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New Horizons: six Irish dancers on the impact of Covid-19

Jean Butler
Responses compiled by Jean Butler in Spring 2021 with Siobhan Burke as editing consultant
image by Jean Butler

In April 2020, the great dance writer and advocate Eva Yaa Asantewaa asked me to contribute to a special project for her blog, InfiniteBody, titled Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation. Eva described the project as a way to keep connected to the community and artists she cares so much about. The requested written interviews were prompted by a list of questions, which elicited an emotional response in me.

I looked up my email response to Eva, and here is some of what I said:

 

Hi Eva,

 

I hoped I could complete your questions for this week, as promised. I did spend some time with it, but I find myself running out of steam and feeling distressed. If the truth be told, it is hard to speak about any aspect of my work at the moment or reflect in an honest way. I feel that I have lost the ability to articulate and I do not feel the need to share or add my own ambiguity to the current confusion. I also feel less inspired and more overwhelmed by everything to watch on-line, to read, to zoom, to know about, to know of... I hope you appreciate my honesty. This is where I am at this moment which I need to honor until another place feels as certain. Please be well. 

 

Jean x

It is impossible to calculate the difficulty and turmoil the last year imposed on the performing arts. Projects like Eva’s and many others have done the valiant work of recording artists’ personal stories of navigating this unprecedented time. Perhaps it was my inability to articulate the pandemic’s impact on my own work and life that made me wonder how other dancers, specifically Irish dancers, were impacted.

 

The irony doesn’t escape me that the last public event I attended before the world shut down was Riverdance’s 25th Anniversary Show at Radio City Music Hall, on March 10, 2020. I stood onstage at the end of the night and spoke about how the original cast never imagined the show would endure for so long. It was astonishing that hundreds of dancers had danced our original steps, continuing (for better or worse) the legacy of the show that changed Irish dance forever. To perform with the company at this historic juncture must have been thrilling. To have the tour cancelled and contracts dissolved, to be sent home, must have been devastating, almost impossible to process.

 

Another milestone for the traditional Irish dance community was the 50th anniversary of the World Championships, to be held in Dublin, where the first Worlds took place in 1970. I can’t imagine the disappointment for everyone getting ready to compete, as this event and all foreseeable competitions were cancelled. What if it was your first time qualifying? What if you had a chance at the podium? What if your team was defending a title? What if this year was your last year competing? Just as distressing was the idea of going to dancing class online and working just as hard as usual, but with no public event in sight.

 

I wanted to know how these dancers were doing, who was supporting them, what were they thinking, how they were coping. I wanted to create a small document reflecting the impact of Covid-19 on the traditional Irish dance community. The following interviews provide a glimpse into how six professional and competitive Irish dancers spent their days during 2020.

 

I want to thank them for their generosity and honesty.

 

Jean

To read Eva's project-

Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation

Michael O’Flaherty

Competitive dancer, age 11, lives in Cardiff, South Wales, UK

How has the last year of the global pandemic affected your life as an Irish dancer? 

I didn’t have any classes from March 18 to June 13, 2020. My mum filmed videos of me on my practice mat and sent them to my teacher so she could correct me, as my mum has no knowledge in Irish dancing! It was a frustrating process. There had to be a delay between recording and sending the clip, then receiving feedback and doing the corrections. It took a lot longer without my teacher there to physically show me.

Online lessons weren’t as fun as lessons in person. Sometimes the internet connection was bad, and the progress I made felt a lot slower. It has been annoying missing competitions and the majors I was supposed to go to. Without competitions it was difficult to stay motivated. I practiced differently during lockdown, for shorter periods of time. I felt I didn’t have the same variety or focus in my dancing. I was also confined to my practice mat until my parents arranged for bigger mats and some plywood to be set up in our dining room last June. The bigger space was better, but I still felt confined. I couldn't extend my legs out as much, and it’s trickier doing spins and turns.

What were you working on when the world “shut down”? 

At the start of 2020 I missed the All Irelands (one of my favorite competitions) due to Storm Dennis [a windstorm that hit Europe in February 2020], as the flight to Cork was cancelled. My last in-person competition was the City of London feis in early March. I was focusing on my three dances for the Worlds, but all the competitions and majors were gradually getting cancelled.

What helped you get through it? 

I did lots of online workshops. I enjoyed Move with Meg [online fitness classes for Irish dancers], as it was challenging and helped with my strength and conditioning. In the summer I got to do the Riverdance Summer School online, and I can’t wait to do it in person. I was really lucky to have some online sessions with [the professional Irish dancer] Peter Harding, as his tour in the U.S. got cancelled and he was back in Cardiff for as short time. My teacher arranged for us to have a couple of Zoom calls where we were just doing “fun” stuff. Peter would show me some contemporary steps, which we practiced together virtually. He would send me a clip of the steps from the front and back to help me memorize and practice them. Peter set me a challenge one week to put together some choreography for him, which he then went and practiced. He sent me a clip of him doing my steps. It was really enjoyable because it was a break away from my usual drills and the traditional style and steps. I learnt a lot about rhythm.

I think Covid created unusual circumstances which made this type of exchange possible. There was a real spirit of people trying to help each other. My family and teachers were great motivators. My parents kept encouraging me and nagging me to practice. My mum got her trainer to help with my stretching, and he gave me exercises to do. My parents have also promised to build a shed at the bottom of the garden for me to practice in. My teachers kept finding online workshops for me. They told me to keep going. They encouraged me to try online competitions, which were really good as the adjudicators gave feedback. Katie, my sister, filmed me for hours until we got good takes of my dances for the online competitions, and she told me to never give up.

What hopes do you have for your future in dance

I hope to win the World Championships and other majors. I would also like to go on tour and maybe become a teacher.

What hopes do you have for the future of the form? 

I hope it doesn’t die out, as it is very enjoyable. I love the music and dancing. When I dance I feel like I am the only person on the stage. I feel happy and exhilarated. I worry that people have given it up, as lockdown has been very hard. I don’t know anyone personally, but it will be interesting to see when competitions restart if anyone is missing. I hope not. I hope Irish dancing becomes more well-known and more boys engage in it, as it is female-dominated.

About Michael:

Michael O’Flaherty is 11 years old and was born in Wales. He discovered Irish dancing at a summer festival in Dunfanaghy, Co. Donegal. His mum searched for an Irish dance school and found one 30 minutes away from their home. He started Irish dance when he was 6 and has loved it ever since. He dances for the O’Donnell Maguire Irish Dance School (CLRG). He qualified for the first time for the World Championships in 2019.

Ciara Sexton

Dancer and choreographer, age 33, is from Coventry, UK, and lives in Limerick, Ireland

How has the last year of the global pandemic affected your life as an Irish dancer?

Most of my work as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher either ceased or moved online. As the weeks went on, I struggled with my purpose. Who am I when I can’t dance, teach, create? Talking with friends in the industry this past year has made clear the importance of looking after our mental health. Losing work meant losing clarity in my day-to-day routine, which at times affected my motivation. If I didn't have plans to teach or hadn't set goals for the day, I'd feel a little lost and down. Until the pandemic I didn't realize how much I attached my worth to my work. 

Without a set structure to my day, I would worry about the “what ifs.” What if our industry collapses entirely? What if when we return to work I’ve aged out and no one will hire me? Throughout my career, I've always practiced a positive mindset, but the pandemic was a real test. I discovered that meditation really calmed my nervous energy and helped me deal with all those little voices in my mind, telling me I'm not good enough, that it's my fault I don’t have an essential job, that things are only going to get worse. Watching the news raised my anxiety to a high level, so I made a point of turning it off if the Covid-19 stories became too hard to swallow. 

What were you working on when the world “shut down”?

I was teaching at my own dance school (Scoil Ui Nualláin) and at the Irish World Academy (University of Limerick). I was also working as a choreographer for the show Fáinne Óir. Teaching online presented its challenges, but the students’ enthusiasm to stay connected really got me and my partner Cian through the experience. We worked on new material for every single child in the class. We taught and documented new sets on YouTube, and were able to give our attention and support to each child in a way that we don't always have time for in class. 

While my teaching moved to Zoom, Fáinne Óir completely shutdown, and for a few months the creative team lost contact. I’ve been with the show since its inception, helping to develop the storyline and music, to find new, exciting ways that Irish dance could be used and fused with other styles to tell a story. All the uncertainty—over touring, booking a show, when the world might open up again—took a huge toll on my creativity. Some days I simply didn't want to think about the production, because I couldn't stop questions sneaking into my mind about the future of the show, the industry, my job—which is my passion and above all my purpose. 

 What helped you get through the last year?

As the weeks wore on, I knew I'd need a project or a new focus to get me through lockdown. I’ve been studying motivational speaking for sometime, and a friend suggested studying life coaching. As I researched and signed up for a free taster session, I noticed the similarities between motivational speaking and life coaching. The free session led to nine months of studying and seven diplomas across different online coaching academies. I was hooked. Applying life coaching techniques to dance situations brought a spark back into my life at a trying time. I started to offer motivational sessions via Zoom (and still do), meeting and connecting with dancers all over the world, and most importantly reminding them that what they are thinking and feeling right now is absolutely OK. Helping them through the tougher elements of lockdown, and as they navigate going back to school and feiseanna, has given me my purpose back. Helping others is the most rewarding feeling in the world. 

What hopes do you have for your future in dance?

As the world opens up, and tours, festivals, and projects start to resume, I hope to continue to broaden my horizons by working with and learning from new people. I feel I am going to be less hesitant in the future to say yes, to go for things with my whole heart, without worrying about the final outcome, or even worse, what other people might think of my abilities as a dancer, teacher, and choreographer. I watched a different production or show every day for three months and realized how narrow-minded I can be when staging and creating movement for Irish dance. I was inspired by so many productions that I began to look at scenes from Fáinne Óir in new ways and develop them purely from the acting/storytelling point of view. I hope Fáinne Óirwill find its legs and tour again. It would be an honor to create work and provide employment for dancers in the industry after such a tough year. 

What hopes do you have for the future of the form? What would you like to see change?

I hope that Irish dance can be added to mainstream training and seen as equal to genres like ballet, tap, modern, and lyrical. I meet many dancers who have taken tap, ballet, modern, and jazz all at one school, but Irish dance is often left out of this equation. I am fiercely proud of the discipline and time it takes to learn and progress in the art form of Irish dance. I would love to see it included in productions beyond Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. I would love to see it included in the vocabulary of more musical theatre shows in the West End and on Broadway. I would love to see Irish dance in a show that has not been created solely to showcase the form. 

I also hope the future brings more awareness in terms of injuries and looking after ourselves, knowing how to and why. If we implement this awareness at the start of our careers, our dance journeys can continue for much longer. I hope to see more people of color in mainstream Irish dance shows, more women in creative team positions within dance companies, and new productions that push the boundaries of dance, presenting it as it has never been seen before. 

About Ciara:

Dancer, choreographer, and producer Ciara Sexton is a five-time World and All-Ireland champion who has starred as lead dancer in Riverdance, Heartbeat of Home, and Lord of the Dance 3D, released in cinemas worldwide. Her current production, the acclaimed dance show Fáinne Óir, premiered in Ireland in 2019 and later played New York. She is a qualified TCRG and teaches for Scoil Uí Nualláin. Ciara is a lecturer at the Irish World Academy at the University of Limerick and holds a social media degree, diplomas in public and motivational speaking, and several diplomas in life coaching. She is proud senior editor for Irish Dancing Magazine. You can followCiara on Instagram @ciarasextondance and learn more at https://www.ciarasexton.com/

Sheenagh McMorrow

Competitive Irish dancer, age 13, lives in Leitrim, Ireland

How has the last year of the global pandemic affected your life as an Irish dancer?

The last year has been tough, but I have been extremely lucky to have a practice area at home and my Mum and Dad who teach me. Obviously, it’s not the same without the buzz from being at class and the noise and enthusiasm from the other dancers. I miss all my friends and going to feiseanna, but I’ve tried to stay motivated by doing some short online dance workouts and fitness challenges. I also treated myself to new dance gear now and again with pocket money from odd jobs. New gear helps. It can be hard not knowing when my next competition will be or what I’m working towards, but I’m staying fit and still dancing a lot. I miss “competition trips,” not having an audience to dance for, and not seeing the rest of the girls in my age group, but I’m hopeful that we will be back at competitions soon enough.

What were you working on when the world “shut down”?

It was right in the middle of competition season. I had just competed at the All Irelands and was ready for the World Championships in Dublin. I was tweaking a few things in my dances for the Worlds when everything shut down. Our school also had six ceili teams going to the Worlds, so there was loads of excitement in the team classes. And I couldn’t wait for my brother, Cillian, to take to the World stage for the first time. We had worked really hard together, so it was a big disappointment for it to be canceled.

What helped you get through the last year?

I actually think I’ve had a fairly positive year. I’ve really been focusing on other forms of fitness and dance. I’ve been trying acrobatics and gymnastics, which has really helped with flexibility and strength. I made the transition into toe-work (pivot/en pointe), and it was actually nice not to be on the competition circuit because I could perfect my technique and experiment a bit. I’ve also learned a new 76 set dance (my first time doing a slow hornpipe set dance!!) which has challenged me with brand-new material and difficult rhythms. To be honest, it’s been great to have the time to work on new material rather than rushing it to be ready for the next feis. We’ve done a few things like dance collaborations and online feedback sessions with professional dancers which we normally wouldn’t have time for. I’ve become really interested in fitness, strengthening, and flexibility, and even though I’m not at regular classes, I feel stronger than ever. I’m discovering pains in muscles I never knew I had! I’ve become more interested in having a healthy diet and lifestyle which has helped me get through these challenging times.

What hopes do you have for your future in dance?

I’m very competitive, so I’m definitely looking forward to getting back to competing. I can see myself competing for the next few years. Winning the Worlds is still on my bucket list, so I’ll give that a few shots! Like lots of us Irish dancers, I would love to eventually join a professional show and travel, seeing lots of different places and cultures. My parents did that a lot. I see them still traveling, judging, and going to competitions, so I’d love to do that, too. Dancing is a very big part of my life. I’m not sure if it will be a career for me, but I’d say I will always be involved in it in a huge way. 

What hopes do you have for the future of the form? What would you like to see change?

Since Covid I feel dancers have really circled back to why they dance, and it’s because we just love it. The competition side of things felt very important before, because that’s what I was practicing for, and that’s what pushed me and made me want to improve. I definitely wouldn’t be as good if I didn’t compete. After all we’ve been through with the pandemic, though, it feels less important. Over the last 15 months the dance community came together and got involved in lots of campaigns to keep us dancing. Some dancers have struggled more than others to keep dancing, and it was great to see so much support online. I hope this continues in the future.

What does it mean to you to be an Irish dancer?

For me to be a dancer means I have something that makes me unique and different. The dancing community is big, but I still feel special being apart of it. I really feel lucky to have so many friends in it, and all of us have a common interest that is a huge part of our lives. As my parents are teachers, I spent a lot of time at feiseanna and classes when I was small, and I fell in love with dancing. I loved the attention I got from the older dancers. My school teachers often tell me I’m confident, and I think this comes from being an Irish dancer and finding it easy to perform in front of people. I can’t keep my feet still when I hear music, so I know that for me dancing isn’t just a hobby, it’s a part of my life that I couldn’t do without. 

About Sheenagh:

Sheenagh McMorrow is 13 years old and started dancing when she was 6. Dancing is in her family from both her Mum and Dad’s side, so it has always been a huge part of her life. She won her first North American Nationals at age 9, going on to win the All Irelands the following year. She has competed at one World Championships, where she placed 3rd. She also plays traditional Irish music and some sports outside of dancing. She loves helping her parents teach the younger dance classes.

Jason O’Neill

Professional Irish dancer, age 35, from Belfast, lives in Dublin, Ireland

How has the last year of the global pandemic affected your life as an Irish dancer?

The last year has had a huge impact on my career, and I’ve faced many challenges. I spent the first few weeks of lockdown in a small apartment in Dublin. The bustling city lay dormant, and it seemed surreal. I felt deflated and struggled with the daily inactivity. The unknown instilled a sense of fear and worry. I was living my dream as lead and dance captain in Riverdance, and for it to be taken away made me question my purpose. I was afraid that my time had come and gone. I had worked so hard in the winter months and sacrificed so much to prepare for the North American tour. It was the 25th-anniversary production of Riverdance, and there was a special feeling in the air, a real sense of celebration and camaraderie within the company. The show was at its peak. 

All of a sudden, everything hanged, and the tour was cancelled in the middle of our run at Radio City Music Hall in New York. We had so much more to give, and we all felt it had been taken away from us. Opportunities like Radio City come around every 10 years, and I was aware that I may never step on such an iconic stage again. I worried about the health of my family and friends and the changing world around me. Touring the world was my full-time job. That industry folded, and my future work evaporated.

I would walk into Dublin city and take photos of the empty streets. I wanted to capture a time like no other. I also illustrated quite a lot, and that fed part of my creativity.  Irish dance is my escape. When I dance, I leave the world behind and live in the moment. I am transported to a creative space, and I feel untouchable. After a few weeks of soul-searching, I realized I needed the release of dancing and its healing power. I decided to channel my creativity and shoot a dance video. I wanted to inspire and motivate others and to ultimately feel empowered. Our industry was so affected by the pandemic that I wanted to take control of my own vision. 

My first video was about freedom and feelings of liberation. The reaction was so positive and supportive that I felt compelled to create more. I was surprised by how well they were received. There was a thirst for more from the very first one. I knew that putting my work out there would make me vulnerable, but in that vulnerability your true artistry can flourish. It was a journey of discovery, and the audience at home was a huge part of that. I wanted to capture themes such as self-doubt, equality, fear, and more. My aim was to push myself and explore my identity beyond a big stage. The slogan “Save the Arts” became my anthem and resonated throughout my work. My goal was to fly the flag for artists and show they are essential. Lockdown essentially unlocked me. I felt a surge of creativity and believed it was my responsibility to share my passion with the world.

What were you working on when the world “shut down”? 

Riverdance had just opened at Radio City. We were scheduled to perform eight shows that week, but we only managed three before closing. All the cast and crew were sent home, in the middle of what was supposed to be a six-month tour. Little did I know that was the last time I would perform in front of a live audience for over a year. 

What helped you get through the last year?

My connection with my family and friends has helped me get through the last year. Challenging times have forced us apart but also brought us closer together. My mental and physical health also benefited from the videos I created. There was no tour, no studio time, and no workshops. I turned my home city of Belfast into my theater and the streets into my stage. I use social media as my platform to reach a global audience. I wanted to show it can be a place of positivity to do something good, real, and honest. The videos have given me purpose and an imaginative way to escape such difficult times. I had always wanted to create for the stage. I loved working with people, so a solitary project was a new adventure for me. It taught me a lot about myself and highlighted my strengths and weaknesses. I didn't do this for social media gain but more for personal growth. I want to look back on this time and feel like I made a difference.

What hopes do you have for your future in dance?

My biggest hope is to inspire others and motivate the next generation. I hope to collaborate with other dancers and musicians. I want to talk openly about various issues using dance as my language. One of my objectives is to explore the difference between creating steps for the camera and creating steps for the theater. When you’re dancing for a live audience, there is an instant reaction and engagement. You feel their energy. The ebb and flow of your performance is a reaction to their presence. However, when you’re choreographing for the camera, there is no applause at the other side of the screen. You have to see beyond the moment and think of the final product. I’ve learned that you can capture more nuances on camera that can be missed on stage. There is an energy to being on stage that’s hard to replicate on camera.  

The videos I made this past year involved a lot of solo work, largely due to the pandemic and the small bubble I was in. I got my sister or partner to film the videos using my phone. The empty streets allowed me to explore, and with just the two of us, we could move fast and free. There was no budget for editing or videography; I did this all myself. I learned along the way just from experiencing what works and what doesn’t. I’m passionate about choreography and storytelling and would love to incorporate this into a live experience. Ultimately, I want my videos to jump off the screen and onto the stage.

What hopes do you have for the future of the form?

I hope we can hold on to the tradition but be courageous enough to explore its potential. I see the form going in many different directions and continuing to evolve. I think social media and technology will continue to grow and have an impact on our art form. There is a huge demand for digital content on social media. It can be a great way to share ideas, connect, and collaborate. I see this continuing to grow, and I feel it will have a big impact on how we spread Irish dancing and how new ideas are formed. There is such a pace to social media, and this will quicken Irish dancing’s evolution. If you want to look at what is current in Irish dancing or learn the latest steps, people go straight to social media for this. I think this is the new cornerstone of our expression. 

I foresee videography becoming a core vehicle for making new connections. I hope to see more crossover with other styles, and I believe that will unlock new ideas. I think competitive Irish dancing will continue to push the boundaries of athleticism. The balance between art and sport will be interesting to study and explore. 

Lastly, I hope we can cherish the beauty of our culture by sharing what we love to do. There is a magic to Irish culture felt around the world. There is a beauty in our landscape, literature, music, and dance. I’m lucky enough to have been immersed in it from a young age and to be shaped by it as an adult. 

About Jason:

Dancer, performer, and choreographer Jason O’Neill started dancing at age 5 and went on to win the Ulster, All Scotland, All Ireland, and GreatBritain championships. Performance credits include starring as principal dancer in Riverdance, Heartbeat of Home, Prodijig, and Footstorm. Recent tour highlights include opening the 2020 Riverdance 25th-anniversary show in Montreal and in New York at Radio City Music Hall. Jason’s dancing has taken him to over 250 cities worldwide, including Tokyo, Beijing, Toronto, L.A, and Las Vegas. Jason’s current work producing, directing, and starring in original social media Irish dance videos can be seen on Instagram @jasocean and on Facebook at Jason o'neill.

Ella Keener

Competitive dancer, age 16, lives in New Jersey, USA

How has the last year of the global pandemic affected your life as an Irish dancer?

Irish dance is what I love most, but at times it was difficult to keep going. I started to lose motivation and doubt myself. Not being able to socialize and have the usual face-to-face conversations with my friends and teachers was hard. When we were allowed to get back in the studio after a very long time, everything got better; I was happy and motivated. Getting back on track with my dancing took time, but I made it work. 

What were you working on when the world “shut down”?

When the world shut down I was preparing for the WorldChampionships. I went from having practices five times a week to being on Zoom, praying that the Worlds wouldn’t get cancelled. It was tough to find out that I wouldn’t be able to compete; all the hard work I put in, leading up to the biggest competition, was thrown down the drain. 

What helped you get through the last year?

Dance was the main thing that helped me get through the past year. Life was tough, but whenever I would join a Zoom class and see my teachers and friends I felt so happy. Dance was my escape when I was stuck in my house and not able to leave. It was what I looked forward to doing most days. We made our practice room more comfortable in the basement and even put a TV in there to connect the laptop and have a better view for Zoom classes. We knew this was the new norm for a while, and to get through it we needed to make some home adjustments. 

What hopes do you have for your future in dance?

I leave for college in a year, and that makes me wonder what I’ll do with Irish dance in the future. I hope to continue dancing through college as much as I can. When I come home for breaks, I’ll make sure I’m in the studio, maybe practicing for fun or for a competition. Maybe one day if I’m lucky I’ll be part of a dancing cast. I’m excited to see where my dance career goes.

What hopes do you have for the future of the form? What would you like to see change?

I would like to see dancers have a choice of what they would like to perform at competition. I think we should still practice all of our dances to be well rounded, but it would be great if we could decide what dances to do at a major competition. I would love to see US dancers attend the British Nationals. Currently we are not allowed and yet, they are welcome at our national competition. 

What does it mean to you to be an Irish dancer?

It means the world to me to be an Irish dancer, to be able to represent such an amazing culture and country. I am so happy my parents put me in this sport. It has been years of hard work, dedication, and making amazing friendships I will cherish forever. My grandparents love that I’m an Irish dancer because they raised their daughters (including my mom) as dancers. They are always so proud of me. I have met such amazing teachers and mentors while dancing, and I really look up to them. They have provided me with guidance, and I will be forever grateful to them. 

About Ella:

Ella Keener is 16 years old and has been dancing with the Heritage IrishDance Company in New Jersey for 12 years. She is proud of her Irish heritage and thankful for Irish dance every day.

Cara Butler

Professional dancer, 46,  is from New York, lives in Ontario,Canada

How has the last year of the global pandemic affected your life as an Irish dancer? 

In the last year, I have been affected in every way possible—personally, professionally, physically, mentally, and financially. 

What were you working on when the world “shut down”?

I’ll never forget the day, the place or the phone call that completely changed all our lives. March 11, 2020. We had just arrived in Boston and were checking into the Fairmont Copley Plaza when The Chieftains’ manager called me and said the concert was cancelled, and the NYC concert would be following suit. It was The Chieftains’ 58th anniversary tour, one of the biggest tours of my life. We were hitting all the big cities in the U.S.,performing in the most prestigious theaters, from the Walt Disney Center in LosAngeles to Chicago Orchestra Hall to the Town Hall in New York. The tour was part of The Chieftains’ “Irish Goodbye,” which had started in Canada in October2019. No one would have guessed it would end so abruptly. Everyone had to go home. STAT. 

Not to be dramatic, but it was traumatic. Fifty-eight years together for The Chieftains and almost 30 years for me. I started dancing with the band in 1992, and just like that it was over. The goodbyes were surreal, but the panic was very real. I stayed in Boston an extra day. I wasn’t ready to leave or accept the tour could possibly be over. It reminded me of the time on the 2015 Chieftains tour in China when I broke my foot onstage. I thought that was the hardest it could get. But this was something altogether different. There was no injury, nothing tangible, just an invisible virus attacking our planet.

What helped you get through the last year? 

Family FaceTimes, Zooms with my road sisters, virtual workshops, teaching with my teacher Donny online, and connecting with artists that I wouldn’t necessarily come into contact with in my “normal” pre-pandemic touring life. Being in lockdown challenged me and forced me into uncharted territory as an artist and dancer. How do we dance and teach through technology and still keep the artistry? How do we keep our dance company, The StepCrew, going through a pandemic? How can we keep the spark that you feel when you hit the stage, the magic produced when you are live with an audience? The experience is completely different online, but we are all committed to doing what we love on whatever level we can, with the end goal of hitting the road again. I am lucky to work with very talented and creative people. People who are literally my family. My husband Jon and his brother Nathan. We are a team, and thankfully we all bring something different to the table. We have been able to take this time to focus in on what we do best offstage, so we are ready to be onstage together again. We are working on an online concert at the moment, and it’s very exciting!

What hopes do you have for your future in dance? 

My hope is that my body can keep up with my head! The pandemic has definitely altered my perspective on what is realistic for a dancer my age. I’m 46 years old and have been on the road touring since I was 17. I miss the road so much and the dancers and musicians I work with. I miss performing, and I can’t wait for live gigs, but will I be able to do what I did a year ago? I have kept myself as fit as I can, but onstage fitness is a different animal altogether. A year ago I could perform in a StepCrew matinee and evening show in a row no problem, running on adrenaline and pure joy! But coming off 16 months of no live performances, it’s a challenge to maintain that mental and physical state of fitness. My hope is that I can still do that when the shows start rolling in. I am sure I can, but the only way to find out is to go for it! The quicker we bring back live music the better. 

My mind has never been more buzzing with ideas and possibilities. I’ve also never been home for this long in my life! And not just home, but in lockdown. Isolation on this level really forces you to look at your life from a different perspective. My world completely slowed down. I’ve always been on the move from tour to tour with different bands and shows. I thought this was what I was supposed to do—it was all I knew how to do. Now I see there are more ways to be me. I was forced to stop and take stock of all I had experienced. That is now my starting point for tomorrow. It’s a reinvention for myself as a dancer and for my life and identity outside of dance. I’m still learning, and it’s an interesting transition from live performance. For the moment, I am my own audience, dancing on my own stage in my own backyard, on my own terms.

What hopes do you have for the future of the form? 

In a nutshell, I hope Irish dance makes its' way back home. I love and respect the evolution of how we move, and the level of athleticism that has soared in Irish dance is unequivocally impressive. But I worry that it lacks soul. Is this type of physical exertion true to the form? I think it’s important that any dance form comes from a place in the heart. I hope future generations of Irish dancers tap into the beautiful traditions that brought them the very steps they leap from. I hope they are curious about not only where the steps came from, but why they dance and what makes them move the way they do.

I also worry about young Irish dancers thinking Riverdance is the ultimate goal. Or in the same vein, that passing your TCRG qualifies you as an expert in Irish dance. I have not been part of Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. I do not have my TCRG. And yet I have made an entire career as an Irish dancer. I love to dance and have worked really hard to achieve and experience all that I have as an Irish dancer. It’s in my blood and is connected to everything I do onstage and off. You are not a dancer by the medals or certificates you receive. It is so important for young dancers to think outside the “wig-box” and cultivate their own individuality and style. 

It’s frightening and extremely real to think that the next generation might believe there are limited options for Irish dancers. There are so many possibilities, but it must maintain a connection to the roots of Irish culture. They must ask themselves: What story am I telling? My story starts with my beautiful mother immigrating to America when she was 17 years old to make a better life for herself. Every step I take honors her journey. Things need to change or Irish dance will become an offshoot of a form that once was and no one can remember. Or they will remember it as “Riverdancing,” which is now a verb in the Urban Dictionary. My hope is that the future will honor the past. In the purest and most fundamental way, I wish for Irish dancers to continue the story that ties them to the heart that is the culture of Ireland and the beautiful traditions that weave within her. 

About Cara:

Dancer, choreographer, and performer Cara Butler has been the principal female dancer with The Chieftains since 1992, touring and performing in prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall, The RoyalAlbert Hall, and Tokyo’s Sumida Hall. A student of renowned Irish dance master Donny Golden, Cara isa five-time Regional and six-time National Irish dance champion. She performs regularly with the best ofIrish bands, including Cherish the Ladies, Lunasa, Greenfields of America,Solas, Danu, and Dervish. In 2007 Cara co-created The StepCrew, the acclaimed dance show featuring Irish, tap, and Ottawa Valley step dancing. Cara can be seen in the famous nationwide Folgers coffee commercial “A Dancer'sMorning” and Shania Twain's video “Don't be Stupid.”  You can follow Cara on Instagram @cb_stepcrew, on Facebook at The-StepCrew and to learn more, http://stepcrew.com/

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