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March 1999

Irish Dance: Ireland's three hundred-year-old tradition is all the rage

The history and recent surge in popularity of Irish dance.

As the haunting strains of music that call to mind King Lear on the heath begin, the dancers stand stock still, like a forest of resolute trees. Their silent concentration sends a current of anticipation through the audience. Suddenly this forest explodes into synchronized motion, legs just a blur, feet pounding out the beat of the music. Nothing could contrast more sharply with this frenzy of energy than the tense, motionless torsos and arms of the dancers, which remain defiantly still. Although no one knows quite how this extraordinary genre of dance arose, history first takes note of Irish dancing in the 17th century, when English travelers wrote letters describing such scenes. From the 18th century on, Irish dance masters traveled from village to village, performing and teaching their own special steps and taking part in competitions (called a feis, pronounced “fesh”) and musical gatherings (ceili, pronounced “caylee”). This Celtic style of dance evolved over the next 300 years, a looser version of it going to America and inspiring what became tap dancing. The technique of keeping the upper body stiff and the legs in a cloud of motion developed only over the past century. Exactly why is a mystery, but legend has it that the locals communicated in this way, using a language imperceptible to the occupying British. Holding pints of Guinness steady as they stood at the bar in the local pub, the rhythm of their feet tapped out information they didn’t want the Black-and-Tans to understand. (Never let it be said that the Irish weren’t good for a yarn.) Today modern troupes who eschew the traditional, ornate velvet costumes attire themselves in lighter, Hollywood-style costumes. Riverdance and Lord of the Dance have spread the popularity of Irish dance all over the world. Irish dance is enjoying tremendous popularity in Munich as well, particularly in the wake of recent Lord of the Dance performances last year. Not that Irish dance is new to Munich. Former world champion Anne Murphy has been teaching in Munich for ten years, and her troupe, the Emerald Dancers, numbers nearly 100 and tours internationally - even to Ireland. She has been dancing since she was a three-year-old in County Cork. As a child she trained several hours a day and took part in a feis almost every weekend, winning the world championship in Dublin in 1968. Another lifelong dancer teaches in Munich as well, Bríd McKeown. About three and a half years ago she came to Munich and met Mary Murray, who founded an Irish dancing school in Kaiserslautern five years ago. McKeown now works with Murray, and their group tours and performs locally at social functions. The most important element of Irish dance in Munich seems to be the spirit of fun and community it engenders. Marianne Dechant, a German musician who plays Irish music, started dancing herself after watching her daughter take lessons for three years. How does a German become involved with Irish music and dance? “Because it’s just so wonderful,” she says. And not just the music, which she loves, or the dancing, which is an enjoyable and athletic art. A strong sense of community grows out of these groups, and this is, “very important, particularly for the children.” Apart from learning their “threes” and “sevens” (the basic steps), would-be dancers from countries as disparate as Chilé, Estonia, South Africa - as well as Germany and Ireland - welcome the additional perk of what one student termed a “multi-culti experience.” Many participants echo these sentiments. “It’s more than just the dancing,” muses Murphy, “It’s really a big family.” A spirit of solidarity binds the participants. “It’s like an Irish village,” said one student, in which not only the dancers themselves but also their parents, grandparents, children and friends gather for ceilis and excursions. They revel in the warm atmosphere of this community comprising 24 nationalities from several continents. This harmonious spirit is enhanced by the absence of competition - markedly different from the culture of Irish dancing in Ireland, Canada and the US. In those countries a weekly feis determines winners among large groups of dancers, where even fellow classmates compete against each other. “We don’t have so much pressure here - but we do have a standard,” says McKeown. Irish dance requires a great deal of practice and discipline, but the sense of fun is never lost. Anyone interested in either attending performances or taking lessons may contact Anne Murphy at (089) 93 38 84, or Bríd McKeown at (089) 336 839. McKeown and Murray’s group may also be engaged for private parties.

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