For this blog post, I want to dig into one of the studio’s three core values: “Authenticity.” The word conveys a few meanings, not least of which includes people being wholly themselves. But this reflection has to do more with “authentic” style. There are lots of debates concerning what is “real” Irish dance, and in many ways, this gets to the heart of what “authenticity” means to the studio. So read along and learn a bit more about some Irish dance history, and what it means to Kaleidoscope Studio and what we offer.
I recently saw a reflection on the term sean-nós, which is the Irish for “old style.” Originally, it was applied to traditional singing in Ireland – an unaccompanied, highly ornamented style of singing, that carries the weight of Irish feeling and being through the centuries.
In time, the term sean-nós began to be applied to the low to the ground, largely improvised footwork, that was a form of musical expression through the feet. It wasn’t a choreographed presentation, but rather, a personal interpretation of the music using percussive sounds as instrumentation.
“Irish Dance” as a genre has a complex history. There is no one pathway from which it came to us. Each county of Ireland had its own form of music and dance. The tunes, the group dances, whether sets or ceílis, the solo steps, each had its own character depending on where in Ireland it was found.
From my experience, the most well-known Irish dance style is that performed in the large spectacle shows, with high flying dancers and long lines of synchronised treble reels. The next most known style would be competitive style, with wigs and fancy costumes. And while each of these can trace aspects of their style to historical moments, they have come a long way from the style danced in Ireland as recently as 30 years ago. And that style was still different from the 30 years prior to that.
Historical records have told us the significance dance played in daily Irish life, dating as far back as the sixteenth century. But we don’t know how they danced as no known records of steps exist until the late eighteenth century, and even those are vague. There are dancers in Ireland who trace their direct lineage to dancing masters of the late eighteenth century and they have worked hard to preserve that tradition and pass it along to the next generation.
Over the past 3 years, I have been researching old-style step dancing – a form of choreographed dance forms which is not strictly sean-nós. Some of the steps that I have learned and collected can be traced back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Others of the steps, come from modern dance masters, who use the style and motifs of the old dance masters to create new steps for today. No fancy shoes, no fancy costumes – just dancing.
When we speak about “authenticity” at Kaleidoscope, it reflects our passion for understanding the history and lineage of the steps we learn, where they come from, and from whom we learned those steps. This helps us to understand how we fit into the family tree of Irish dance; knowing that our branch is but one on a deep-rooted, many-branched tree. But like any branch on a tree, we draw from the trunk, down to the roots, to keep growing. Tradition grows, like any living thing. At Kaleidoscope, we anchor ourselves to a part of the tree that is perhaps less known in this community. Our hope is that as more people experience this form of Irish dance, they will see the beauty of a style rooted in community and want to join in the dance.