tl;dr Many of the choices around space, relationships, and (movement) rhythm in the moment when the dancers remove their clothes speaks to the changes that happen when staging solo Irish step dance in groups.
And we’re back to the longterm project of analyzing this video (you can catch up on the series here). As we’ve headed into the structural model, I’m choosing to look at specific moments in more detail, as opposed to the entire piece as a whole. For this particular instance, we’re going to look at the dramatic ripping off of clothing that happens at 2:25 through that first step the dancers do in their new costumes. We’ll mostly be analyzing space, relationships, and dynamics, but keep in mind that all of these aspects of the structural model are an interconnected web – as soon as we look at one, we end up looking at all of them in some way. Additionally, remember that we are analyzing what we see, not what the dancers do. This is really important. We know what the dancers are doing, more or less, especially those that are Irish dancers, – but what is it that about what we see that creates the specific effect of the piece?
So, we already talked about space when discussing the strands of the dance medium. That was about how the space a dancer is in impacts the dance and piece of work in its entirety. Space in the structural model looks at how movement exists in space and how we can discuss the spacial aspects of movements.
One way to look at space is the use of kinesphere, the space that a body can comfortably occupy with movement. Imagine everyone in their own little bubble (like those blow up sphere things you can sit inside). One possibility is that none of these bubbles ever touch each other. Another possibility is that they overlap and everyone is moving on top of or around each other. Another possibility is that they get very close to each other, so they squeeze and shrink down but, as the person inside adapts to that particular size, so while their kinesphere is technically larger, they are not inside each other’s bubbles because everyone is using less space.
That is what we’re looking at here – everyone is within their own personal space, not touching or overlapping with each other, even while tightly packed together. They are not using their full kinesphere. This is an Irish dance aesthetic that can be in seen in Riverdance and many post-Riverdance Irish dance shows – a whole of dancers dancing in unison, each one in their own space is quite impressive.
In fact, the only person here who is using their whole kinesphere is the soloist, as she moves her arms, reaching up and pushing out against the edges of her bubble. Instead of accepting her role as a “chorus” dancer, shrinking her space to share evenly with everyone else, she reaches to the ends of her kinesphere, taking up all the space available to her, making it impossible for someone else to enter her bubble, and creating the illusion that the only thing keeping her from taking up more space is the limits of her kinesphere or the length of her arms and legs. This is part of how we know she’s the soloist.
However, it is interesting to note that all dancers start taking up more space once their clothes are ripped off and we’re firmly in the second part of the piece. This is most noticeable in the hair. When hair is down, it takes up more space, so the dancers take up more space simply by changing their hair. They also don’t limit their use of space as much as before when they take of the clothes. A more subtle change is how they put their hands on their hips. In the earlier section, dancers had taken the straightest, most direct path to do this. Here, they walk forward, swinging their arms (shock! blasphemy!) and then circle their arms in front of them before landing on their hips. This small stylistic detail takes up more space.
So, even while the soloist maintains the maximum amount of space, all of the dancers in the piece start claiming and using more space as the piece grows. This goes with the excitement building – more space is more exciting. As the music gets faster, and we move into edgy, sexy territory, the larger use of space helps project that growing energy out farther. Dance is a visual art form and, considering how Lord of the Dance is often performed in giant stadiums, the bigger something is, the farther it reaches. It has to be seen.
As we kind of alluded to already, the biggest relationship here is between the soloist and the other dancers. They are mostly dancing in unison in this section, but the use of space distinguishes the soloist. Additionally, she is always slightly in front of the rest of the group.
In studying relationships, we consider two scales: affiliative (friendly) — hostile, and dominant — submissive. Here, the soloist is in the dominant position, as she takes up more space and stands in front of (leads) the group. The one other way we can see this relationship is focus (what people do with their eyes) – the dancers do look at the soloist, but she never looks back at them. This emphasizes her power and leadership in the role – she doesn’t need the dancers, but the dancers are following her lead. She holds the power.
However, many of the ways relationships, such as touch and giving or taking weight, are not visible here. While we could potentially note proximity between the dancers, the most distinguishable feature is that the distance between dancers barely changes. Without change, we cannot actually see the relationship. The lack of relationship establishes the sense that we are watching a bunch of solo dancers dancing together, with one who happens to be slightly more dominant. I feel like this speaks to the history of Irish step dancing, and particularly jig steps like these, as being solo dances. If this was an Irish dance style traditionally danced as a group, we would definitely see touch, as well as changes in proximity, the use of eye contact, and even some weight sharing. Here, the solo aspects of the dance style isolates each dancer in their own bubble, even while they dance together in unison.
And finally, we get to dynamics, particularly rhythm. For the record, this is really fucking confusing. There is no way around it. As a musician and percussive dancer, I have trouble accepting this as rhythm, but I do accept that we’ve got to call it something and Rudolf Laban used the term “rhythm”. It feels imperfect, but fine enough.
Rhythm is not about musical rhythm or the sound of the feet. Rhythm, here, is specifically about the speed of a movement in relation to itself and the other movements in a sequence. There are different rhythms, such as an impulse, which starts fast and gets slower. Regardless of starting speed or sound made, any movement that starts fast and gets slower is an impulse. Read some more about rhythm here.
The effect of different rhythms is usually considered visually – how does an impulse (starting fast and getting slower) look in comparison to an impact (starting slow and getting faster)? Where are our natural rhythms? What does it mean to change the natural (organic) rhythms of a movement?
However, there is another layer when we look at a percussive dance form, because different movement rhythms create different sounds. Functionally, I have found the cleanest sound happens if the moment my foot hits the floor is faster, so we tend to use impacts to strike the floor. In order to make a clear sound with an impulse or a swing (fastest in the middle of a motion, due to gravity), I have to lift my foot off the floor because the floor stops the motion before it’s done. This creates a very particular sound. (Nic Garreiss is a master of impulses and swings in foot percussion, if you want to give him a look and a listen, note how he gets around the difficulty of the floor getting in the way by sliding his foot on the floor, so you can hear the impulses).
A shuffle is a good example of this – when we learn a shuffle, as in the instructional video, we learn it as two swings in order to strike the floor twice. However, as we speed up, striking the floor becomes a result of the rhythm and it becomes a single rebound (fastest in the middle of a motion, due to tension) because that’s how we can bring the foot back in.
Take away: in percussive dance, movement rhythm is about both the visual and audible effect.
In the video, we see a change from a continuous movement (like the dancers going around in a circle without really changing speed) into a more accented rhythm, mostly made of impulses in the upper body. The impulses start as the dancers throw away clothes and take out their hair. These are the organic ways we do these actions (impulses tend to move away from our center).
It is interesting to note, however, that the dancers are more in unison with impacts than impulses. The disrobing and the swinging arms as they march forward are all slightly off, but the impact as their hands land on their hips is exactly at the same time. I want to argue from watching this that training functional noise-making rhythm patterns of mostly impacts means that the dancers are cleaner and more comfortable with impacts, even in their upper body. Impulses are harder for them to control and execute because the entire concept and feel of an impulse is less part of Irish dance training.
We do, however, see one very clear, unison impulse and that is the big jump they do in the step they perform after they march forward. Here, the impulse is functional. Trying jumping and getting faster as you go up. Do it. I dare you.
Yup, it’s impossible.
It’s a really interesting choreographic moment because it creates a space that hasn’t existed in the piece before. Before, most of the jumps held the intention of landing to make noise, so the impact or rebound from hitting the floor was more pronounced than the impulse going up. This upwards impulse breaks the audible and visual rhythm of the steps, and is something completely new in the choreography. Even if we hadn’t just watched the dancers take off their clothes and heard the music change, we’d know something different was happening because we have this sudden breath in the choreography with all of the dancers very clearly in the air.
Most of what we see here is the result of what happens when we stage Irish step dance and how Irish step training impacts the movement in a piece. It’s putting a solo dance form onto a stage in a big group and so it has particular tendencies in how space is used, relationship are (or are not) built, and what movement rhythms we see. That said, there are some very clear choreographic choices here in terms of who does what, who holds the power and leadership within the dance, and where the visual effect of movement changes. Lots to think about. Ouf.