Exploring Irish Dance at the Fusion Dance Fest

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Image Credit: Frank Sambrook

Exploring Irish Dance at the Fusion Dance Fest

Eimear Kelly (Queen Mary University of London) discusses her trip to the Fusion Dance Fest in Limerick this past August.

The bursary I received from the BAIS allowed me to attend and participate in the Fusion Dance Fest in Limerick in August. This was a key part of my practice-based research on innovation in Irish dance, in which I am examining the work of choreographers and dance teachers who are exploring and challenging the norms of Irish dance.

Most Irish step dancers learn to dance within the competitive world of Irish dance, an intensely regulated practice with strict rules over what counts as authentic and what is acceptable innovation in regards to dancing steps, styles, and costumes. Irish dancers who then embark on a professional dance career are usually limited to performing in Riverdance or Lord of the Dance, or other shows that have replicated their commercially successful formula. My research explores those choreographers who are seeking to be more creative with what an Irish dance performance can be, and teachers who are teaching unique forms of Irish dance that are often focused on performance instead of competition. This is being examined through interviews with key choreographers and dance teachers, ethnographic research undertaken at dance schools, and practice-based research in which I am exploring what it means to practice innovative forms of Irish dance as a dancer trained in competitive Irish dance.

The Fusion Dance Fest was a new six-day long festival created by the Irish dance company Fusion Fighters, and was described on their website as being “anchored in traditional Irish Dance forms but introduces a variety of Irish show styles, body percussion, tap and contemporary”. Dancers who attended the festival would get to “work along side our experienced faculty for 6 days of workshops, seminars, video projects, evening events and culminating in a student showcase at the Millennium Theatre in Limerick”. Chris Naish, the artistic director of Fusion Fighters, wrote that they expected the Fusion Dance Fest “to be one of the most progressive Irish dance events and movements of 2016” (www.fusiondancefest.com).

I wanted to attend the Fusion Dance Fest as part of my practice-based research as a way to physically understand how it feels to integrate other forms of dance and movement into Irish dance. I also wanted to explore the event as a whole, examining what types of Irish dance the choreographers were teaching and how they were explaining these styles to us. After flying into Shannon airport, I arrived at our student accommodation and met the other dancers. Most of the participants were in their late teens and early twenties and from Ireland, but there were also dancers from England, Scotland, Spain, Germany, the United States, and Hong Kong.

On our first day we went straight into learning the choreography for the final show, which was going to be performed for a paying audience. We had four different dances that had been created by each choreographer at the festival and an opening and closing piece. The theme of the show was the evolution of Irish dance and each choreographer’s piece was intended to showcase a different form of Irish dance. The first piece in the show was inspired by the sean-nós style, and intended to represent Irish dance from years ago. We were encouraged to be relaxed, not holding our bodies in the stiff competition style, and be having a great time, smiling, laughing and whooping. The second piece was an Irish dance performance that was influenced by contemporary dance. Dancers were barefoot and many of the movements were very different from Irish dance. The third piece was inspired by the “show style” made famous by Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. In this, the emphasis was on rhythm, holding the body upright with the arms in tight, and then including various sharp movements of the hands to the hips and behind the back. And the last piece incorporated body percussion, loose and natural arm movements, and dancers were encouraged to have “attitude” or “sass” as they performed.

It was really interesting to learn the various styles, and consider the ease or difficulty of holding the upper body in different ways for each style. While my training has always required me to hold my upper body stiff and with my arms in tight, I found the loose and natural arm movements easy to get used to and enjoyable to dance with. However, the specific arm movements were often very difficult to remember when I was focusing on the steps that my feet were doing, and have never previously used arm movements in my dancing. The body percussion could also be quite difficult to learn but enjoyable once you had perfected the movements and could do them with ease.

The week was an invaluable opportunity to explore how unique forms of Irish dance can be taught and how it feels to learn and dance these forms. The festival also gave me the opportunity to reflect on how commercial requirements can hinder creativity or exploration. While the show at the end of the week gave dancers the opportunity to perform, it also made the learning process more stressful as there was a very short amount of time to learn and perfect the choreography of four dances and get used to the new dancing styles. I also felt dancers would have benefitted from hearing more from the choreographers about how each style was developed and why they felt it was significant, and I will be pursuing this further in interviews. This week provided me with extensive issues to consider for my thesis, and I would like to thank the BAIS for enabling me to undertake this important research.

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