then bringing him to the Oireachtas, and then giving him a role at the event. That was years of breaking down these doors…We’re talking 85-90% of people then would be offended by the word ‘gay.’ And you know the jokes in the pub would be about gay. That was not a quick process. It took probably 15 years until it started to be accepted.[6]

Liam’s recollections remind me that it is rarely easy to create spaces that allow room to reject presumed heterosexuality or binary gender.

While I never got to meet Tim before he passed in 2019, I believe his queer dancestry lives on through Liam’s care and generosity with his own students: “One of the roles that I really like...is to help young people come through this process…” He related a story of student who was beginning to process the tumultuous emotions around coming out:

When they start facing their anger I pull them aside and I’ll say, ‘you know, it’s ok to feel angry. It’s not ok to take it out on the class or on me… I want you to start thinking about how you want to be perceived and what does it mean to be gay. I would like to be your model for that.’ That’s a moment they will never forget and I will never forget.[7]

The way Liam shares his Irish dancestry goes beyond merely avoiding transphobia or homophobia. Instead, it proactively affirms many genders and orientations. Such affirmation reminds me of trans Irish dancer Hayden Moon, who shared that while Irish dance can create traumatic experiences of gender dysphoria, it can also be “gender euphoric” when a trans competitor’s gender is recognized and affirmed.[8] Affirming trans athletes feels especially important in the wake of new legislation designed to exclude trans students from sports in 24 US states.[9]

LGBTQ2IA+people sometimes think of our decisions to come out, to transition, or to engage with desire as only intensely personal. Often, the transphobia and homophobia around us or that we have internalized keeps us from exploring our queerness for fear of losing the communities we grew up in. But Liam Harney’s and Tim O’Hare’s queer dancestry helps me reconsider how dance legacies can provide support for navigating gender and desire. While there is still much to do to make Irish dance spaces and practices more inhabitable and inclusive, maybe these connections across time can help LGBTQ2IA+ dancers feel less alone.

The labor of Tim O’Hare and Liam Harney, among many other queer Irish dancestors, begins to make room for this connection, transmission, and solidarity. Their work creates an archive of embodied memory that dances in multiple directions in time: backward to our dancestors before. Forward to our dancestors to come. Sideways to those allies and accomplices willing to support us. Upward as we think of how dancestral connections can support those who experience forms of marginalization other than gender and sexuality. Downward as we consider how we direct energy across or into the floor to dance our gender and orientation in innovative ways. For me, these gestures through time and direction also entangle being, doing, and becoming. Such queer Irish dancestries are not easily wrought—they require work, nerve, and imagination. And they often take their toll on us. However, Liam’s performances (onstage and off) and his dancestral connection to Tim O’Hare create space in my own embodied archive for queer Irish dance memory, desire, lightness, and possibility.

 Many thanks to Tes Slominski for her editing and advice on this essay.

One of Dance Magazine's 2019 "25 to Watch," Nic Gareiss (he/they) is a dancer and dance researcher living in what's now known as Lansing, Michigan. They have performed in sixteen countries including at London's Barbican Centre, the Irish National Concert Hall, the Munich Philharmonic, and the Kennedy Center. Their writing has been published by Oxford University Press and the journal Critical Studies in Improvisation. www.nicgareiss.com

 

[1] I recognize that Irish dance is a cluster of many regional cultural practices. This writing will focus on my encounters with Irish step dance and specifically with dancers affiliated with An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha.

 

[2] Janet Schroeder, “Ethnic and Racial Formation on the Concert Stage: A Comparative Analysis of Tap Dance and Appalachian Step Dance” (doctoral dissertation, TheOhio State University, 2018), 7.

 

[3] Ibid.

 

[4] I have written more about my own lightness, scraping and other modes of percussive dance queerness in my piece in Queer Dance: Meanings & Makings edited by Clare Croft, Oxford University Press (2017), 185-197.

 

[5] Liam Harney, personal communication, January 28,2021.

 

[6] Ibid.

 

[7] Ibid. It’s also important to note that not everyone wants to or can “come out.” LGBTQ2IA+ people choose to negotiate visibility in a myriad of ways. For some, coming out is not possible in order to maintain safety. Moreover, the pressure to come out itself can also be homonormative or colonial, creating a homogenizing burden to fit in to mores within LGBTQ2IA+ communities that replicate culturally specific versions of Anglo-American LGBTQ2IA+ performance. See my chapter co-written with Aileen Dillane, “The Lion, The Witch, and the Closet: Heteronormative Institutional Research and Performance Practices, and the Queering of ‘Traditions,’” in Queering the Field: Sounding Out Ethnomusicology, eds. Gregory Barz and William Cheng (Oxford University Press, 2019), 235-256.

 

[8] Emily Mickus and Hayden Moon. “Hayden Moon: Living in a Transgender Body, Irish Dance, & Being Visible,”

September 18, 2020, Every Body’s Story, podcast audio, mp3, 1:01:56, https://anchor.fm/emilymickus/episodes/Hayden-Moon-Living-in-a-Transgender-Body--Irish-Dance---Being-Visible-ejprdq.

 

[9] “The Coordinated Attack on Trans Student Athletes,” ACLU, February 26, 2021, https://www.aclu.org/news/lgbt-rights/the-coordinated-attack-on-trans-student-athletes/.

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