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Local Old Style

29 Apr

I have spent almost a year conceptualizing, scheming and producing an event called Local Old Style.  Classes, rehearsals, performance at local trad music venue . . . tea breaks between said classes . . . many things to think about.  And it went really well!   I feel very proud of it!

Still, I guess because I’m kind of sick, I couldn’t help subjecting it to strident analysis pretty much the moment it was over (I think somewhat to the chagrin of some dancers sharing pints with me after the concert).


Local Old Style was an “intensive.” And it really made me question the nature of dance intensives, and what makes them work and for whom.  It was a weekend of Irish dance of various stripes.   And it really made me question the distinctions and assumptions that I have about Irish dance forms in a delightfully unexpected way.

I originally had the idea because I wanted to learn sean nós (old style) dance, which several of my DC dance friends do and which is, as one of them just said in the workshop, “kind of hot right now.”  In spite of my latent (and hypocritical) distain of participating in fads, sean nós dance actually DOES relate in interesting ways to flatfooting, early challenge dancing in the US, and other American vernacular dance forms I’m studying.  So I can get over myself and jump on the bandwagon can’t I?


I thought it was time to make a serious and focused start in my study of the form. I wanted to bring as many perspectives to the material as possible, and have an excuse to hang out with some of my favorite dancers all at the same time; so the faculty brought together my friends and colleagues who teach Irish dances in the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas: Megan Downes, Shannon Dunne, Kate Spanos, Rebecca McGowan, and Kelly Smit.  I invited them each to teach a class, which I thought would probably be sean nós, or closesly related to sean nós.

I ended up being surprised.  There was more Irish step dance than I’d originally thought we’d do.

Irish step dance sometimes appears to me as the “mainstream” dance from Ireland, as per the Riverdance phenomenon, while sean nós feels a little more “underground” with no Broadway show to give the average passer-by any inkling of its existence.  BUT, here’s what’s really interesting: the kinds of Irish step dance we did at Local Old Style WERE actually fringe/underground/little-known compared to the competition style of Irish step dance, which, in the media at least, can overshadow all other expressions of the form. Even among the extreme Irish dance nerds assembled at Local Old Style, most of us had never done a Festival Style step, the least “sean nós”-like thing that happened at the event.


So here I am at my event meant to teach me “the other” form of Irish dance, not competition step dance, which I want to put into a neat and accessible mental package so I can wrap my mind around the style and start working on my technique – and I get step dance forms that no one’s ever seen on TV!  (at least, not in the US I think.)  This is totally busting up my neat dichotomy of cultural dominance through commercialism!  Instead of just engaging in a process of defining and codifying Irish sean nós, we deepened and textured a style we might have just used to “other” sean nós – we know it’s “old style” in part because it’s NOT like contemporary competition style.  We might have been tempted to leave the weekend forgetting to examine both sides of the split, and nothing is actually as flat as just “mainstream vs. underground” in real life, is it?

I figure this was actually kind of fortuitous, giving us the opportunity to triangulate an understanding of sean nós.  We can also define it through what it’s not (which don’t we all secretly enjoy?), but we are also forced to look at the thing it’s not as well, instead of dismissing and ignoring it.  Also interestingly, the offerings made it even more fun for me, since I also have a background in Irish step dance.


Now, Irish step dance is not an easy dance form, not readily accessible to the average pedestrian off the street.  Even experience dancers, like tap dancers or ballet dancers, frequently find their previous training a liability when they really want to master this style and aesthetic.  The intensive was designed for experienced, not beginner, percussive dancers, but still . . . it’s hard!

I was nothing but impressed with the participants in how fast and how well they picked up what was taught – not that I think they all felt good about it; but I still remember my first Irish step dance lessons – even my first months of lessons.  I’ll just say this: tears.  And shame. And more tears.  I stuck with it anyway because I knew someday it would be fun.  It was.

Since this was the first year, and we weren’t sure exactly who would show up, I realize in retrospect that I had actually designed the program pretty much for myself, based on what I would like to learn, with input from the teachers.  I had a wonderful time, and a lot of other people have told me that they did too.  This was actually the happiest dance intensive I’ve ever attended.  I think each class I had was one of the best classes of that style I’ve ever taken.  (I know I’m using a lot of superlatives here – but I mean it!  I’m not just being Hyperbole Jane.)


I invited “experienced percussive dancers” of various backgrounds as student participants, and they included people who do sean nós kind of a lot, like members of Shannon Dunne Dance, and people who are kickass flatfooters, like Becky Hill and Josephine Stewart, people who mostly social dance, and people who do other kinds of traditional dances, like rapper sword and Quebecois step dance (reader, look these up if need be).

One of the interesting issues with the event was: most people didn’t have a background in ALL the forms taught, and some didn’t have ANY background in ANY of the forms taught.  Was this a cruel trick I played on my community?  I have to wonder, as a dance learner and teacher, when I see (and remember and relate to) the intense frustration on the faces of fellow dancers (see above tears and shame comment), if emotional upheaval is a normal and inevitable part of dance learning?  Is a productive disintegration and reintegration of the movement patterns of the emotional mind/body necessary? – or is it just messed up to ask people to do stuff that’s really hard?

I go back and forth about this myself every year when the DC Tap Fest basically kicks my ass into a healthy sense of humility but also possibility as to what tap dance can be – and what I am not.  It hurts.  I wonder how productive it is for me, really, to feel so demoralized for so many hours in one weekend.  And yet, I keep going back!    And THIS year, it was better!  I took fewer classes, and they were more positive.  Moments of hope shone through the devastating shroud of inadequacy.  *sniffle*


How intense should “an intensive” be?  Do you want to pay all that money to just be relaxing in a class that doesn’t stretch you or push you out of your comfort zone?  As an events organizer, should I translate discomfort in fellow participants as success?!?  How much is success, and how much is “I’m never coming to your stupid event again!”?

I am very glad at the result of the weekend– but how can it serve the community better in the future?  In classes I saw a lot of people in intense concentration and even sometimes expressing frustration.  I relate to these, and I myself experience them regularly in various dance contexts, though I didn’t happen to feel that way at any point during Local Old Style – the point is other people did, though.  Is this an indication that we are serving a certain need in the dance community?  I have heard that there is need to challenge intermediate trad dancers, who are often faced with a myriad of beginner class options, or VERY advanced or high commitment situations, with little in between.

As a dance educator, I DO want to craft events that reach as many people as possible.  I am also invested in presenting many perspectives, many opinions, many pedagogies.  There is NOT just one right way to teach or learn dance, as tempting as it feels to crack the code for the perfect dance class.  Really, a challenging teaching style is an opportunity for you to know yourself as a learner, and develop new skills for recognizing and absorbing movement information.  Sometimes it’s not a good match, and you need to walk away.   But sometimes, you can say, “ah, this is hard, but maybe if I look at it this other way . . .”  And what is better learning than this?  This is the learning that makes us empathetic individuals, that fosters community, reconciliation, cross-cultural exchange.


After this event, I went through all kinds of thoughts about how to solicit feedback from people I perceived as frustrated in some way with their experience, going so far as to think up IAQ’s (that’s imaginarily-asked questions) such as:

“The classes were too advanced for me, I thought they would be more basic.”
“The days were too long, can’t they be more spread out?”
“Why wasn’t there more sean nós at this sean nós dance intensive?”


I spent time composing responses to these imaginary critiques, and very much want to make sure that I can improve the event in the future.  In my responses I suggested other classes and programs, including Irish Week at the Augusta Heritage Center and MAD Week in DC, and structuring the event within a different time frame.  I offered theories on learning and culture, and encouragement for people who I thought might not value enough the hard-work-that-doesn’t-feel-perfect-yet, which is so important in actually progressing.  I brought up the fact is that sean nós does not exist in a vacuum.  It’s an Irish vernacular style, people do it at parties (and in competition and on stage too), but it is part of a construction of a cultural identity that, like it or not, IS related to step dance and set dance in sometimes complicated, but truly fascinating, ways.  I said NEXT YEAR, there is an idea on the table about each of the teachers teaching a sean nós session AND another session of their choice, and I would welcome feedback on this idea . . . I still have a vague sense of . . . I’m not sure what, perhaps worry that people were frustrated and they don’t feel ok about it . . . I threw an event, not everyone had a perfect experience, there is room to improve, and perhaps in this situation, learning to be with other dancers discomfort is my own emotional learning through dance.  I guess I should just be with that . . .




20 Dec

We want to say a huge Thank You to many, many people who helped us with Vaudevival: Old is the new New in the past year, but this post is a special Thank You to Kickstarter supporters!  CDs are in the mail, T-shirts are in the works, Thank Yous have been posted on Twitter and Facebook, and now:

Thank You, Ruby Ross!  You can check out Ruby’s cool projects at: – she has done amazing work like Ashpet, an Appalachian Cinderella Story, definitely keep your eye on this one!  We met long ago in Carmel Tighe’s Irish step dance class in Charlottesville, VA.  Thanks for staying in touch and supporting out work!

Thank You, Lauren Withhart!  Lauren is a super-skilled and hilarious dance artist and educator in Baltimore, MD, and you can find information on her company at:  Now is a good time for a year-end, tax deductible contribution as well;)!  Lauren and I were in the same M.F.A. program at UMD, and shared an office!  Thanks for sharing precious resources and supporting our work!

Thank You, Ben Power!  Ben plays traditional Irish music and performs and teaches Irish sean nos dancing.  Funnily enough, he taught us old style Irish set dance The Priest and His Boots, back at Patrick Olwell’s house in Afton, VA, years ago!  We just re-learned it this summer at the Swannanoa Gathering’s Celtic Week with Ben’s student Elaine.  So you have supported us in more ways than one!  Check out Ben’s projects and teaching schedule at:

Thank You, David Klinger!  It’s exciting that we’ve never met, and still you found and supported our Kickstarter campaign!  I feel that we are now “art friends” and hope we can meet sometime soon.  Your website has  really lovely animation and dreamy piano music.  Everyone should check it out:

Thank You, Fred Hicks!  Fred has what appears to be a dream job, designing games from home for his own business Evil Hat Productions.  Now, after you get over the initial hatred caused by your own not-designing-games-at-home-job-havingness, check out his website,, including the fact that HE is running an AMAZINGLY SUCCESSFUL Kickstarter campaign right now also:  Deep breaths can stifle more surges of resentment, and then think about contributing to his campaign, cause this guy has obviously got it goin’ on.  And his family is awesome too, they go to school with our daughter Lydia at the Purple Birdhouse School (i.e. the Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School).

Thank You, Leela Grace!  Leela is a lovely musician and singer/songwriter who also performs with her also lovely sister Ellie Grace.  We never miss a chance to see these hilariously charming ladies in concert, and neither should you!  Leela plays and teaches in Portland, OR, so if you’re on the West Coast look for her banjo-playing, dancing, singing antics.  They also tour the country, so see when they’re coming near your town!  Check out their duo at:

Thank You, Lucy Goldberg!  We don’t have a website for you, but we want to give you a special shout out anyway.

There are two other friends who volunteered to video record our show, and I’d like to thank them here:

Thank You, Valerie Durham!  Valerie and I were also together in the Dance MFA program at University of Maryland, College Park.  Valerie is a strikingly beautiful Duncan dancer, and her website is:  She also just opened a school you can find at – Valerie is an invaluable resource to the local DC dance community, writing thoughtful and well-researched articles, giving workshops, organizing events, and dancing out as a truly inspiring performer.  I recommend her classes for a non-neurotic approach to dance for children.

Thank You, James Durham!  James is an incredibly creative writer, composer and producer, and he does so many different things that it’s difficult to summarize him into one little box.  If you like music and sci-fi/fantasy/zombies/undead being – and really, who is uncool enough to say they don’t like zombies and vampires these days – check out his website at:

A Whirlwind Summer

27 Aug

We recently returned from many travels this summer, having visited Virginia, North Carolina, Nova Scotia, West Virginia, and Massachusetts.  Next to Michigan for the Wheatland Music Festival!  The photo below is from R.L. Geyer at the Swannanoa Gathering’s Celtic Week, monday night concert.  We had a wonderful time there, and also at Boxwood, Tanglewood, the Beat Retreat, Smiling Mountain, and especially Dance Week at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins!

Our Kickstarter Campaign in the Post!

25 Aug

Check out this article on fundraising for dance projects on Kickstarter that mentions Vaudevival: Old is the new New!

Dance is Kickstarter’s most successful category by Sarah Kaufman

See posts below for our Kickstarter video, with special guest Lydia Jade Olwell!

Oh Derecho . . .

23 Aug

Amy Scheer, photos by Matthew Olwell and Lisa Swenton-Eppard

Well, not having produced a show at Dance Place after all WOULD be really disappointing if the whole weekend hadn’t ended up being so incredibly moving!  We had our two shows!  Despite the huge wind storm knocking out the power at Dance Place, we still held an invited dress rehearsal at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center Saturday night, and a show at the National Conservatory for Dramatic Arts in Georgetown Sunday night.  The cast packed up all our costumes and props and carted them around the chaotic city, dodging felled trees and power lines.  Our band leader Joebass DeJarnette pulled off miraculous amplifications apparently out of thin air, and EVERYONE showed up – in the midst of so many challenges, we didn’t loose any performers!  I feel overwhelmed with gratitude towards my collaborators and friends who joined me on this journey!

Wanting to listen . . .

22 Oct

Thank you so much to everyone involved in Vaudevival: Old is the new New (and there were a lot of them), for such a great show this weekend!  I am super happy with both the process and the product!!!  I am so humbled that so many people have taken time to do this work with me!

In the post-show Q&A last night, I mentioned an idea that’s been bubbling under the surface of my consciousness for a while, but had never quite found a way to articulate before.  I talked about dance as a form of communication, which is not my original idea, but then I realized that talking/expressing yourself is only HALF of true communication.  There must also be listening/receiving.  And how do we embody that listening?  Must it be still?  Can it be danced?  Can I dance alliance with someone?  Solidarity?  The intention for alliance and solidarity?

I am in a listening place right now, and invite you to comment on the show or this research!  Each Act in the show has it’s own page, and I will be putting up and improving other pages soon – let me know if there are particular questions and I’ll speed that info along!

Thanks for visiting!  Subscribe?

The show is up!

21 Oct

Our opening night went so well!!!  Thank you to all my wonderful collaborators for making this happen!  I include here cast, musicians, choreographers, crew, advisors, mentors and teachers!  I hope that you will subscribe to this blog, which is still a work in progress, so that you can find out more about the other artists in this show as I continue working; and you will also be able to stay updated on how our next version of the show is shaping up, up at Dance Place in DC on June 30th and July 1st of 2012.