tl;dr The use of the word “tradition” is often a value judgement used to validate or discredit certain styles of dance, and should not be considered a neutral term.
Something that comes up a lot with my creative work, particularly because I’m an Irish dancer, is the concept of tradition. I first learned to dance within a folk dance community and, later, danced and performed in a few different folk and traditional dance groups.
I’ve developed my own personal questions about appropriation and respect and am now a lot more careful of how and when I partake in traditional and folk dance forms. But the question of tradition is still there with everything I do.
Irish dance is a competitive form of dance, but it is also a folk dance, and it is also a traditional form of dance, and I think it’s a very good example of what I’m talking about because the way the word “tradition” has been used and misused and redefined for Irish dance is blaringly obvious.
I’d like to start with a video. This man, Joe O’Donovan, is said to have been the last of the Irish dancing masters. In many ways, he was a keeper of Irish dance history and tradition, both in practice and as a symbol. It’s impossible to reconstruct dance, but this is one version of what Irish dance used to be, at one point in history. To be more exact – this is part of the tradition being referenced when people talk about the tradition of Irish dance, even if they don’t realize that that’s what they’re referencing.
Anyone’s who’s done an Irish hornpipe will probably recognize the elements of these steps (tip down, treble hop back, drums, some nice stamps and sweeps and hoppy things), but it doesn’t look anything like the clean, polished en masse unison of Riverdance, or the treble hornpipes done in competitions in ridiculously sparkly dresses and giant wigs, or even the quirky, cabaret-style coming out of Up and Over It (they became popular a few years back for the hand dance? Remember that? Hrm….go look it up if you haven’t).
But, we’re still talking about all of these different types of Irish step dance as “traditional”. How is that possible?
I know some people, usually the ones who partake in old-style sean-nos dancing, who will argue that there’s nothing traditional about competitive Irish dance today. I’ve even heard people tell me that Riverdance isn’t actually Irish dance (I call bullshit). On the other extreme, there are the people that extol the virtues of Irish step dance as a traditional dance form, as if that gives a highly competitive (vaguely soul-sucking, shhh, I’m not sour that I couldn’t handle the pressure of competition or anything) dance form more value than other forms of competitive dance (like, it’s not So You Think You Can Dance, so it’s more real ™ ?)
I’m not really convinced by either extreme.
The thing is, tradition is being used here much more as a value judgement than a describer. If something is “traditional”, it’s “good” in a way that anything “contemporary” or “untraditional” isn’t.
Which, of course, brings us back to my high school history classes and discussions of nationalism. Irish dance exists as it is today because of nationalism. Because the Gaelic league wanted to establish traditional Irish dance as part of defining Ireland and what it meant to be Irish. They wanted Irish dance to show off how great Irishness was. Anything considered “foreign” was removed (note: part of tradition and folk culture is that mixing happens, especially for a dance form starting in an immigrant community, as the history of codified Irish dance actually started the Irish community in London).*
Irish dance was codified, we could even say “purified” and, most importantly, legitimized. While odd quirks of the original dance still exist (the awkward “tip down” in the hornpipe, beautiful ankle twisty things and cross-keys, the ridiculously awkward soft jig, and of course every Irish dancer knows their sevens and their threes), it was slowly altered into a form completely distinct from its origins.
My dance school’s library (“the best dance library in the country” or some nonsense like that) has two books on Irish step. Both were written by Irish scholars from this time period. And the interesting thing is that both attempt to apply ballet terminology to Irish step. This is a clear example of legitimation – popular culture being rewritten in terms of high culture. But, of course, “point and point hop back two three” is very different from “tendu, jump, tendu, passé, step to sousous”, no matter how you look at it.
The act of legitimizing a folk tradition, particularly in a context of nationalism, reveals a deep discomfort with the original tradition. This is most obviously classist (what is often considered “traditional” is often simply the tradition of the peasant class, which becomes a mythologized entity whose culture the ruling class can exploit for their own image), but it is also important to understand that, quite often, folk and popular culture give voice to women, queer people, and people of color (to varying extents, depending on the tradition and the place). In the collection and purification process, these voices and elements are removed alongside the various dances that were deemed “un-Irish”. Nic Garreiss has some strong insight on these patterns in Irish music specifically concerning sexuality.
Dancing at the crossroads was originally a community activity between villages, particularly for young people to meet each other. Now, committed Irish step dancers spend hundreds of dollars on solo dresses in order to compete. Both are part of the same tradition, but there’s a huge difference in interests that shows how lower classes have been removed from the picture in favour of literal shiny, sparkly things.
At the same time, legitimation also reveals this desperate need to preserve. After cleaning up and legitimizing tradition by redefining it in the terms of those with power, a “tradition” must be kept in a shiny glass box and never altered in order to remain “traditional”.
Except the folklore and traditions coming out of any nationalism-fuelled act of preservation are never going to be the source tradition. Tradition is about change. Folklore is about mutation. I love and study fairy tales because they were, and still are, a way for the “folk” to comment on their daily lives. Daily lives change. Especially in places where huge waves of nationalism are altering politics, literature, science, etc., daily lives and the world the “folk” live in is always changing and moving. The minute we try to freeze it, we’re going to lose it. It is no longer tradition. It is something else.
When we use “tradition” as a value judgement, as a way to say “well, it’s good, because it’s traditional”, we’re missing the point. We’ve not only removed the “tradition” from its context and forced it to become something else, we’re keeping it from following it’s natural change. We lose tradition more by trying to preserve it than by allowing it to change. So, competitive Irish dance? Definitely not a tradition I am part of. And it is definitely not the only Irish dance tradition in existence. And it cannot be disconnected from a history of nationalism and purification. But it’s still traditional.
*For those that are interested in this history, I highly recommend The Story of Irish Dance by Helen Brennan