Last night I finished another residency with Jean Butler’s Our Steps Foundation at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, as writer-in-residence and oral history collector. Since beginning this work a year ago, I’ve found it challenging to explain to people what exactly we’re up to with this project, so for this edition of Danceletter, I thought I’d share the program note I wrote for our end-of-residency showing last night. This is a warm-up for a longer essay that will be published on the Our Steps Foundation (still-in-progress) website in the next few months.
The one thing I’d add, for now, is that with all the material we’re gathering at the library — film documentation, oral histories, archival treasures our guests bring in — Jean and her collaborators will be creating an installation and performance for the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin in 2021. Stay tuned for updates along the way.
Taking a Breath: A note on what we’re doing here
[Program note for Our Steps residency showing. June 13, 2019.]
When I learned Irish dance steps in the kitchen of an American Legion hall in Old Wethersfield, Connecticut, in the late 1990s, I never thought about where they came from. It was obvious: They came from my teacher, who was right there in front of me, demonstrating the reel or jig or hornpipe. The past — the history of what my body was doing — did not cross my mind. I was preoccupied with the present: figuring out the intricacies of the step, trying to remember it, wanting to please (or at least not disappoint) my teacher. And the future concerned me, too: How would I fare with this step in competition? Would I be good at it? Would I be able to win?
Talk to most competitive Irish dancers today, and they’ll likely tell you something similar. As the standard of competition grows ever more demanding — steps filling up with more beats, more tricks — we don’t pause to reflect on history. We push ahead; we accelerate and excel. Within this panting race forward, Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Archive, is a deep breath. Jean Butler, after more than four decades of immersion in Irish dance, is saying: let’s slow down; let’s look back.
Jean embarked on this project following the deaths, in a span of two years, of four influential Irish dance teachers in New York: Jimmy Erwin and Jerry Mulvihill in 2013; Michael Bergin and Peter Smith in 2014. With their passing, she realized, the history of a generation was slipping away. What would happen to the steps they had created, the knowledge they carried? And looking ahead, what about the steps and stories of their students, many of whom had become teachers themselves?
While recognizing the impossibility of a comprehensive archive, Our Steps begins an urgent process of preservation, through the passing down and documenting of solo Irish set dances (those performed in competition*) dating from the 1940s to 1994. This period starts around the time of the 1948 emigration, from Belfast to New York, of brothers Peter and Cyril McNiff, who brought over what was known as the Ulster style of Irish dance. More elegant, and done to slower music, than the leading style in New York at the time — the Munster or Kerry style, taught chiefly by James McKenna — the Ulster style is the closest ancestor of competitive Irish dance today. The chronological scope of Our Steps ends with the 1994 birth of Riverdance, which transformed Irish dance from a close-knit cultural practice into a global phenomenon.
Jean has started close to home, with her own dance lineage. The first Our Steps residency, in this same space last summer, focused on the steps of her own teacher, Donny Golden, a student of Jimmy Erwin, who was a student of Cyril McNiff. (A highlight of those two weeks was a visit from Cyril’s sister, Joan McNiff Cass, whose delicate precision — at 79 no less — wowed us all.) While Jean could have simply asked teachers to demonstrate what they remember, she instead chose to film the messier process of reconstruction and transmission: of piecing dances back together (mostly from memory) and passing them on to a younger group of current competitors. This creates room to explore generational differences: How do dancers today relate to material from 30, 40, 50 years ago? How have trends and techniques changed, or not? To dig further into the stories behind the steps, she has also invited guests to be interviewed through the Oral History Project of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, to recount their experiences in Irish dance for future researchers.**
During this year’s residency, Jean has been fine-tuning dances taught last summer. Learning a sequence of steps is one thing; understanding their original textures and rhythmic nuances is another. “Less muscle,” she told one dancer last week, summing up a key distinction between today’s hyper-athleticism and the style she grew up with in the 1980s. This week the dancers have also been working with former pupils of Kenny Verlin, another well-known New York–area teacher. Siobhan Gorman, John Jennings, Ellen Riordan, and Theresa Wall have added to the archive with steps they learned from him. Verlin died in 1986, at 31. In his students and theirs, he dances on.
* Our Steps focuses on the competitive circuit overseen by An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha, the largest governing organization for Irish dance.
** Oral histories and video documentation from this project will enter the collection of the library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division and will be available to the public.
From the Internet
As you can imagine, much of my time on the Internet lately has been spent falling down Irish dance rabbit holes. A few discoveries that illustrate some of the above:
The McNiff Irish Dancers (a team led by Cyril Mcniff) in 1958.
John Cullinane, author of a series of just-the-facts books on Irish dance that Jean brought into the studio, dancing in 1963.
Fun fact: Filming isn’t allowed at Irish dance competitions, so very little footage of solo set dances (the kind we’ve been recording at the library) can be found online. That also explains the lack of solo dancing in videos like this high-drama highlight reel from the 2019 World Irish Dancing Championships.
What You’re Watching
Here’s some fancy footwork of a different kind, from the 2016 International Lindy Hop Championships, sent by tap dancer and choreographer Caleb Teicher:
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