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Reflections of a Half-Iranian Irish Dancer:  What it means to feel different in the  homogeneous world of Irish step dance

Rosanna Jahangard
Our Steps Commission
Glendalogh, County Wicklow. Photo by Stable of Ireland

As a child, I had a fuzzy video recording of the original Riverdance, from the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest, that I watched on repeat. I tried to copy every step, thumping on the carpet, out of time with the music, legs flailing in all the wrong directions. To save her sanity, my mum found a friendly class at our local Irish center in Reading, UK. Like so many, I was quickly hooked, swept away by the music and speed of the steps. The rhythms went round in my head at night; my toes tapped involuntarily under my desk at school.

 

I trained and competed in Irish dance for most of my childhood and teenage years. I was addicted to it. The late nineties and early aughts are a blur of late nights sewing sequins and early mornings doing hornpipes. I realized only gradually that I looked different from the other dancers in my classes and the shows I tried so hard to emulate. Not something obvious like a shoe that doesn’t fit, more like one that pinches you when you run too fast.

 

Reflecting on that time, I realize that I have never really explored why I stopped dancing almost overnight when I had loved it so much. Friends have asked whether my daughter, who is nearly two, will do Irish dancing. I don’t have an answer yet. When I read a recent interview for Our Steps, in which former Riverdance lead Ciara Sexton she said she hoped “to see more people of color in mainstream Irish dance shows,” I felt compelled to dissect my experience of difference, acceptance, and belonging in Irish dance. I hope that contributing my small and specific story will encourage an open dialogue on issues that Irish dance has protected itself from for far too long.

 

In my time, there was a sense that the closer your connection to Ireland, the more successful a dancer you would be. Claims to Irishness were a topic of childish discussion at feiseanna, alongside who had the loudest clicks and latest soft-sole reel shoes. These came out as references to church, stories of holidays to Ireland, impressions of grandparents’ accents, and comparing our skin tones. We all wanted to be the most Irish at Irish dancing: the paler your skin, the more Irish you became.

 

My skin was not pale. And despite the growing global phenomenon of shows like Riverdance, along with the world widespread of Irish dance schools, I knew of nobody who looked like me dancing professionally at the time. I did, however, have a “claim” to Irishness. My mother’s father was from County Wicklow and had moved to the UK, along with thousands of other Irish emigrants in the late 1940s. Sadly, he passed away when my mother was a child. Like many other migrant families, and in some ways more poignantly, we found that dance was a way of staying connected to our Irish identity.

 

In every sphere of my life, others have found my ethnic identity and skin color fascinating, especially when it comes out that I did Irish dancing. (If only I had liked netball, my life would have been easier.) A standard comment was: “Oh, but you don’t look Irish.” Often someone was brave enough to ask me about it: “So you’re half—half what? Your dad’s from Ira- where???” Without fail, this led to: “Oh wow, how did they meet?” Given migration’s role in the UK’s multiracial demographics, it shouldn’t be surprising that an English-Irish person met an Iranian person and their offspring liked to jig, but people seemed to see this as a novelty. It didn’t bother my dance mates at the time too much; we were too busy practicing for a display at the weekend. But for me, all those individual interactions added up. They were a constant reminder: you are different from me, from us, from the group, from this place.

 

As a teenager, I accumulated boxes of Irish dance paraphernalia. If I couldn’t look like an Irish dancer because of my Middle Eastern features, then I’d certainly try and disguise it with the contents of the O’Neil’s gift shop. In my pursuit of belonging (and trophies), I felt a genuine pull toward Irish culture. Yet when I put Celtic knot designs on my dresses, I knew I was not just showing appreciation for tradition; I was desperately trying to fit in with the other girls on the circuit (while hopefully channeling a mythical Celtic spirit who might turn out my left foot). What teenage girl doesn’t want to fit in? Moreover, I was influenced by a consumerist economy and buying into a performative, idealized, and almost caricatured representation of an Irish Colleen that I was never going to achieve.

 

Thinking back on these experiences leads me to wonder: How can Irish dance achieve an aesthetic of openness while retaining its sense of tradition? Irish dance came from Ireland, but it should not just be for people who fit a stereotypical fair-skinned (or fake-tanned) Irish look. Thanks to the popularity of Riverdance and its offshoots, Irish dance is now practiced by people of many races and ethnicities all over the world. Yet whiteness remains central to its aesthetic; just look at the (still) homogenous lineups of the mainstream shows. This narrow aesthetic needs to move on as much as the globalized Irish economy has.

 

Last year, a video went viral of the Black American Irish dancer Morgan Bullock putting her steps to Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage Remix.” This caused a backlash of comments about cultural appropriation, leading a talented young woman to have to defend her hobby and career. Yet Morgan is one of many Irish dancers to experiment with putting step dance footwork to different music forms. Fusion is progressive: it creates relevance for new generations. The fact that Morgan has no Irish heritage is even more exciting, because it tells us that people can choose Irish dance, not just inherit it. After all, who “owns” Irish dance? Does being white and Irish equate to ownership? Or do dancers of all races and backgrounds — who have achieved mastery — own it? Ownership of a dance form comes via dancestry, not just biological ancestry.[1]

 

Morgan has now joined the UK tour of Riverdance, a step in the right direction for the show. But there is still much progress to be made in hiring and promoting dancers who reflect the international, multi-ethnic practice that Irish dance has become — and the growing racial diversity of Ireland itself.

 

It seems that too often, Irish dancing has been an island when it comes to addressing wider political issues of race, sexuality, gender, disability, and socio-economic status. It is time for the Irish dance community to address these issues and consider what might be some uncomfortable home truths.

 

How accessible to lower-income people is Irish dance, when we look at the cost of classes, costumes, and competition entry? How welcoming do classes feel to people of color or non-Irish children and adults? How can people with disabilities be included more proactively? What message are we sending with the normative competition aesthetic of fake tan and fake hair?

 

Since my sudden split from feiseanna in 2005, I’ve come to ponder these questions, while wavering over whether to dance again. I even tried a class once in Mexico City when I lived there. My shoes wait for me in the wings of my mum’s attic. Do I take my daughter? It did give me and my mum years of joy.

 

But a few things bug me more now than when I was younger. First, I want to move my arms and for my daughter to move hers. Over the past 25 years, since the expressive arms of Riverdance arrived on the scene, Irish dancers have experimented with upper-body movement (at least outside the rigid rules of competition). Perhaps by the time my daughter is 5, there will be a hip-hop Irish fusion class running?

 

Secondly, the competition circuit is cruel. At a feis, I once overheard some teens in the front row saying nasty things about my appearance (back when trolling was IRL). The adjudicator said nothing, and I had to finish my set with them whispering. I had tried so hard to fit in, with the wigs and the dresses, even wearing fake tan to (ironically) make myself look whiter and prettier. Navigating beauty pageant expectations is not something I want for my little girl.

 

Thirdly, through university, work, travel, and general cosmopolitan living, I have come to relish not being the only different face in the room. Although I have a reputation for doing my best slip jig after a few red wines, I feel quite liberated not having to justify my skin color in relation to my hobby.

 

But since my daughter is rather brave, maybe one day she will hold my hand as we dip our toes into a local Ceilidh class. You never know: She might be the first trouser-wearing, free-armed, quarter-Iranian, English hip-hop-fusion Irish dancer.

 

Rosanna Jahangard is a UK- based theatre-maker and teacher, with a growing body of writing. Her work explores social identity, difference and belonging. She has a passion for all things dance and travelling.

Thank you to Siobhan Burke for editorial guidance, Jean Butler for the belief in sharing these ideas, and Merida Bonnie for napping while this was written.

 (1) The term dancestry refers to the bodily memory of movement passed down through generations of dancers: Janet Schroeder, “Ethnic and Racial Formation on the Concert Stage: A Comparative Analysis of Tap Dance and Appalachian Step Dance” (doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University, 2018). Explored by Nic Gareiss in‘Light my Loafers: thoughts on queer Irish dancestry”: https://www.our-steps.com/dialogue/light-in-my-loafers-thoughts-on-queer-irish-dancestry

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