tl;dr The action and body in this piece from Lord of the Dance tell us a lot about how the choreography was structured to safely challenge Irish dance norms and how women are presented in Lord of the Dance as a show.
We did it folks! In this long analysis of this piece from Lord of the Dance, we made it through all the strands of the dance medium and their nexial connections! Want to catch up? You can see all the past posts here.
Before we get too excited, there is another model to look at. While the strands looked at the overarching elements of a performance, the structural model specifically analyzes and breaks down movement. This can be any kind of movement, not just dance, but we’re still looking at the same video and the same dance.
So what is the structural model? Here is a great image of the model and explanation. The structural model breaks movement into five parts – Action, Body, Dynamics, Space, and Relationships. The five are interconnected, so each choice or change in one element of the structural model will affect the others, like pulling one strand of a spider’s web. This makes it very difficult to know where to start. The most important thing about the structural model, which I will repeat over and over and over again, is that this is about what we see. It is not about the reality of what a movement is or how it’s done, it is only about what is sign from an external/audience perspective.
I’ve decided to choose three particular moments from the video and analyze each moment in terms of some elements of the structural model. This means that I can cover all five categories eventually without getting hung up on every detail.
This time, we’re going to start with the first solo moment which starts at 1:11. We’ll look at both the right and left of the step – the part where the dancer dances the step and the part where the other dancers do the step while the soloist waves their arms around.
The structural model breaks movement into clear, discrete actions. While a dancer may perform two or more actions at the same time (ex. a jump that turns), categorizing movement into these actions allows us to identify what we are seeing.
In Irish dance, the most common actions are gestures, travel, jumps, and turns. A gesture is when one part of the body moves while the rest is still. Irish dance includes loads of leg gestures in this sense, often accompanied with jumps and travelling.
A few actions you hardly ever see in Irish dance are opening (moving out from the center of the body), closing (moving into the center of the body), twists, stillness, and leans. That said, there is definitely one very clear instance of opening/closing that is fairly common and many other exceptions to this incredibly general rule.
Our particular moment is mostly gestural. While the dancer is jumping, our eye is still drawn to the leg gestures. That is what we are seeing. In addition to leg gestures, there are also arm gestures here. More interestingly, the soloist does a twist at the moment mid-step when she draws herself onto her toes and places both hands on the same hip. As the group of dancers takes on the left side of the step, the soloist stops her leg gestures and continues the arm gestures. There are a few twists and open/closes, but it still feels highly gestural – the rest of the body is still while the arms wave about.
So, in general, we see hints of movement away from standard Irish dance action, but stay firmly within predominantly gestural action, which is very true to Irish dance norms. Even by breaking the norms by using the upper body, since the movement is still mostly gestures, it remains safe and unchallenging to Irish dance tradition. It is interesting to note that, in this instance, there is also little travelling and turning, two other predominant actions in Irish dance, making the gestures claim this moment that much more.
The structural model breaks body down into visible units, which is different from other ways we look at the body. For example, anatomy is about how the body is actually built, but here, we are looking at what someone with no anatomical knowledge sees looking from the outside. (Have I said “see” enough already?)
In the structural model, the body is 4 large units – the head, torso, arms, and legs. They can get broken down into deep detail, such as the tip of the right little finger, or into broader categories, such as both arms together.
In this moment, each of the four main units is involved in the movement. While Irish dance does usually hold the torso still, the twists and the mini backbend in this moment involves the torso. However, no action here appears to be full-body movement because the actions are mostly gestural. Instead, we get two or three body parts doing gestures at the same time. For example, arms will do a gesture at the same time as the legs, or the head will turn (as a gesture) at the same time as the legs and arms.
One way to conceptualize the body in terms of the visual is to think about what part of the body our focus or attention is drawn to. There are a number of ways to bring focus to body parts that we see here. Since we are working in a world of gesture, a huge method here is to isolate a body part – stillness of some body parts can make the movement of other body parts more visible. Here, the arms and legs stand out against a still torso.
Similarly, we can draw attention by placing a body part in a position, building up the expectation of where it’s supposed to be, and then changing that, or breaking expectation. We see this a lot in this piece in the use of arms. The dancer(s) do regularly keep their arms by their sides, so whenever they move their arms, even if just to place them on their hips, it pulls the audience’s focus. We are drawn to the unexpected change.
Another means to bring attention to a body part is touch. Note here, in the twist in the step, the dancer touches their hip, bringing attention to it. This also happens when they put their hands on their hips. Framing a body part does the same thing, such as when the dancer’s hands trace down their body in a curvy fashion, drawing attention to it, or basically saying “look at this body that is curvy in a way that is conventionally sexy”.
So, focus is drawn to three main body parts – the dancers’ legs, as expected in Irish dance, but also their hips and arms. Not only does this challenge Irish dance norms, it continues our discussion of this piece’s attempt to be sexy. By actively focusing on hips and curvy (?) things, the dancers are building a piece that conforms to western society’s norms around sexy dance as much as it conforms to Irish dance norms (possibly even more). The focus on arms challenges the standard assumption that Irish dance is only lower-body movement, even while it remains safely gestural, as I noted before.
I also want to recognize the effect of the video on how we see body in the piece. Note, that while we can logically analyze the legs as a point of focus, the camera hardly ever captures the dancers’ feet. This phenomenon in filming has been noted before. Horn pointed out that in the official Lord of the Dance video, the camera focuses on the overarching figures of the female cast instead of their feet during the opening number, while it then focuses in on Flatley’s feet for his introduction” (Horn, p. 6). I went and looked back at that version this piece and found similar patterns (complete with a completely useless shot of a whole bunch of knees and a belly shot of the soloist). I can confirm this with the personal experience of trying to learn the steps from this piece to perform a parody (photos here!) – quite often the video does the top view, only shows the dancer from the waist up, or is zoomed out so far that the details of the steps get lost in the overarching view of the figures.
Horn also notes that this piece, “Breakout”, is the only instance when the whole group of women wear hard shoes in Lord of the Dance (Horn, p. 4). This is a gender thing. Women dancers in hard shoes are less valued. Women are not valued for their footwork and they don’t get to show off their footwork the way men (and Flatley particularly) do. Instead, the value is placed on the “balletic” and “graceful” soft shoe dances and their overall movement is more important than their individual viruousity. Even a woman’s solo moment in hard shoes in the show is balletically inspired (that’s a word now), and the patterns and designs are more important than particular, individual steps. (In this particular example, note the white top and black bottom against a black floor and backdrop – we are supposed to be looking at the dancer’s top, not their feet).
I do want to point out that what we pulled out of body and action alone shows something that I would dare say radical, despite the insecurity we saw in looking at that strands of the dance medium. The choreography very cleverly stays enough within an Irish dance scheme of gesture to be able to challenge and break boundaries in terms of adding action and integrating more of the body.
While I’m not a huge fan of the choices made here (wheeeeee, sexy women who don’t get to show off, what?????), the fact that these are very solid, well thought-out choices. This is interesting, because one of the huge things I noted when looking at the strands of the dance medium was intense insecurity. If I had ages and ages and ages of time, I’d want to follow this a little further – why this difference? Does this tell us something about staging irish dance and pulling it out of its original context? I think it might. Sadly, I don’t have the time to follow through on that right now.
And, of course, we’ve got to talk about gender. Simply looking at body alone showed us a lot about how an apparent woman’s body (we have no idea the gender of these people, friendly reminder) is presented onstage in one of the biggest Irish dance shows ever. It’s not just about sexy, it’s about sexy women, and it’s about control – women’s bodies are only displayed (and captured) on film in specific ways which limit their virtuousity, talent, and individuality. Hmmmmm.