Get out your green. Saint Patrick’s Day is coming. This weekend, as cultural festivals toast a Celtic heritage and bars fill to bursting with revelers celebrating Irish culture, the Seattle Irish Dance Company will be ensuring that dance holds a central part in the festivities. Director Carlye Cunniff, along with Kelsi Cunniff, Margery Pulkinnen, and Taryn Farley, have created a professional Irish dance performance group that blends tradition with the twenty-first century, actively rejecting the compartmentalization that often accompanies being an artist of a cultural dance form. The SIDC regularly performs in bars and cultural festivals, but they have also performed at Teatro Zinzanni and even toured Ireland with their dancing.
Founded just before Saint Patrick’s Day in 2012, the SIDC grew out of a lack of performance opportunities for elite Irish dancers. “Unless you want to compete”—Irish dance has an important competition element—“or unless you want to go away and travel with a huge show,” says Cunniff, “there’s not a lot of Irish dance opportunities at all.” But, she says, “I really felt strongly that I wanted Irish dancing to be accessible to my peers”—and this is something that is a sticking point for the whole group. “We don’t wear the competition outfits, we don’t wear the wigs. We make it more accessible. We dress more like twenty-somethings who are wearing cute outfits. We do that on purpose.” That first Saint Patrick’s Day, they danced at twenty gigs, so clearly, the group is onto something.
Popular images of Irish dancing run a spectrum with Riverdance at one end and girls in elaborate dresses and curly wigs at the other. Dancers deftly perform fast footwork, beats, and jumps, their arms held close in to the body. Image aside, at its core, Irish dance is intimately connected to Irish music; this connection roots the dance and dancers to the past. “A reel is timeless,” says Cunniff. “I know that whoever Irish danced hundreds of years ago Irish danced because of this music. I’m still dancing to the same music, even if I might be doing something totally different with my body.” Cunniff speaks of the need for the dance to “sing the song of the music”—usually taking the form of reels (in 4/4 time), jigs (in 6/8), or slip jigs (in 9/8)—and this rhythmic sensibility together with a dictum to do the same thing on the right and left sides of the body, are the integral parts of Irish dance. Within these parameters, teachers—especially those certified by a regulatory commission that insures a cultural, historical, and technical awareness of the art—often make up their own steps.
As much as she loves Riverdance and what it has done to popularize Irish dancing for a new generation and on an international level, Cunniff is quick to say that the show is only one part of the tradition, and one that she does not want the entire art form to be tethered to. The SIDC is able to walk this line between strict tradition and broader accessibility because they have reached an elite level of training that includes years of rigorous technique and cultural immersion. Growing up an Irish dancer is a cultural education, says Cunniff, “but not in an organized way.” It comes from piecing together the names from songs and stories; it comes from hearing your teacher yell at you in Irish (“maybe that’s the only Irish that he knows, but [it gives us] the understanding that people speak in Irish”); it comes from hearing apocryphal stories about why Irish dancers keep their arms down—so that occupying British forces would only see bouncing, not dancing, when they passed by windows. Cunniff says that kids are told “You better be so proud that you can do this, because it almost got taken away”—dancing, along with language, music, and other markers of Gaelic culture, were once punishable acts.
In Irish dancing, the dance and music are unquestionably intertwined with personal and national history. It’s no wonder that the SIDC strikes a chord with their audience. “I’ve had people cry, saying ‘you made me feel like I was at home,’” in Ireland, in Boston, or wherever the person has their Irish ties. Cunniff feels it’s important to give people this connection, to be cultural ambassadors, and to carry on the traditional Irish dances. At the same time, she wants to do more with her art. It can be difficult to change people’s perceptions, though, when people “latch on” to the Irishness of it. “They say ‘look at you all, you’re all so Irish, look at your names, they’re all so Irish.’”
Except that not all Irish dancers are Irish anymore. Many are, most are, but the Irish dance community doesn’t want it to be reserved only for Irish people. In fact, there are schools and competitors all over the world, including in Japan, South Africa, and Australia. This is all part of the struggle for Irish dance to continue flourishing as its own culture, related to but distinct from Irish culture or Irish American culture. More specifically, SIDC is keen to distinguish themselves as artists in an art world in addition to their role as cultural stewards.
“That’s why dancing at Teatro [Zinzanni] was so awesome,” says Cunniff. Teatro Zinzanni hired the group to do something that was specifically not to Irish music: a welcome creative challenge that allowed them to try something different, while still using the medium of Irish dance. They danced to a Puppini Sisters version of “Crazy in Love.” On the other hand, when the group toured to Ireland with a band last spring, they often found themselves doing very traditional dances. As wonderful as the trip was, they returned home questioning what their particular purpose in performing Irish dance was, and why they started the group. But they did come away from the tour with a validating experience. Much of the Irish dance in Ireland is for tourists, so “a lot of the shows that we saw there were so stereotypically Irish that you’re kind of gagging.” But when the Irish Irish dancers saw SIDC perform, the reaction was a moment of self-realization. They’d say, “you’re so refreshing—you’re not wearing a big dress [and] you’re not wearing a wig. You look more like what we imagine Irish dance to be.”
If Ireland is getting behind the SIDC, it’s time that more people in broader arts communities did too. The struggle for contemporary Irish dancers is to be seen as, well, contemporary. “I think a big challenge for us is convincing other dance artists that our work is valuable,” says Cunniff. “You’re not really seen as a dancer in the way that the dance community views dance. And that’s no one’s fault. It just hasn’t been around,” especially on the West Coast, whose Irish cultural community began later than on the East Coast. So, if you’re in the dance community looking for something fun to do this weekend, consider heading out for a different kind of contemporary dance—go see the Seattle Irish Dance Company at their festive finest, and be prepared to feel the sheer infectious energy of the dance.
For more information, check out the Seattle Irish Dance Company’s website or like them on Facebook for up-to-date show information. Below is a list of their performances this weekend:
Saturday, March 15
8:30pm Paddy Coyne’s SLU
10pm Tommy Gun
9pm-close Owl N’ Thistle with Stout Pounders
Sunday, March 16
9am St. Paddy’s Day Dash Beer Garden at Seattle Center with Stout Pounders
12pm Seattle Centerhouse Show
7pm Paddy Coynes Bellevue
Monday, March 17
8pm Shawn O’Donnell’s Everett
9pm Shawn O’Donnell’s Downtown Seattle
Late night with Alice and JP Hennessy at Terrible Beauty South Lake Union