Shaping Ethnic Identities : A Hungarian-born Irish step dancer in Germany
“In short be natural, unaffected, easy — be Irish, and you will be all right.” J.J. Sheehan, A Guide to Irish Dancing, 1902
J.J. Sheehan's advice about the right manner for Irish dance performance has stayed with me since I first read it about two years ago. For two reasons. Natural, unaffected, and easy are all qualities I have always admired and aimed for in Irish dance performance. But to “be Irish” is a tough one for me. I was born in Budapest, Hungary. My parents are Hungarian and have no Irish ancestors whatsoever. I now live in Berlin, Germany, where I have taught and performed Irish dancing as a full-time profession since 2007. What is this Irishness that Sheehan refers to as a necessity? Can it be obtained? Is there a way to eventually become Irish, Hungarian or German by exercising a cultural practice of another ethnicity?
Barbara O´Connor, in her 2013 book The Irish Dancing, views the formation of identity as a continuous process of shifting identifications between individuals and groups. She sees this as not only a cognitive but a bodily process, an idea that resonates with my own cross-cultural experience as a dancer. At the same time, as Mary Kells puts it in Landscape, Heritage and Identity: CaseStudies in Irish Ethnography (1995), “…place of birth is important to people; we like to place others to help us understand them — and indeed to understand ourselves. As such, ethnicity in the sense of place of origin, will perhaps always be inescapable.”
My first encounter with Irish dance, like for many others in mainland Europe, was through popular media. Around the year 2000, Michael Flatley's Feet of Flames was on TV, and dare I say that it was not Flatley's flamboyant performance that took my attention, but rather Daire Nolan's solo in the number Warriors. The connection of the sound of his feet with the music was transfixing. Shortly after this first experience, I found myself — at the age of 16, with my inescapable Hungarianness — at my first Irish dancing lesson.
To my luck, Ronan Morgan — a former Lord of the Dance and Dancing on Dangerous Ground dancer — had moved to Budapest in 2000 and opened his dance school to great demand. He learned his trade in Dublin from Aoibheann Ní Mhaoiléidigh, daughter of Maitiu O´Mhaoiléidigh of Inis Ealga School, and later from Phoebe Cullen. Under his guidance, I got my weekly dose of Irishness, learning step by step in what he assured us was an authentic way (the school was called Ronan Morgan’s Authentic Irish Dance School), listening to U2 for warm-up and cool-down and discussing the latest from the Irish film industry. Two years into training, I stepped onto a theatre stage with the school's performing group, and I was hooked instantly. This is what I wanted to do. At the time I had done taekwondo for nearly 10 years, and I was high up the ranks. With my sights now set on dancing in a professional show, I dropped out to focus on my dancing.
At peak times I trained up to six days a week for several hours. And I think it is here where my “Hungarianness” came to my advantage. Hungary at the time — in the early 2000s — was a developing country that had just recently joined the European Union, after being on the wrong side of history in both World Wars, followed by the ruling of the Soviet Union until 1989. We as a country were determined to take our chance in the Western hemisphere, and Irish dancing became the platform for me to do that. I remember proudly wearing our dance school’s T-shirt at feiseanna in Europe, with the school's Celtic logo on the back and my country's coat of arms on the front. After five years of training and competitions, I was rewarded for my efforts. I auditioned and joined Gaelforce Dance under the choreographic mentorship of the legendary Richard Griffin in 2007. Out of maybe 20 dancers in my dance class, 13 of us ended up on a professional stage with an Irish dance show. A handful of us are still at it some 20 years later.
So how did I end up in Germany? And how did it become possible for me to make a living out of Irish dancing here? I had toured in the country for about two years when I contacted an Irish dance teacher in Berlin to see if she was interested in hosting a workshop with me. For some mysterious reason she agreed. (Little did I know at the time, she would later become my wife.) My stays in Germany between tours became more frequent and longer, and gradually Berlin became my home-away-from-home.
I discovered an enthusiasm among Germans for Irish dance and music, both through my own experiences and my research into the history of Irish dance in Mainland Europe. As part of my master’s thesis at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance in Limerick, I interviewed dancers who danced at folk festivals in Europe between 1960 and 1990. One of these was the London-born, multifaceted Irish dance performer and choreographer Máire Clerkin, who also worked on Jean Butler and Colin Dunne's Dancing on Dangerous Ground. Máire's parents, Sheila O'Brien and Frank Clerkin, both performed in Austria in 1954, but Clerkin herself also travelled to West Germany in 1977 and 1979 with the Irish National Folk Company. This Dublin-based folk dance and music group was founded by Frank and Angeline Whelan in 1970 and has represented Ireland at various youth and folk festivals across the continent.
In our interview, Máire Clerkin recalled a time when a German folk dance group learned an Irish céili dance: "The German group they worked so hard, that they picked up the High Cauled Cap and they danced it really well. They really took it onboard, and they treated it far more seriously than we ever did. And their lines were clean, and everything was very precisely done. Very impressive.”
Precision is a quality commonly associated with German people. While it might be a generalization, I would suggest that Germans are drawn to Irish dance because of its structured rhythmic nature and organized deportment of the body, as defined by the Gaelic League — how the form embodies precision through movement. Offering a theory of Irish music’s popularity in Germany, the ethnomusicologist Felix Morgenstern, in his 2021 doctoral thesis at the University of Limerick, argues that Germans have gravitated to Irish music in a desire to dissociate themselves from their own Nazi-ideology-tainted folk music. Similarly, I wonder if Irish step dancing has for some people served as a movement alternative to Nazi-abused folk culture.
And of course, there was Riverdance. The production’s first performance in a non-English speaking country took place in July 1997 in the Oberhausen Arena inNorth Rhine-Westphalia in Western Germany, with 12 sold-out shows. Riverdance's role in the increased demand for Irish dancing classes in Germany is unquestionable, and many would attribute the public’s interest in the form — across the country and the whole continent of Europe — solely to the phenomenon of the show. ( Just a couple of weeks ago, the 25th-anniversary tour came to Berlin.)
The intensity of interest for Irish dance lessons has lessened in the past 25 years, but it is still there. Currently, there are five different Irish dances hows touring Germany, playing in venues that range from small town halls to major arenas in metropolitan areas. These visiting shows generate recurring waves of curiosity about Irish dance. At the time of my thesis research in 2021, there were 25 Irish dance schools in Germany, five of these in Berlin alone, and this does not include the countless clubs and associations that offer Irish dance lessons. In contrast to Ireland, where pupils are mostly kids and teenagers, a survey that I conducted among mainland European Irish dance teachers shows that more than half of students are adults. This is also the case in our dance school. Since 2005, when my wife started the school with one single student, that number has grown to over 90 active students who come to class on a weekly basis, some with Irish family backgrounds, but the majority without any Irish ancestors.
Their motivations are as intertwined as the roots of a tree. Some were drawn to the music, some were intrigued by the virtuosic footwork, and some are just looking for physical exercise that allows for social interactions. As far as I can understand, a desire to be Irish doesn’t play a role in why they dance.
When we are touring Germany with our dance company, we have a regular “Meet &Greet” with the audience after performances. Most of the time people congratulate us and are amazed when finding out that not one dancer in our cast is from Ireland, something my wife and I are particularly proud of. But occasionally, when people ask, “So, what part of Ireland are you coming from?” and I reply, “I am actually not Irish, I am Hungarian,” they respond with a certain disappointment, even sadness in their tone: “Oh, what a shame.”
This happens rarely, but when it does, it really bugs me, perhaps because achieving a certain level of “Irishness” — despite J.J. Sheehan’s advice — has never been my aim. I copied my dance teachers’ movements through physical practice, and I got good enough at it to be mistaken for an Irish person. The way I move and the pieces I create now are rooted in the lessons I have learned and the experiences I have had the past 20 years in and outside of Irish dancing. My body is a Hungarian one, infused with Irish dance and music. I don't think that obtaining Irishness or to become Irish through cultural practice is possible. I also don't think it is necessary. Irish dance has evolved into a form of dance performance that can be learned and mastered to a level where one can pursue it as a profession. I am one of those lucky ones who made it.
About the author :
Gyula Glaser is an Irish dancer, teacher, choreographer, and researcher born in Budapest, Hungary. In his competitive years he had won 3 consecutive European championships and qualified for the World Championships. He has performed across the globe, most notably in Breandán de Gallai´s Noctú off-Broadway in New York in 2011 and as lead dancer in the production Magic of the Dance. Glaser graduated with first-class honours with an M.A. in Irish Dance Studies at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick in 2021. Together with his wife – Nicole Ohnesorge – they are leading their own dance studio and professional dance company in Berlin, Germany. https://linktr.ee/gyulaglaser
to Jean Butler for the opportunity to write about my personal journey,
to Siobhan Burke for her thoughtful and invaluable guidance through this process,
to my dance teacher, Ronan Morgan for the clarification of my dance lineage,
to all past and present mentors, choreographers and scholars that have helped me on my journey.
Barbara O´Connor, The Irish Dancing, Cultural Politics and Identities, 1900-2000,2013, Cork University Press
Frank Hall, Competitive Irish Dance: Art, Sport, Duty, 2008, Macater Press
Gyula Glaser, Irish Dance – Becoming a force in the establishment of a new, European embodied identity of the 21st Century, 2021, University of Limerick, unpublished thesis.
J.J. Sheehan, A Guide to Irish Dancing, 1902, accessed through ITMA´s DigitalLibrary
J.G. O´Keefe & Art O´Brien, A Handbook of Irish Dances, 1914, accessed through ITMA´s Digital Library
Mary Kells, Ethnicity in the 1990s: Irish Immigrants in London. InLandscape, Heritage and Identity: Case Studies in Irish Ethnography (Ullrich Kockel), 1995, Liverpool University Press
Felix Morgenstern, Class, masculinities and sideways nostalgia: encounters withIrish traditional music in Germany, 2021, University of Limerick, unpublished thesis (PhD)
Dr.Orfhlaith Ní Bhriain, MA Irish Dance Studies, Repertoire and Style 1, Representations of Irishness Through the Irish Dancing Body, 2020, University of Limerick