CDA for Dance: Quality and Relationships

tl;dr The vagueness in quality and relationships in the ending section of the piece leaves us with more questions and less clarity. 

Tada! We have made it to the second to last installment in the very long exploration of this Lord of the Dance video. Today, we’re going to look at the final ending of the piece (starting at about 3:32), particularly in terms of quality (the one things I’ve yet to mention) and a return to relationships. You can read earlier installments here.

Quality

Quality is a form of dynamics, like rhythm, but, instead of speed, it acknowledges the different ways or styles a movement can happen, regardless of speed. If you are a performer of some sort, it is likely that you have encountered Laban’s effort actions. These actions are a combination of qualities and how they interact with each other. So, a quick round up of these qualities that we are going to look at:

Time: Sustained or Sudden

Weight: Light or Strong

Space: Direct or Flexible (a movement does not take the most direct path from point A to point B)

Flow: Bound or Free (I find it helpful to think about control here. Bound flow is much easier to control and stop, free flow just keeps going and going and going)

I am not going to list all the effort actions, but I will refer to them while writing this, so I highly recommend opening up the list here and keeping it for handy reference if you get lost in my flicks, dabs, and punches.

So, what are we seeing in this final end section? Mostly, I see a lack of clarity when it comes to qualities. Nothing is quite exact. For example, as the dancers roll up, it feels like it could be a punch (sudden, strong, direct), but it never quite gets there. Same with the head turn. We see quality through contrast, so this means there is not enough contrast in the quality of individual movements for us to see distinct qualities.

It’s interesting that the one very clear quality hear is the hair flick which is most definitely a flick (sudden, light, flexible). This demonstrates the functional side of these qualities. In order to actually do that thing with hair, the dancer has to use those specific efforts. There’s a practical underpinning to these effort actions.

The other thing to note is that sustained movement does tend to be a little clearer than sudden movement. As an Irish dancer myself, I know how much sudden movement we do, so this came as a surprise. I wonder if this is because so much of Irish has a baseline of slightly-sudden so the sustained contrasts better than super-sudden. It’s also possible that this relates to body – most of the sustained movement is in the upper body as opposed to the lower body.

While I can’t come to any conclusions around this, some theories include: 1) It takes strength and control to be sudden that these dancers just haven’t trained in their bodies yet. 2) The actual training for how to use lower body and upper body differed significantly for these dancers.

The possibilities for more theories here are endless.

Relationships, part 2

In my last discussion of relationships, I talked about how the main relationship was between the soloist and the other dancers. I also discussed how the dancers are acting like soloists in a group, as opposed to members of a group dance [LINK:CDA 6]. Here, at the end, the relationships are a little more complex – the group splits into two and even faces each other. This brings the group in relationship to each other as well as in relationship with the soloist.

And yet, there is still no eye contact or way of denoting relationship. The only thing that delineates this relationship is space – the directions people are facing and going, and their formations. In the end, the dancers come together in a familiar line with the soloist in front.

It’s interesting that in the final frame of the end, none of the dancers are in the same pose. Unfortunately, the video never pulls out to show us the whole group relationship, which ends up leaving us with questions – why are the dancers facing different directions? Is this formation in relationship to each other or to others who are just not in screen? The only thing I can clearly gather from this ending is the soloist still holds a dominant relationship – her arms are lifted, while the other dancers’ arms are on their hips.

Conclusion

This last section of the piece opens up space for a lot of questions – how conscious are the dancers’ choices in qualities? What led to these specific qualities? What is the final relationship between dancers at the end?

The only thing we see is the growth in complexity in relationships grows in complexity throughout the piece. This compliments the piece’s overall growth in intensity.

And that’s it, we’ve gone through the whole piece and analyzed it through a CDA lense uses choreology as  a framework. There will be one more quick installment in this series (eventually) which will just look at other videos of the same piece. Mostly just for fun. Because they are ridiculous. Promise.

CDA for Dance: Action and Body

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.

Action

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.

Body

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).

Conclusion

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.

Exhaustion

Tl;dr Performance and work and living as an adult is draining, but I am refocusing and using this as a chance to pinpoint what’s important to me and what I want to be doing.

 

I have not made art that I am proud of in over a year.

 

That, in itself, is not necessarily a problem. I have gone years before without making art. The problem is that I know why this is happening and it’s all kinds of frustrating.

 

Put simply – I do not have the time to make good art.

 

This comes because I am currently working three and a half jobs on top of creating, going to dance class, trying to stay in shape, and performing. I don’t have time to make art simply because I am busy, but also because I need emotional space to work as well.

 

My usual creation process includes hours of self-reflection and mind-mapping and reading and research that’s completely outside of the practical piecing-things-together I do in the studio. It doesn’t just require time, it requires energy and brain space that I don’t have when I am also teaching and organizing and being an adult. When I have more stressors around without the protection of being a student, that also adds to the load my brain is trying to manage.

 

Currently, I work one night a week at a single-screen movie theater. So, I have a huge rush right before the movie, and then an hour or more off. My first few weeks there, I would bring my choreography notebooks in hopes that I could use that built-in downtime to do some of the processing I haven’t been doing recently. But, having to switch from customer service mode to art-making mode and back was impossible.

 

Performance itself has also been draining for me. In all honesty, I thought I would perform once, maybe twice, this year while I got my feet on the ground. Instead, I have performed in five different productions for a total of eight shows since January. That’s not a lot, but it’s a lot more than I was prepared for. I did all of my own work for these shows, so, since January, I have had to direct my creation towards making presentable work instead of a rigorous process.

 

Performances themselves are draining. I have to manage my eating, I have to manage my sleep, and I have to manage all the anxiety that comes with going in front of people. Performance pulls up all my insecurities about not being a good enough dancer, even when I try to own the way I dance. And, to top it all off, I am a morning person, and shows tend to be at night and go late.

 

It takes me a week to recover from a run of performances, even if I manage myself well, because of who I am, and it only takes a week to destroy my momentum in working out, technical training, and creativity. I have to go back and start again. The cycle is getting frustrating.

 

All of this is really to say a few things:

 

Most importantly, I’m realizing that I have been unfair to a lot of artists. I talk a lot about lazy or thoughtless art. I still don’t like it. But, I am realizing how easy it is to make it when we are stuck in a cycle of creation and performance that is focused on production and doesn’t allow space for reflection and patience.

 

I’m also learning the power of “good enough”. I have not presented a piece of work I’m proud of in the past year, but I have presented work and it has all been good enough. I have to lower my standards for myself because I will have nothing otherwise. I hope that someday I will be able to have the time, space, and energy to make thoughtful work again. But, in the meantime, I will settle for good enough, because it’s a whole lot better than nothing.

 

And finally, the really obvious thing, I’m learning how much work performance is for me. I know a lot of performers love performance, they live for it and eat it up. Now, I like a good performance, especially when I’m showing work I’m proud of, but it’s not something I need. And realizing that has allowed me to back off the pressure to create and perform constantly and think about what I want to be doing.

 

What I want to be doing is making. I want to return to the installation I made last year because I miss it. I want to teach children because I love working with children and I want to teach queer folks of all ages, because I have seen time and time again how powerful it is when queer people dance. I want to do Irish dance as a community-oriented dance form, not as a competition or performance-based dance form.

 

I want to build a whole generation of trans dancers so that I don’t have to be the only one.

 

So that I don’t have to perform (but can if I want).

 

I am tired and drained and that probably won’t stop for a good while. But I am also readjusting and refocusing. I am learning how to account for my exhaustion. And I dream of a day when I can finally make work I am proud of again.

 

For those who do follow my in-person work, I’ll be tapping out of performance for a little while (at least until I’m actually make good work again), but first I’ve got one more thing coming up in September, as part of the Dance Complex’s Tiny & Short: A Drop in the Bucket.

CDA for Dance: Nexial connections and shoes

Tl;dr The hard shoes used in this particular piece (“Breakout” from Lord of the Dance) highlights the nexial connections of performer-sound, performer-movement, and movement-sound.

Ta-da! Here is a continuation of my analysis of this darn video to continue to look at how CDA methods can be applied to  movement and dance with a little help from choreological structures. Previously, I have looked at the textual framing and the strands of the dance medium in part 1 and part 2 .

Now that we’ve gone through all of the strands, it’s time to connect them because nothing actually stands on its own. The connections or relations between space, performer, movement, and sound are referred to as nexial connections. In choreology, there are six connections that are considered particularly notable:

performer-movement

performer-sound

performer-space

movement-sound

movement-space

sound-space

Instead of going through each of these pairings separately, like I did with the different strands, I want to recognize that these nexial connections are suuuuper interconnected to each other as well. So, we will look at two elements of this video that we haven’t quite spent time with yet and use these nexial connections to tease out some analysis. First, we’ll discuss the role of the shoes in the piece and in my next post, we’ll look at the piece’s moment of change, which I have already discussed, but not in terms of the interconnected nature of the different strands.

Shoes

Hard shoes, or heavy shoes, are a pretty common element of Irish dance. Not all of Irish dance uses these shoes (there is also soft shoe dance), but they are characteristic of and specific to Irish step dance.

The most surface nexial connection with these shoes is performer – sound. Shoes are part of a dancer’s costume, and so they are considered part of the performer and are a visual choice that changes how the audience perceives the performer. Putting on shoes affects the sound of a piece, as even a simple step is accompanied with noise because of the make-up of the shoe. Costume choice here is also a sound choice.

Not all Irish dance is performed in hard shoes, so there was a very clear choice to use hard shoes instead of soft shoes in this piece. I would posit that pseudo-ballet element of the ridiculous amount of toe stands in the piece is part of that choice, showing a performer – movement connection. While we don’t know whether the choice to echo balletic movement or the choice to use hard shoes came first, what we do know is that it would be impossible to do this piece without this particular type of shoe (not just the toe stands which could technically be done in a number of types of shoes, but also many of the heel-based movements).

The movement is specifically dependent on the shoes the dancer is wearing. Finding this history without really going out and talking to people is hard, but I did find this very quick look at the evolution of the hard shoe. It’s interesting to note that toe stands have been an important consideration in the actual construction and design of hard shoes. The connection between shoe and movement exists even outside of specific dance or choreographic choices, it’s driven Irish dance evolution.

And then, of course, shoes highlight the movement – sound  connection because, once the shoes are on, movement creates sound. Movement choices thus also become sound choices. Here, as noted before, the movement follows the music (a treble jig and then a faster “traditional” jig), a standard choice for Irish dance, but still a choice. The sound of the shoes creates a secondary sound that accompanies the dance (I find this particular trait most noticeable when watching those videos when the sound goes off the movement. It’s so much easier to notice something when it goes wrong.)

A final important element is silence and that silence becomes even more pronounced when the dancer is wearing a loud, clunky shoe and we expect noise. This brings us (again) back to toe stands and also the rocks (that thing where it looks like the dancer is about to break their ankle) – these are fairly quiet movements. While they still hold rhythm and sound quality, it softens the feeling of the piece by not making as much sound. These particular movements are mostly used in the first half of the piece, when we have a “sweet, innocent thing” dressed in white copying balletic movement. The second part of the piece, in which everyone has undressed and are trying to be risqué, is louder, with less space or softness. The consistent sound of the shoes adds to the risk and edginess of the second part and the softer, quieter movement allows a certain amount of naivity for the first part.

Conclusion

While I was hoping to also discuss the moment of change in this post, I’d rather take this shorter post as the build-up to the next post due to time constraints. So, in conclusion, the choice to wear shoes impacted both the sound and movement of the piece, but the choice of movement also allows for distinct changes in sound throughout the course of the piece. Next up, we’ll get to the dramatic ripping off of clothes! Promise!

Ballet isn’t the only technique

tl;dr Ballet’s great, but it’s not the universal technique for all dance. 

 

A long time ago, I wrote about why I love ballet so much. One of the responses I got basically said “well, everyone should do ballet because it has a technical base that works for all forms of dance.”

 

The Irish dancer in me wants to call bullshit. See, there is nothing more frustrating than the moment a ballet teacher tells me to “put my heels on the floor” when I am jumping to reduce injury and give my jumps power. Not even ballet dancers do that! But people have accepted two myths – 1) putting their heels on the floor is the epitome of good jump technique and 2) Ballet technique is the only way to get things done safely and well.

 

That’s just an example, but it illustrates a point: Ballet isn’t the overall technique for everything else.

 

It’s not necessarily a bad or a good technique. It’s one option of technical training.

 

But I think it’s time to start looking at and valuing other techniques.

 

Irish dancers don’t get technical training. It’s mainly steps. I, personally, believe that’s part of why so many Irish dancers face injury (this and this  can add some evidence to the anecdotal claim that Irish dancers get injured a lot). But, the thing is, we do have technique.

 

We have a technique no ballet dancer could do without different training from ballet.

 

Ballet technique isn’t universal.

 

Contemporary dancers have been saying this forever but (in my opinion), they’ve been saying it in an attempt to shift the balance and reposition their style as universal – I can’t even remember how many times my contemporary dance teachers would tell me that their technique would fix all of my dance problems (in various ways). And while, yes, some somatic work is definitely beneficial to Irish and percussive dancers, it’s not going to teach me Irish dance technique, or any other technique for that matter.

 

We need to start recognizing the validity and existence of non-ballet techniques. We need to start understanding that ballet technique is specific, not universal. Maybe there isn’t a universal technique.

 

One of my friends on my program last year was a kathak dancer. An AMAZING kathak dancer. Like, the kind of person who starts moving and your jaw drops because her dancing was so beautiful. She struggled with ballet because the technique she was trained in was the exact opposite.

 

There was literally no way ballet would support her in doing kathak.

 

What it did do, and the reason I take ballet, is increase versatility. If I know Irish technique and ballet technique and release technique, I become a more well-rounded dancer. I can do different things.

 

But ballet itself is not universal. It is one of so many options. It has benefits. It also has risks – I’m pretty sure if I started putting my heels on the floor while I jumped, I would completely lose all of my jump training and start hurting myself (and seriously, no one actually puts their heels on the floor). Ballet is not a form of safe dance. I’m not sure if there is even a form of safe dance. Moving our bodies in new ways has risks that a dancer has to simply understand and take on for themself.

 

We cannot get comfortable believing one technique is the One Single Technique. We cannot get comfortable believing any technique is “safe”.

 

It’s time to value all the possible dance techniques for what they are – incredible, difficult, and specific.

 

Flippancy is all well and good until it isn’t

Tl;dr I need to stop being flippant about my contemporary dance because it is really only hurting me.

Jo Troll_Dance Shot - credit Ray Bernoff
Photograph by Ray Bernoff. [image is a white nonbinary person in a black and white striped shirt and rainbow hat. There are blue, pink, and purple balls of yarn trailing off of them and they are fingerknitting the pink yarn while standing casually on their toes]

I’ve been getting too flippant about my art recently. Now, I’m all for a certain amount of flippancy. There needs to be a bit of perspective. I mean, I’m rolling around on the floor, tying myself up with yard, and it’s impossible not to look at myself and laugh.

 

Art is ridiculous.

 

I am ridiculous.

 

But there’s a huge risk in flippancy. As I’ve become more and more flippant in describing my art (“oh, I’ll just wave a glass of water and shout at you for a while!” or “I’m just going to tie myself up with yarn now, isn’t this weird?”), the less I take myself seriously.

 

The fact is that there is quite a lot of serious, conscious choice that goes into the ridiculous things I do. Yes, I filled a room with yarn last year and it was an utter fucking pain, but it was also an incredibly impactful installation that forced people to think about gender and me in new ways. It was successful, thoughtful, and elegantly constructed. It wasn’t just “filling a room with yarn”.

 

I used to have the opposite problem – I would take everything too seriously. The one thing that would leave me frothing at the mouth was people making fun of Irish step dance. They always do that stupid thing where they hop around on one foot and kick their leg back and forth and go “yeah! Look! Irish dance! Time for a wee Guinness!” I used to always lose my cool when I saw that. It was disrespectful, they didn’t understand the amount of hard work it took to do Irish dance, they didn’t want to, etc. etc. etc.

 

This could easily lead into a long conversation about cultural appropriation, but I honestly don’t think Irish dance is a worthwhile battle ground for that. So, here’s what I will say about that: Irish dance, while it has been appropriated and misinterpreted like many forms of traditional and folk dance, has not suffered identity theft to the same level as other forms of traditional dance, because it Irish dancers are mostly white.

 

The point being, people making fun of Irish dance (or trying to do it on St. Patrick’s day, *sigh*) are annoying, but harmless. There was really no reason for me to waste my energy getting upset every time someone tried to imitate MY form of dance, and I did eventually realize that. And I never went WAY in the other direction with that because I respect the culture and tradition of Irish dance, but I did get incredibly flippant about my contemporary work.

 

Part of it was rebellion – I was a traditional, trans dancer in a cis-centered environment that thrived on the belief that “breaking tradition” was the best thing out there. Even while I was using contemporary dance tools, it was empowering to go “eh, they’re just rolling around on the floor” back at all the people that saw my dancing as lesser, particularly the ones that said condescending nonsense about Irish dance, or demonstrated the hopping-around-on-one-foot thing, thinking they could do it better than other folks because they were Dancers. I needed to be able to create a perspective in which the work I did had just as much power.

 

But, I have a secret: I like rolling around on the floor.

 

This year, I have been focusing almost all my energies on Irish dance. It is definitely a rebellion after being told off (quite literally) for trying to approach “complex” ideas with “form” (ie. “has structure”, ie. “traditional”, ie. “apparently a structure is bad?”). And it gives me deep pleasure that I just recently performed a fairly successful piece with the exact same steps that my supervisor told me last year were “nothing but form” before telling me to go roll around on the floor for a while (ok. Fair. She didn’t say “go roll around on the floor”, she said something about “exploring quality” in a way that didn’t allow for a dance technique like Irish). I’m actually really fucking proud of the exploration I’ve been doing this year in my own Irish dancing, my shoes, and just dealing with that questions of traditional v. radical (and why not both?).

 

Another secret: The other reason I’ve been focusing my energies on Irish dance this year is because I’m insecure about my rolling around on the floor abilities.

 

While I do now have an Irish dance community (YAY BOSTON!), I still mostly present my work alongside contemporary dancers. Contemporary dancers that are more trained in contemporary/modern dance than me. Anything I do in Irish next to a contemporary dancer is flashy because it’s completely fucking different (seriously, I can do the most basic thing WRONG and people are applauding and cheering and saying I’m amazing, it’s kind of weird). But I am scared to be an Irish dancer doing contemporary dance next to contemporary dancers. I’m most definitely a contemporary dancer in contrast to other Irish dancers, but no matter how much I like rolling around on the floor, I am still scared to do it in front of other people.

 

Flippancy is no longer a rebellion, it’s become an excuse. Instead of admitting my fear, I go “oh, haha! That’s what weird contemporary dancers do” with a tiny disclaimer on the side to point out that I am sometimes one of them. In the end, it’s not making me feel better about my Irish dance, it’s making me feel worse and worse about my contemporary dance.

 

I’m working on taking myself seriously again. Yes, there’s a time to be flippant, there’s a time to admit the ridiculousness of what we do, but there is also a time to sit down and say “You know what? This is important and valuable and serious”. Maybe contemporary dance isn’t “traditional” in the same way that Irish dance is, but it has a history and culture and tradition that deserves respect. And, whether I like it or not, I am part of that world. Disregarding it is only hurting myself.

 

The fact is that I may “roll around on the floor with yarn”, but that’s the most reduced version of what I do. In fact, I create complex, difficult, challenging work with explicit content around trans identity in society that merges Irish dance technique and structures with contemporary dance expectations. That might sound like a bunch of fancy academic dance gobbledygook. But, you know what? I think my work is good enough for that.

 

The non-flippant translation: I make damn good work that takes from both Irish and contemporary dance worlds and deals with difficult questions around trans identities.

 

CDA for Dance: Foundations

tl;dr Critical discourse analysis can be applied to dance as much as it is applied to text. The relationship between reader, text and writer is similar to Preston-Dunlap’s triadic perspective. Framing of a piece may come in the form of text. And music, even the obvious-seeming choices, present a specific worldview. 

So, I started writing a while back on Critical Discourse Analysis and I wanted to start broadening it to look at how we can analyze dance and movement in similar ways. This is going to be a series because I don’t know how to be chill about things like this.

This starts with a disclaimer: I will be pulling a lot from choreology, the analytical study of movement, deriving originally from Rudolf Laban’s work (but expanded upon and developed by fantastic people, such as Valerie Preston-Dunlop). I am not a choreologist and, in fact, have a lot to learn in the field of choreology that I hope I will someday get to. I’ll be recommending further reading throughout the series and compile it all at the end of the series. Really, this is an experiment to see how my knowledge of CDA can be applied to movement and the models that choreology provides makes this possible (similar to how CDA relies on a lot of linguistics, and I am in no way a linguist), this is not a proper education in choreology.

Our Example

I’m an Irish dancer, so it wasn’t too difficult to decide what to use as an example. Michael Flatley is an ever present thorn in my side. We’re going to look at this particular version of “Breakout” from Lord of the Dance. Keep in mind that there a lot of different versions of this particular choreography, even dating back to Riverdance era and there is SO MUCH to analyze here. We’re just going to look at this one. Although, once I’ve created an entire series about this one video, I may add some links to some other versions of the piece to provide some new perspectives.

Models and Methodology

Unlike my CDA post, we’re going to start big picture and then get small, because I find that easier with dance, since movement vocabulary can be more difficult to describe than lexical vocabulary (ie. words). We’re going to keep on using CDA tools, particularly in terms of narrative, structure, and vocabulary. Since we’re using Irish dance, this will link deeply into existing knowledge around tradition and nationalism. Because we’re using movement, we will use two choreological models as a framework: strands of the dance medium and the structural model. You can read more about them here.

Triadic Perspective

When discussing CDA, I created this cute diagram:

Writer <–> text <–> Reader

In which information is constantly being passed via text between people that are both readers and writers (see my post on CDA for more details on this).

Let’s translate this into dance terms. A writer becomes a choreographer, text becomes a single performance of a work, and a reader becomes the audience. In dance, we have a tradition of believing these to be three separate disconnected roles, but performers, choreographers, and audience members overlap incredibly (Howard Becker makes an interesting point in his book Art Worlds that the main audience for dance is actually other dancers and former dancers, it feels pretty accurate when I look around at who attends the dance performances I go to.)

In the world of dance scholarship (as opposed to CDA), this is called the triadic perspective. Choreographers are audience members and dancers, for their own work and other work. Dancers choreograph in collaboration with choreographers, are choreographers in their own right, and are audience members. Audience members can be choreographers and dancers influenced by performance they see (Athreya, 2002). It’s the same as if it were a text, except, in this case, “text” refers to a performance.

Framing/Presentation

The first thing that strikes me in this video isn’t actually the movement, so let’s leave movement analysis to the side for the moment and do some text-based CDA, like I’ve already discussed.

We know from the video description that this is a corporate event in Hawaii. Interesting, considering the title of the video and common nickname of the choreography (“Strip Jig”). More interesting is Flatley’s introduction:

He says he brought dancers from “all over the world”, including “some of the most beautiful girls in the world” and “big, strong handsome guys” and he promises his audience that they will “understand more about what our culture is all about here in Ireland” (my emphasis).

He sets up a juxtaposition between the global (“all over the world”, “most beautiful girls in the world”) and the Irish (“our culture”, “here in Ireland”). I would particularly like to highlight the use of the word “here”. Maybe it was a slip of the tongue, but through it, he brings Ireland into the space. They might be in Hawaii, but that space has become a part of Ireland while he is there.

In addition, through bringing up the idea of understanding culture, Flatley positions himself as a cultural ambassador. He is there to share Irish culture and, in effect, build the world’s perception of Ireland. (It’s a self-appointed position but, looking at the history of Flatley’s shows, he’s not wrong. I still get people asking me if I can “do the Riverdance” when I tell them I’m an Irish dancer). This tells us that the speaker (Flatley) believes the following performance to be representative of Irish culture and significant to Irish culture, which links into a long history of Irish nationalism and Irish dance. It’s also a form of marketing. By branding his work as “true” Irish culture, he can exploit others’ interest in easy cultural exchange.

Irish dance has been created and reworked many times to represent the values of Irish nationalists and people who hold power in Ireland. Flatley and Lord of the Dance is simply one step in this process, and that is central to this video.

Also, do I really need to comment on “the most beautiful girls in the world” and “big, strong, handsome guys”? I feel like I comment on this everyday (and have trouble keeping a pretend objective tone with this kind of nonsense). Look at the word choice, look at the adjectives, look at the difference between “girl” and “guy”. It’s demeaning, it’s reductive, and it’s gross.

Strands of the Dance Medium

From framing, let’s zoom in a little closer and look at the structure of the dance performance. The strands of the dance medium looks at a “nexus” of various elements that connect (or don’t) to form a performance. This is the book that looks a lot closer at the strands, I highly recommend it. In this particular model, movement is a single element, alongside the performer, the space, and the sound. Performer encompasses everything visible about the person dancing, including their costume. Space encompasses set and the environment of the performance, as well as props. Sound includes music, but also other forms of sound, including silence. The relationships between these four strands are considered “nexial connections” (nexus just means connection, so, just, a lot of interrelation and connection going on).

Sound

For this post, we’re just going to look at sound. The easiest description of the sound for this piece is “music” and we could go more detailed to say “Irish music”.

But wait. Irish music. Doesn’t that link into how Flatley was positioning himself as an ambassador of Irish culture? It might seem obvious to use Irish music to accompany Irish dance, but the fact is that it is a specific choice that gives us a sense of the performance. This dance is supposed to be representative of Irish culture, this music is thus the music that is supposedly representative of Irish culture. It’s saying “these two things belong together and this is how we do it.”

(I’m currently dancing to Against Me! sooooo, apparently I didn’t get the memo, sorry Flatley).

There are two parts of the music. The first part is slower and features a flute, light, airy, and sweet. This highlights the “innocence” of the section and is in direct contrast to the second part, which starts with an electric guitar while the tune is played on a fiddle. The use of electric instruments for a “traditional” form makes everything a big edgy. While this is technically representative of Irish culture, the choice pushes the boundaries of what is considered “traditional”. It suggests that Flatley views Irish culture to be something beyond tradition (this also includes anyone involved in music development for the show, but I’m assuming he has a vague amount of choice in the music and in attaching it to this specific dance).

It is also worth noting that traditionally, Irish dance is accompanied by live music (and Flatley’s work in general too). This is recorded. This alters the relationship between dance and music because the music is unresponsive to the dance’s needs and the dance needs to conform to a rigid, pre-established sound.

There is one final note to make on sound that we’ll return to in more detail later: shoes. That sound is heard throughout the piece, but not at all moments. It goes with the music (another choice that feels obvious, but isn’t), suggesting that the music holds power and form in the piece. There is no moment when the sound of the shoes challenges or stands against the music. This can be (and will be) used alongside other elements of the piece to show how the music illustrates the narrative of the dance.

Conclusion

Through looking at the framing and sound choice of this piece, we can start to piece together an understanding of Flatley’s self-positioning in terms of Irish and global culture and how that plays out in his shows. It also starts to offer us a window into the appeal of Irish dance and how both Riverdance and Lord of the Dance spread very specific versions of Irish dance.

Hmmm.

Up next, we’ll look at the three other strands of the dance medium: Movement, Space, and the Performer!

Bibliography

Athreya, Preethi, “MAKING DANCE; A CHOREOLOGICAL APPROACH”, Narthaki, 2002 <http://www.narthaki.com/info/articles/article66.html&gt; [Accessed 7 April 2018]

Preston-Dunlop, Valerie, Looking At Dances (Binsted, Hampshire, UK: Noverre Pr., 2014)

Trying to find body positivity in injury prevention and safe dance practice

Tl;dr The way anatomy and alignment is taught to dancers often puts too much pressure on us to “fix” ourselves. We need to find a balance where we can dance within a risk we find acceptable and still embrace the particular features of our individual bodies.

 

The other day at the gym, I had to take the treadmill that was in front of the gigantic mirror and, as a result, caught a glimpse of my bowlegs, which has since sent me down a spiral of despair at my terrible body alignment and how that means I’ll never be a good dancer.

 

The thing is, my bowlegs are not that bad. Or, at least, they weren’t when I first learned about what it meant in an anatomical sense. It’s quite common for dancers that do ballet and other forms of dance that require turnout. “Forcing” turnout (ie. what we’re not supposed to do) forces the shinbone out of its correct inward spiral, creates bowlegs, and, of course, causes improper alignment in the legs and rest of the body, because everything is connected.

 

My legs were a bit bowed, but I learned this and became very defensive of my small turnout when teachers tried to get me to force it. It knew it was good for alignment, the end. Except no one is immune to the overarching pressures around them and while I was learning about the proper alignment of the shinbone, I was also learning that I would never be a dancer without more turnout. I ended up forcing my turnout a lot more than I thought I was, even while I complacently thought that I knew about proper alignment and that meant I danced safely and properly.

 

Over the years, my bowlegs have become more pronounced until we come to this particular moment, where I look at my shinbones and want to cry because they’re not Properly Aligned.

 

Here’s the thing – the new movement to create “safe” dancers, including education in anatomy and kinesiology, is about as bad with body image as all other forms of dance education. And, it has the added benefit of informing dancers that, if their body isn’t within the alignment and anatomy taught to them, they are dancing dangerously. And it includes the nice long list of injuries that can be sustained from it. AND, it implicitly suggests that a dancer is at fault if they get injured.

 

No body is ever in perfect alignment. I want to argue that dancers’ bodies are particularly bad because we are training to do things that a non-dancing body may never want to do. And, especially now, every anatomy class a dance student takes is offset by aesthetics that are only possible for certain bodies and require all other bodies to go out of “safe” ranges of movement in order to do it.

 

The point of anatomy and dance science education for dancers isn’t to make us feel ashamed of our bodies or our unhealthy habits, it’s to tell us what we can do better to be better dancers. It’s telling us how to avoid injury.

 

But sometimes, when I look at my bowlegs and shallow turnout and embarrassingly weak core, I am ashamed. I am ashamed because I’ve known about these “defects” in my body and I haven’t been able to fix them, despite my strong education in how they’re dangerous.  It becomes my fault if I get injured. As a result, I am terrified of injury.

 

Still, I do not want to fix my body, because fixing it suggests that there’s something to be ashamed of in the first place.

 

I want to be able to celebrate my body. Despite the bowlegs and improper foot alignment, I have never had an injury that has taken me completely out of dance for an extended length of time. That’s fucking amazing for someone that’s danced for thirteenish years and has done particularly high-impact, damaging dance styles (Irish Step, morris dance, pointe work…). I have to admit it’s luck, I seem to have an injury-resistant body at the moment. Because, at the end of the day, injury is often unavoidable for dancers and, while certain habits may help prevent it, nothing can actually prevent it (and someday my look will run out, whether I like it or not).

 

I’m not saying to completely abandon safe dance practices, because that’s ridiculous. There’s a reason why we warm-up, cooldown, fight for proper alignment, and try to dance within acceptable risk parameters.

 

But we can’t fix or change the bodies we have. My body is a result of good habits, bad habits (terrible habits), and training, but it’s a good body. It’s gotten me this far and it will keep going. Maybe someday I’ll start sorting out my shinbones, but right now, I’m dancing with them. I know the risks, but I would rather keep finding my pathways in movement than stop everything to fix myself before moving onwards.

 

And I hope, in the future, to see anatomy and alignment taught to dancers more as “this is how you work with your specific form of misalignment” instead of “this is proper alignment and deviations are dangerous and must be fixed.”

 

All bodies are good bodies. All dancing bodies are good for dancing. There’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to improper alignment.

 

Carrying on the tradition

Tl;dr As I grow older, I am starting to regret my uninvolvement with Irish dance traditions and intend to change because moving the tradition forward is important to me.

 

Céline Tubridy died in late September. I never met her, but she is important to me, as an Irish dancer, as someone who kept an old tradition alive. She learned and held onto steps from the dancing master Dan Fury. As she moved towards alzheimers, she taught the steps to her husband, Michael Tubridy, who still teaches them today. Michael has visited Boston a couple of times, and I have had the honor of learning steps directly from him a total of once. The rest I learned through my teacher, Kieran Jordan.

 

That’s a lot of names, but what it represents is a lineage and it’s one I’m proud of. It’s where I come from. I don’t have a long, nonbinary history to link myself to (I wish I did), I’m really fucking confused about whether I’m Jewish…or Quaker…or Huguenot…or whatever. Modern and contemporary dance traditions are new and short. Irish dance tradition is my anchor in history and I’m honored to dance these steps and to know where they come from.

 

But it’s confusing too. When Céline died, I waffled about whether or not to write anything about what that meant for me and, by the time I decided I wanted to, it was just a little too late to avoid awkwardness. I feel like the paths I have taken away from Irish dance – mixing sean-nos with other percussive dance forms, never quite making the time to attend the main Irish cultural and dance events, the fact that I’m only a quarter Irish, always trying to dance to “untraditional” music and, yes, even my queerness (I’m not saying this feeling is Right) gives me less of a right to claim my heritage as an Irish Dancer, even when I continue to be one in any other dance space I enter.

 

At the same time, I’m watching the people who are the keepers of my tradition die. Beyond the fact that death is always awful on the personal scale, it’s not a terrible death, they’re old, it’s time, and I’m a strong believer in tradition as change. But, I can’t stop the deep curl of regret that I will never get to study with them. And, not in the case of Céline, but certainly in the case of Michael Tubridy and a few others, it is partially my fault. My teacher brings these people in, they teach workshops, they have been available to me, and I have just been too busy or stressed from high school or simply not committed enough to make the long journey. It’s a choice, it’s a completely understandable choice, but I regret it now.

 

Tradition changes, but it changes from somewhere, and I feel like I’m not grounded enough in this tradition to be able to change it. The moment when you realize you speak a language fluently is not the moment when you have a conversation in the language, it’s when you are able to make up a word in that language without the help of your native language that is completely logical within all linguistic parameters and completely understandable to a native speaker of the language. With Irish dance, I can copy the vocabulary, I can steal bits and pieces and use it, but I don’t understand it enough to create it. I’m proficient, not fluent.

 

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, proficiency is wonderful and I love Irish dance, it has influenced my artistic practice from the very beginning and, at the end of the day, is my one, true dance love. That is undeniable. But, now I’ve had my time away, and my time failing to be part of the tradition, I’m realizing how important it is to me that the tradition doesn’t stop at me. I want it to go through me to the next generation. I want to be fluent.

 

Of course my teacher has other students, the tradition wouldn’t be lost if I chose to look the other way and do my weird performance art nonsense. But that’s not what I want. This is my lineage and I want to see it continue. I may have never met Céline Tubridy, but her dancing has shaped the kind of dancer I am, and what she gave me was valuable. I’d be a fool to stop it there and not carry on this tradition so others can learn from her too.

 

In other words, it’s time to get my ass in gear and start committing to connecting with Irish dance traditions beyond just showing up to class when it suits me.

 

Also: you can watch Céline dancing here! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lMBQPr8Y9w

 

“Tradition”

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