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Old dances can inspire new ones

By Kieran Jordan, special to the BIR, March 6, 2013

As an Irish dancer, I work with traditional steps and rhythms that are hundreds of years old. Irish dance steps are usually not transcribed or written down, and there is little standardized terminology for the movements. Steps are passed on through live teaching, and are retained through practice and performance.  The repertoire lives in the dancer’s body and mind.

Creating new choreography with “old-style” steps allows me to participate in the Irish dance tradition in an exciting and personal way.  The traditional steps provide the vocabulary, but the themes, designs, and new steps that emerge are very much part of a contemporary creative process.  I suppose this is why we call it a “living tradition.”  As a choreographer, I honor my traditions and continue to probe them — learning and contributing, reviving and creating. Digging into old dances inspires new ones.

I am particularly involved in the “sean-nós” form of Irish dance, which is an improvised, free-form style, so there is even less documentation or standardization in this style, compared to the traditional step dance style. For example, I have seen at least half a dozen versions of the popular sean-nós “Connemara step.” Connemara is an Irish-speaking region in Galway in the west of Ireland, and while the base rhythm for the Connemara step is recognizably the same, the weight shifts, number of sounds, technique, and look of this step vary greatly from one dancer to the next. So it’s not an exact science. Sean-nós dance is more about individual style — a here-and-now, emotional response to the music.

Sean-nós dance is experiencing a huge revival, in Ireland and abroad. The tradition almost died out completely in the 20th century, as it was considered a “wild” marginalized style that was less celebrated than the more formal competitive step dancing. But younger dancers have embraced sean-nós in the last couple of decades, and are bringing new energy and new artistry to it. It’s something old that is new again. Or it’s something new that’s old.

Kieran Jordan is a Boston-based performer and choreographer. She will be performing with the sean-nós Irish dance show “Atlantic Steps” at the Berklee Performance Center on March 23. More info is available at KieranJordan.com or atlanticsteps.com.

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