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 . . .