“You Can’t Really Talk About It with Other People”: A Conversation on Irish Dance
As a dancer in my 20s, navigating New York’s experimental dance scene, I always felt a little out of place. I had a strong community of peers and mentors, but I could never quite shake the sense that my earliest and most intensive training—as a competitive Irish dancer—was a problem that needed fixing, an unwelcome anomaly. Even as I worked to embrace it rather than fight it, I resented the extreme verticality, the upward inclination, so deeply ingrained in my body. Releasing my weight, veering off-center: It could feel impossible.
In that environment, crossing paths with another Irish dancer felt like meeting a stranger in a foreign city and realizing you’re from the same hometown. Such encounters were few and far between, but every so often, I would learn about someone on the same unusual journey, from the rigidity of Irish dance—and its rule-bound network of competitions—to more open-ended, exploratory lineages of postmodern dance. (Jean Butler and Colin Dunne, in their post-Riverdance years, were two high-profile dancers paving the way.)
The conversation that follows grew out of my desire to delve into that shared history. Doug LeCours, Mickey Mahar, and Michael Thurin all grew up competing in Irish dance in the late 1990s and early ’00s, riding the Riverdance wave. (I came to it slightly earlier, taking my first class in 1994.) Over the years, like me, they gravitated toward more experimental dance forms and somatic practices. I know Mickey from the work of Miguel Gutierrez, Maria Hassabi, Gillian Walsh, and others. I’ve seen Doug in dances by Julie Mayo, John Jasperse, and Tess Dworman. And I met Michael, whose work bridges performance and photography, just a few months ago, after seeing (on video) their collaboration with Los Angeles artist Jmy James Kidd. While we all have much in common, the three of them also share a history I don’t: as young queer male dancers coming of age in the era of Michael Flatley.
One day this fall, we carved out two hours to talk on Zoom, across a nine-hour time difference. (Michael lives in the Bay Area, Mickey in Berlin, Doug and I in New York City.) Our discussion progressed from memories of early classes, to reflections on gender and sexuality, to what has stayed with us from Irish dance—with detours into dresses and wigs, of course. This is a condensed and edited transcript of the conversation, which could have kept on going.
—Siobhan Burke, Dec. 2021
I. On Early Training
Siobhan Burke: When did each of you start Irish dancing, and what drew you into it?
Michael Thurin: I started in 1998 or 1999, when I was 9 or 10. I always wanted to dance as a child but never found anything that really fit. I come from a pretty strong Irish Catholic family, and the wave of Riverdance hit pretty hard in the Bay Area. Some family friends did Irish dance, so I went to a class with them just to watch. The next week I took my first class, and a month later I did my first feis and won. It really fit my body, and the studio felt more comfortable than other environments I was in as a child, so that was a huge draw, as well.
Doug LeCours: I also credit Riverdance—I found it at the video store. I took a class and similarly took to it pretty fast. I think I was attracted to the discipline and the formality. I grew up in New Hampshire but accessible to the Boston area, so eventually I was commuting a couple of hours once or twice a week for classes. I’m a little Irish but not that Irish, so it wasn’t something my family had been exposed to. I just found it and went for it.
Mickey Mahar: Not surprisingly I have a similar response: late ’90s Riverdance wave. Also a severely Irish grandmother who worked at the church where my school practiced. I think my parents were looking for an outlet for my childhood physical mania, and the Irishness of it all made sense. I love that we’re representing so many different regions here.
SB: Where did you grow up, Mickey?
MM: In Milwaukee, about an hour and a half south of Chicago. My school, Cashel-Dennehy, was a sister school of this larger school in Chicago, and once you started going to Worlds and stuff, you had to go down to Chicago and practice with them. They were just 10 times better than us. We were constantly in their shadow.
There were so many schools, even back then, I think five in Milwaukee alone. I thought the local rivalry was very interesting, how each school had very specific characters and brands and mythologies, and how you would act out those differences as a 9-year-old.
SB: For most of my time competing I went to the Griffith Academy in Hartford, CT, and there was this sense that we had to be respectable young ladies. That was a big part of our identity, as I remember it. Do you all feel that your schools had particular identities? Were you expected to represent them in a certain way?
MT: I started at a small school called Deeley-Smith. It had been around since the ’60s and was very old-school East Bay California. It was not a really competitive school, more of a community thing and definitely rooted in its history and lineage. It felt like the dancers there just loved dancing, and that was at the center of it: dancing for the love of dance. That school closed, and I transferred to this much larger school, Butler Fearon O’Connor. Very competitive, very known. It was an entirely different environment. The dancing became more commodified and polished. You had to be sharper and walking around competitions taking up space. That’s something I never took to—I wasn’t a very competitive dancer, even though I did well competitively. It just wasn’t my nature.
DL: My first teacher was John Cunniffe, who had trained with Rita O’Shea, a well-known Boston teacher, so we sort of felt descended from that. We liked to think ourselves as underdogs—we never really won anything. I started to win as a soloist, but our teams never did that well. I was really envious and terrified of the more rigorous schools that had a lot of drama around them. Smith-Houlihan was one in Boston that had mythical status.
MM: My school branded itself as very competitive but also a place for families. It was kind of between these extremes: On the one hand you had Trinity, the biggest Chicago school. They were like, “We will make you champions.” And on the other you had this school called Glencastle that was like, “We’re here if you want to have fun.” We were right in the middle.
II. On Gender and Sexuality
(and faux-hawks and Flatley)
SB: Being a young person in Irish dance, as with many dance forms, is so shaped by gender expectations. Boys and girls compete in separate categories, which are similar in some ways but really bifurcated in others. For instance, Michael, you were telling me the slip jig was your favorite dance, but you could never do it since only girls compete in the slip jig. And of course, there’s this element of pageantry for girls that’s not as extreme for boys.
This is a broad question, but I’m just curious about your experiences of gender as a young Irish dancer—anything you want to share.
MT: I was the only boy dancer in my first school, and I think when you’re a young male dancer who excels quickly, you’re very visible. At the Oireachtas, my age group would sometimes have eight dancers, and the girls’ group at the same age would have 150. You’re like this unicorn, this prize boy, who gets a lot of attention, and I’m sure we all benefited from those privileges. That’s just a self-awareness that I feel I need to bring in.
MM: Yeah. Boys in dance are encouraged in such a positive way, or in a way that girls aren’t. It happened to me also when I started doing other forms of dance. It was just like, “You’re amazing, whatever you need, whatever you want, we’re so happy you’re here.”
DL: I relate to many of the things you’ve all said. I think the prize boy experience aligned with my desire to be a good kid. It’s also interesting to think about how I was socialized in so many spaces among girls and felt very welcomed but also separate. It’s a very specific way to emerge as a young person. I will also say, my first teacher, he never came out to us, but he was a gay man for sure. He gave me a video with Absolutely Fabulous episodes on it. The man introduced me to Ab Fab!
MM: That’s wild.
MT: It was definitely the space of the glass closet, where you know but no one talks about it. In the shows there were these very heteronormative roles often danced by gay men—or perhaps, even less visibly, lesbian women—which is standard across a lot of dance, ballet especially, but I always found some humor in that. It also manifested in competitive dancing styles. I was always told to butch up my dancing, and that didn’t feel authentic or good.
DL: Around the time I was competing, everyone had faux-hawks. Do you remember that?
MM: Yes! It ruined my life. In school, outside of Irish dance, I was desperately trying to do a sweepy Hollister Justin Bieber Aaliyah kind of situation, and my Irish dancing teachers were like, “Absolutely not.” They would make me cut my hair and then I’d come to class and they’d be like, “Not short enough. You need to look Irish.” But I refused to go shorter. I would sob about it. To this day my mom is like, “I’m proud of you for not giving in.”
SB: Did any of you ever wish you could wear a wig?
MT: Of course! Yeah. And very jealous of the dresses.
DL: I was jealous of the dresses.
MM: I always knew we had the upper hand, in terms of how heavy those dresses were, and how expensive. My parents were like, “Just so you know, we would not be doing this if you were a girl, because it’s already breaking the bank.” But I was jealous of the extreme customization. I remember early on you would literally open up the Book of Kells and be like, “I want a swan.” It’s kind of nice how you got to have your own identity through that. Remember the Annabelle wig, when that came out?
SB: What was that?
MM: It was a wig that wasn’t tight curls. It was almost like Farrah Fawcett.
DL: And the double-wig era, too, when they would clip two together.
MM: Also obsessed with the girls with just the bun.
DL: The bun!
SB: I do not remember the double-wig era. You all have really good memories!
MM: There’s something about being a boy and queer—you were absorbing everything. We weren’t wearing these things, but we were the perfect witness to it. Synapses are firing in our young queer minds, and we’re overloaded and excited and that’s why it’s all still there.
MT: Yeah, you retain all of that because you couldn’t participate in it. Your only option is to obsess over it.
SB: As young queer people, did Irish dance feel like a safe place? Was it accepting?
DL: When I look back, I see that I was exposed to a lot of queer things through Irish dance, particularly with my first teacher. It was definitely fraught, but I felt safer than I could have imagined feeling in any other space as a kid. I actually came out the same week that I quit Irish dancing, when I was 16. I was supposed to go to Worlds, but I hadn’t been practicing. I was falling in love with this boy in high school, and I wanted to hang out with him instead.
MT: I relate to a lot of that. When I was dancing, my sexuality wasn’t really in a space of language. But at practice and feises and with Irish dance friends, I was able to behave and articulate myself in ways that I was punished for at school, public school, so there was a certain safety in being there.
MM: I never felt unsafe, but it actually felt really hetero for me. It felt like sports, because it was so competitive and gender-specified. I remember we would talk about certain teachers and judges and be like, “They’re so gay,” as if by announcing their queerness, it further installed that we were not. Somatically, though, I felt like I could be super queer. The fast movements, extreme vectors, the really high kicks—stuff like that felt very glam somehow.
SB: Michael Flatley was such an icon when you were all coming of age in Irish dance, and he projected this hypermasculine image. How did that impact you?
DL: When I would tell adults in my life that I was Irish dancing, I think the Flatley of it all made it acceptable to them. It was a cultural touchstone that kids who came up before us didn’t have.
MT: Yeah, having this hypermasculine sex god guy somehow made it more OK. Like, “Oh, you’re a young boy, and my only reference for this type of dancing is this barrel-chested boxer. You’re not a sissy!” But my experience of watching him in Riverdance—it’s so over the top. The all-male leatherbound part—I was like, this is so gay!
MM: So gay.
MT: So gay. It tries to be so masculine that it implodes on itself. I just laughed at it.
MM: I remember specifically taking a stand, and in my desperate attempt to be alt I was like, “I’m more into Colin Dunne.”
DL: Yes, yes.
III. On Leaving Irish Dance
(and how it never leaves you)
SB: Presumably there came a time when you stepped away from Irish dancing and toward other kinds of dancing. What was that transition like for each of you?
MM: I went to a performing arts high school where half of my day was dance and half was academics. It was ballet and Horton every day. I think if I’d been thrown into a downtown release-y thing from Irish dance, I would have been like, no. But there’s something about the linearity of ballet and Horton that I cottoned to. Even Limón would have been hard. I couldn’t release the upper half of my torso in any successful way until like two years ago.
I went to Vassar College in the northeast and at first was still trying to compete. There was a threshold that I never breached at Worlds, and I’d gotten so close every time. I went to the Worlds in Philadelphia, and I was like half a point away. I remember texting my mom and being like, “I’m done with this.” After that, I started doing more dance at university.
DL: I did Irish dancing for two years and then, when I was 10, started also doing jazz, tap, ballet, the whole jam, and competing in that space concurrently. I remember at my first ballet class, they were like, “You have to bend your knees. You have to plié,” and I was like, “I don’t follow.” For college I went to Middlebury, to a dance program that had no ballet. It was mostly release-y stuff and improvisation. I had never really been asked to fall or use my weight in that way, and my relationship to that mode of moving still feels complicated, but I think I was hungry for some other kind of patterning that wasn’t as shape-based.
MT: I stopped dancing when I was 19, during my freshman year of undergrad. I think I had to forget I was a dancer. I was excited to focus on academics, and I was getting more into visual art. That year I did Worlds, and it was just the worst. I was the first out for the hornpipe, and I fell four bars in, and in the third step of my reel, my shoe started coming off. Even for someone who doesn’t care a lot about competing, it was not the best experience.
I started dancing again when I moved to Los Angeles for grad school. I found this studio, Pieter Performance Space, where I got into different somatic practices, and that opened up a lot for me. It’s been five years now of re-learning how my body dances, with more awareness of all the pathways from Irish dance: having my hip flexors and pelvis formed in a certain way, understanding my center of gravity. It’s really exciting.
SB: I think it’s a very challenging transition, moving out of that intense verticality and trying to do other things. For years I felt really frustrated by what I perceived as the limitations of my Irish dance training. Could you each talk a bit more about the physical experience of encountering other dance forms? Did they come naturally? Do you still feel Irish-dance impulses in your body, or have you left them behind?
MM: When I moved to New York, there was a particular release-y dancer who everyone wanted to be—like, Michelle Boulé or Vicky Shick. At the few auditions I went to, we had these final interviews, and at the one for Sleep No More, they were like, “Yeah, you had no relationship to the floor.” Same thing happened at Gallim. The things you wanted to get into in 2012, I wasn’t getting into them. I just couldn’t drop my weight. And I’m very grateful, because I started to work with choreographers who just weren’t interested in that.
I did a lot of work with Miguel Gutierrez, and he allowed me to do what I was doing but also craft that a bit. What I think about most is this frenetic buoyancy that’s so prized in Irish dance. It’s all so up—like on the two knuckles of your third toe. Everything is happening there. For some of the work I was doing, with Miguel and others, I was able to harness that.
The other thing I see as a direct descendent of our shared pedagogy is that competitively, you had to take up so much space. If you were not the first boy on the lead around at the front of the stage, it was like, why did you even come to the competition? In some of the work that’s very current that I’m doing right now, in these vast museum spaces, I feel a little bit like I’m back on that stage, where acquisition of space is the number one game.
SB: That brings back so many memories — the pressure to get out in front! My mom used to say to me, “Out of the gates!” because I was really timid.
MM: I’m obsessed with how our parents tried to coach us. So sweet.
SB: Michael and Doug, what about you?
MT: The first thing I found when I started dancing again was Feldenkrais. I became really fascinated by it. The horizontality brought me into relationship with the floor—in ways that were not only on my feet—and helped me experience time and scale of movement differently. I had to go very far across the spectrum, from eating up the floor, from pointing my toe, from sweating, to this other extreme of gooey, goopy, eventually cellular space that was primarily sensation and not formal at all. It was and still is really pleasurable to me.
For a long time, I had this insecurity around Irish dance. I’d say, “Oh, I’m not a dancer. I just do Irish dancing.” But working with dancers in L.A. like taisha paggett, Alexx Shilling, Jmy Kidd, Sam Wentz—when I outed myself as a former Irish dancer, somewhat embarrassed, they were like, “What are you talking about? That’s amazing. You have a lot of very specific knowledge and training that’s real and important and has a history to it.” I’m kind of done resisting the organization of my body and its structure and comportment. I’m finding new ways to access this verticality, which is actually making releasing from it a lot more efficient.
DL: When I got to college, all I wanted was to be on the floor. I was like, “What is happening down here?” Being floppy and sloppy was a completely different experience. In some ways, as I’m getting older, rediscovering the verticality has been really interesting. I’m dancing for John Jasperse now, and the man loves a straight leg, so there are some things that feel not so far away. Another thing I’ve been thinking about, which relates to what Mickey said about taking up space, is that as Irish dancers, we learn how to perform a solo. I sometimes wonder if I am really a soloist, if that’s where I feel most at home.
MM: That really rings true to me, the solo of it all. Also, Michael, you mentioned duration, because Feldenkrais is like, “We’re gonna take our time today.” In Irish dance, you have two and a half minutes to compete. It’s such a distinct organization of time. There’s no resting, no dips in energetic flow. There’s something great about that energizer bunny quality, but you do have to learn about things building, about how to dramaturge yourself. Because for so long, it’s just like Siobhan’s mom said: “Out of the gates!” It’s there and then it’s not.
DL: There’s an ecstasy to it, to these short blips. Your heart rate goes up, you’re sweating. I find that part of me is always still seeking this sweaty epiphany experience, and when I don’t get it, I kind of feel unfulfilled. I notice myself coming up against that.
IV. Coda / Closing Thoughts
SB: Well, we are nearing the end of our allotted two hours. It has been such a pleasure talking with you all. Any final thoughts before we sign off?
DL: This was fun. I haven’t brought some of this stuff out of the emotional closet in a long time.
MT: Yeah, definitely. There almost needs to be an adult recovery program.
DL: I’m still in touch with a friend from Irish dance, and she’s always like, “When I describe this to other people, it sounds like I was in a war.” There’s a funny nostalgia related to that.
MT: A war and a cult.
MM: And a war with yourself, somehow. I also immediately describe it as a cult.
MT: This frenetic obsessive self-flagellating quality.
MM: It’s not dissimilar to gymnastics or other group activities. I think the main difference is there are so few reference points. There’s no Simone Biles, you know? That’s why these kinds of conversations are useful, because you can’t really talk about it with other people.
Siobhan Burke is a writer living in New York City. Since 2013 she has been a dance critic for the New York Times and a contributing writer for Dance Magazine. She has written for Artforum, The Brooklyn Rail, Cultured, Harper's Bazaar, Open Space, The Village Voice, and other publications. She was a 2013 USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellow and received a 2018 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. As a dancer, she performed with the North American tour of Riverdance and artists including Darrah Carr, Hadley Smith, RoseAnne Spradlin, Jillian Sweeney, Rebecca Warner, and Narcissister. She teaches at Barnard College.
Doug LeCours is a dancer, choreographer, and writer based in New York City. His work has been presented by AUNTS, Center for Performance Research, New York Live Arts, and DraftWork at Danspace Project. He's performed with choreographers including Tess Dworman, Catherine Galasso, Keely Garfield, John Jasperse, Julie Mayo, RoseAnne Spradlin, and Pavel Zustiak. His writing has been featured in The Brooklyn Rail. Growing up, he trained in Irish dance in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and competed internationally.
Mickey Mahar is a dancer and performer originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He trained at Cashel-Dennehy School of Irish Dance, Milwaukee High School of the Arts and later at Vassar College. He now works primarily in visual art contexts, appearing in the works of Anne Imhof, Maria Hassabi, Adam Linder and others in galleries and museums across the world. He most recently was a part of Anne Imhof’s work Natures Mortes at Palais de Tokyo in Paris. He lives and works in Berlin.
Michael Thurin is a movement-based artist working with live performance, photography and image-making, and text. They have presented their work at Pieter Performance Space, Irrational Exhibits, UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, SF Camerawork, Actual Size LA, and Human Resources Los Angeles, and have danced in countless church halls, convention centers, ballrooms, DIY stages, and community centers. Thurin is currently based in rural Northern California, and received their MFA in Art from UC Irvine in 2019. As a competitive Irish dancer, they danced with Deely-Smith Irish Dancers and Butler Fearon O’Connor School of Irish Dance.