The passion that is Irish step dancing

Lauren Milord, a resident of Jamaica Plain, performs in Kieran Jordan Dance company’s production of  “Little Gifts” with set designs by Vincent Crotty.  Maryellen Malloy Photography photoLauren Milord, a resident of Jamaica Plain, performs in Kieran Jordan Dance company’s production of “Little Gifts” with set designs by Vincent Crotty. Maryellen Malloy Photography photoThere are more than a few Dorchester natives who have childhood memories of long hours spent undergoing instruction for Irish step dancing, an art form characterized by the sound of shoes striking the floor as a form of percussion. For some youngsters who have reached a certain age, the refusal to continue with these lessons constituted the first act of defiance against the authority of their well-meaning parents. The parents wanted to preserve an Irish tradition, the children just wanted to be American. During those times when dance crazes like the Twist, or the Funky Chicken were fashionable, Irish dancing seemed hopelessly outdated.

A generation later, Riverdance came along and changed things. The whirlwind success of that Irish dance troupe came as a shock to those who believed that Irish dancing would never make it into the mainstream. Imagine how those same people felt when they saw the fortunes flowing to Michael Flatley and other Irish dancers who were making a splash on the world stage. While this “show” style of Irish dancing seems to have peaked, smaller, more intimate venues are becoming more popular.

Irish dancing is a passion for those who keep it alive. Long-time Dorchester resident Kieran Jordan is a teacher and choreographer who started her own dance company in Boston 15 years ago. Ms. Jordan revives the solo dance, using old style footwork to create new jigs and reels. Devoted to showcasing new choreography that draws on the step dance tradition, Kieran Jordan Dance is a professional company that is specifically non-competitive sean nós. (meaning “old style” in Irish, a highly individualized improvisation that varies from person to person).

Last weekend at Green Street Studios in Cambridge, Kieran Jordan Dance presented “Little Gifts,” an evening of Irish dancing with set designs by Kieran’s husband, Vincent Crotty, with music by The Vox Hunters. Inside the theater, the line between the seating area and the stage was blurred, allowing the audience to see the personalities of the dancers up front, and to feel how the dancers are connecting with the musicians.

Kieran Jordan Dance comprises a group of eight women who have been dancing together for ten years. In the last week’s performance, young dancers from O’Riley Irish Dance were special guests. The dancers came on and off stage non-stop, like people casually dropping in and out of a living room. They danced solo and in pairs; they met in groups of four. They danced around each other and marched all over the stage, coming together only to fall away again.

They used the simplest props, such as chairs and brooms. They contrasted solo versus synchronized stepping, and knocked out a flurry of sounds that seemed to have a structure like that of the interwoven strands that make up a textile fabric. The entire performance was about speed, economy of movement, precision – and wit.

The grace of the dancers is matched by a raucous stomping that creates a noise resembling a Fourth of July fireworks display. The footwork grabs your attention, and while the dancers are pounding out the rhythm, you listen mesmerized, eager for the next beat. The sound is made by shoes that have fiberglass toes and heels. Instead of satin slippers, the step dancers wear dance shoes that look like farm tractors, and their feet flail about like fish flapping out of water.

Irish dance and music is participatory, and Ms. Jordan wants everybody to get it. During the waltz segment of the program, audience members were invited onto the stage to join in the dancing, a miniature group event known as a céilí that is embedded in the middle of the performance.

It appears that, except for the dancer’s smile, there should be no movement above a dancer’s hips. During competitive events known as Feisanna [a festival of art], this is among the finer points adjudicated by the scorekeepers. There are precise rules about best methods, but within these rules there is room for innovation and variety.

The idea that the arms will remain rigid by the sides is a unique detail, perhaps one of the most striking aspects of Irish dancing. I once heard someone venture to guess that it had something to do with the Catholic Church and strictures against immodesty. Another legend has it that a door had been taken from the hinges and laid down to provide a hard surface for dancing. Though a good sounding board, the door provided a minimum of performance space, which could be what accounts for the limited movement of extraneous limbs.

It’s difficult to say for sure how and where Irish dance style originated. During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, itinerant dance masters toured Ireland teaching ancient dance forms as well as the latest quadrilles from the continent. The dance masters, dressed in coattails and top hats, insisted on foot positions that were the standard of French ballet. Dances were choreographed to configure complex spatial designs, and there were group patterns and folk dancing. Modern Irish dancing inherits all of this.

Different dances are set to various time signatures. The polka is 2/4 time; the waltz is 3/4 time; reels are 4/4 time; jigs are faster at 6/8 time; and the slip jig achieves an hypnotic effect with 9/8 time. There are other types of Irish dance also, including set dances and hornpipes. Long before Riverdance arrived, Irish emigrants had already taken the art of Irish dancing with them everywhere they went. It was the Irish (and Scottish and English) dancing traditions mixed with African tribal dances that gave rise to the origin of American tap dancing in the mid-1800s.

After the performance of “Little Gifts” had concluded, I headed toward the exit and noticed a stack of DVDs for sale at the reception desk. I resisted the urge to make a purchase but hesitated to move on because a little ditty was still ringing in my ears. I wondered if the Irish dancers hadn’t tapped out a subliminal message in staccato rhythm: “Buy the D-V-D; Buy the D-V-D; Buy the D-V-D.”