A couple of years ago, I was at the the open session at the Great American Irish Festival in Frankfort, NY, when a young woman in red sneakers hopped into the center of the circle as we were playing a lively reel. She started dancing. It sure looked like Irish dance, but it was different. Her feet were staying pretty close to the floor and tapping to the rhythm. Her arms weren’t tight to her sides and stiff. They were loose and free and relaxed. And best of all a smile stretched out across her face and her joy and and fun couldn’t be missed.
At the time, I had never heard of nor seen sean-nós dancing, and I remember thinking it was just magical to see her red sneakers joyfully stepping out the beat as we played our favorite music.
Later on I found out that what she was doing is an old Irish art originally from Connemara. Sean-nós is Irish for “old style” and you’ll often see the words attached to dance and song. For now, we’ll stick to the dance style. It’s a casual, informal, non-competitive, fun kind of social dance.
People in Ireland (and wherever Irish music is played) often just get up and start sean-nós dancing at a session. Like this.
Usually, sean-nós dancing is done solo because it’s mostly improvised by the dancer just putting together the various steps as the spirit moves and as the music inspires. So there’s no choreography or patterns to remember like in ceili dancing. You just learn the basic steps and throw them together as you go.
Your arms relax and move however you like too, unlike the step-dancing you see in Riverdance where the dancers keep their arms straight down.
Some of the best known sean-nós dancers today have videos on YouTube. So you can get a sense of what it looks like and how much fun it is. Emma O’Sullivan, and Edwina Guckian are both great examples.
Not all famous sean-nós dancers today are women. The Devane brothers, Gerard and Patrick, are keeping the tradition alive too. Actually men were traditionally the ones doing sean-nós dancing until more recent times.
Even kids love to get in on the fun. Edwina runs a very popular school in Ireland and she posts lots of cute videos of her young students dancing.
It’s one thing to appreciate the skills we see in YouTube videos like these, but it’s so much better to get in the game for real. So the Utica NY Area Irish Coalition has arranged a special sean-nós dance workshop in Utica on September 24.
Rebecca McGowan a professional sean-nós dance teacher from Boston will lead the workshop. She has danced at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and has taught at Catskill Irish Arts Week.
I asked Rebecca what she likes best about sean-nós dance and she said, “I like the dialogue of music and dance, and the fun of making music with my feet.”
You can see Rebecca and her dance partner Jackie O’Riley demonstrating some of their expertise in the videos on this page.
The hardwood floors in the Knights of St. John building on Varick Street will be perfect for amplifying the sound of tapping shoes. And that brings us to the shoes. You don’t need any special dance shoes. Rebecca says any flat hard-soled shoes will work fine.
There was a famous sean-nós flash mob in Galway in December 2013. And whoever took the video zoomed in on the feet, so you can see that any kind of shoes will do - from bright red tap shoes to Converse sneakers.
Now that you’ve seen all these videos and know a little more about sean-nós dance, I’m sure you’ll want to know how you can be a part of keeping this Irish tradition alive. So here are the details:
Join us Sunday, Sept. 24 from 1:00-2:30pm at the Knights of St. John building on the corner of Varick and Court Streets in Utica. It’s right across from the Saranac Brewery Shop and there’s plenty of parking in the lot at Shoppes at the Finish Line. The workshop is geared toward adults and teens, but younger kids are welcome to come along with their parents.
We’re charging $20 per person to cover Rebecca’s expenses and we only have room for 20 students. So visit the UNYAIC homepage to get your tickets today.