I Was a Teenage Irish Stepdancer! Or, A Few Notes on Irish Stepdancing That I’ve Been Meaning to Write Down for Years Now

Michael Flatley in "Feet of Flames" wearing leather trousers.
STOP! Did someone in the audience call Irish Dancing FOLK DANCING? We will show our displeasure through this interpretive Treble Reel!


I am a former Irish Dancer.

I do not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

(But you can! And I love you for it.)

Today will be a day of quiet and rest for me.

Because every St. Patrick’s Day of my childhood, youth, and young adult years felt like an eternity.

And in some ways—it was.


For seventeen years’ worth of St. Patrick’s Days, I performed without pay (because I was still an amateur competitor) starting at 6 a.m. on the 17th and ending somewhere around 3 a.m. on the 18th. This was expected of me, and sometimes I enjoyed it.

Typically, there was some driving and waiting around between shows, and we had some sort of long dinner break around six p.m. to just before eight o’clock.

But, from eight p.m. to three or four the next morning, we’d begin performing again at this large restaurant/bar with a teeny stage. Hour after hour.

This audience loved us more than the other eighteen or nineteen other audiences of the day put together because this audience was really, really, really drunk.


Enough time has lapsed that I don’t feel nearly so grouchy about St. Patrick’s Day.

I’ve got three things I’ve been wanting to say for years.

And I finally feel ready to share these thoughts with you.


1) Irish Dancing is not folk dancing.

The steps are as new as hip-hop, or any other contemporary dance form. In the world of Irish stepdancing, people come out with new ways to move every year.

In folk dancing the steps and the music do not change. Ever. No one adds new movements and you dance to a specific time signature. Typically in a costume of clothes that people in the old country wore for celebrations.

Irish stepdancing has one folk dance equivalent.

There are four plodding “set dances” with slooo-ooow hard shoe steps that every dancer has to learn. We had to do them in competition. I don’t think the generation that’s competing now has to use them at all, but I could be wrong.

Learning the “Trad. sets” helps you appreciate the modern swift-changing form that Irish step dancing has always been, and will always be. It’s also a way for adjudicators to line up four competitors stripped of their fancy choreography and see, in one flick of the eyes, whether the dancers have correct form, timing, and style.

The rest of the dances you encounter are a horn o’plenty of reels and jigs and hornpipes of the soft and hard shoe variety. More bounty: Each soloist will have their own choreography made up of many different steps in combination.

Some of those steps will be new. In the “no one has moved their feet that way in Irish Dancing before I just saw you do it right now” school of newness.


Now, let’s talk about those new steps in Irish Stepdancing.

Where do new steps come from? How do new steps get passed around?

Someone does some cool new thing on stage at the World Championships, and every big competitor and their teachers sees the step, and they steal it.

That original competitor will place no higher than third because brand new steps are not acceptable. Last year’s new step is okay. And everyone is required to do the new step from four years ago with the double-Swiss variation.

But for that first guy: Woe to ye who thought it was a good idea to bring that step to Worlds!

Next year, everyone’s using his new step in their winning solo.

The following year, someone will add three extra somethings to the new step, a movement defying both physics and human anatomy. Gasps all around. And all the teachers and all the dancers steal the souped-up version of the step.

We’ve all got to learn to do the quadruple-doohickey the year after that. It’s become standard for your level of competition.

In the meantime, a dancer and her teacher have come out with “the Swan” which is a crosskey done backwards with a flick both ways, and a boy in a dance school in Killarney just added three twists to it.

That’s what we get to learn next year for our competitions. I hope your kneecaps are double jointed!


2) It’s not called “Riverdancing.” That’s a show.

Irish stepdancing as culture goes way past Michael Flatley. What Flatley (and Marie Duffy and about ten others) did, is loosen up some of the rules of performance.

To be fair, Riverdance was such a phenomenon, former champions were finally able to make a non-competition, non-teaching career out of Irish Dance. Dance teachers were able to fill all their student slots, and probably for the first time, keep a waiting list of would-be students.

However, Flatley created some unfortunate precedents for female dancers— he created a thin body culture Irish Dancing didn’t have and didn’t need.

Before Riverdance, some of the best “power competitors” were built like Muhammad Ali, and they had his considerable physical grace too. I once nearly cried watching this muscular dancer perform. She was a rather famous World Champion, and she was doing things my body would never be able to do.

So there’s that.

With the new “thin” Irish Dance culture, came the weirdly dichotomous femininity—also a Flatley specialty—in which you were either a withering swan or this naughty, naughty girl.

Luckily, I was heading for the exit by then. I had a university degree and I was going off to graduate school.

I didn’t have an interest in dressing up as one of Flatley’s female chorus members: Three wigs sewn together to make one super-wig, six slickery coats of spray tan, and a beauty pageant tiara, all tied together visually by a dress made from wisps of fresh Irish mist.

Male dancers had it worse. I don’t even know what to say about those “masculine” leather pants Flatley stuffed his male dancers into for his next show, “Lord of the Dance,” but I can tell you those pants looked damned uncomfortable. And so did the performers wearing them.


I said I was heading towards the exit. Check that. I was sprinting.

As I wrapped up my solo career, women in any audience got in the habit of grabbing at my solo costume (worth more than my first car) and, yes, weeping because they loved Riverdancing so much.

To be fair, it was HUGE at the time. Commercials. Specials on PBS. Some people really identified with this show. I felt bad for these women and their genuine gigantic feelings for Michael Flatley, and Irish Dance, and me, who they thought danced just like Michael Flatley, and should be in Riverdance, but all of it really freaked me out.

So I thanked them and I thanked them, and gently removed their hands from the only new solo dress I ever owned.

For the record— I wouldn’t have made the first round of cuts for the corps of any of the three touring Riverdance shows. I wasn’t good enough and that was fine by me. (No super-wig!)

If you are out and about today, for goodness’ sakes don’t call it Riverdancing. Irish dancers get really ticked about this, but they’re too polite to say anything—usually because you’re all so nice and earnest and genuinely heartfelt that no one wants to correct you.

Nor should they. Dancing for an enthusiastic audience is one of the most visceral pleasures of an Irish dancer’s life.

After more than a decade out of my ghillies*, I can afford to be frank this once. (No super-wig!)


3) This is going to blow your mind, but the national color of Ireland until late in the 20th century was actually blue.

This national color was about three to six different colors of blue because various groups in the two countries that make up Ireland couldn’t decide which blue was the right blue, so instead of picking one, they named a bunch of them St. Patrick’s Blue and called it a day.

It naturally follows that the flag that represents St. Patrick—(There are three of him too!)— is a carefully chosen symbol called the “Saltire of St. Patrick” and also the “Standard of St. Patrick.” (Though there’s fighting about that, also. Lots of history of fighting over stuff in Ireland.)

Then it certainly is at all points logical that this St. Patrick’s flag, or Saltire, or Standard is, in fact, colored bright red and blinding white with no blue to speak of whatsoever.


Today, I will not be watching a bunch of St. Patricky things on TV or singing any of those songs about “a ragtag rambling rover from Donegal who wore a black band in his Guinness black hair” or any other Irish tune stuck in my head until always. I will never, ever wax nostalgic about what it was like to be an Irish Dancer because there is always this:

My stress dreams involve Irish dancing. Every time. And that’s enough to keep me from pulling out my last pair of unbroken Rutherfords* and strapping them on for ‘ould times’ sake.

Because late next week, when I’m worried about something, I’ll be looking for those damned hard shoes in my dreams as the PA is announcing the callbacks in a competition I’m in.

While I’m frantically peeking under chairs for my shoes, a lady with a fixation for Riverdance will grab at my costume and rip it— massive points off for me. And I’ll get to the stage and remember that on orange days cats don’t wear garbage cans. They wear St. Patrick’s Blue, or nothing at all.




END NOTES

*soft shoes, or ghillies, are what female dancers wear. They’re also called poms for some reason, and most likely, six newer names I haven’t heard yet. Male dancers wear soft shoes as well. Those shoes don’t have nicknames at all.

**a brand of hard shoe. Irish dancing has hard shoes and soft shoes for both men and women.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photograph of Michael Flatley in his Marie Duffy co-choreographed production, “Feet of Flames,” was made available by the photographer MaxGuy and by Wikimedia Commons.


This post was originally published on March 17, 2013.