Monday 26 September 2022

So You Wanna Be An Irish Dancer

 Back where I came from few boys aspired to be Irish dancers. It would have been considered suicidal to trip daintily around the back streets of Wexford in black satin jacket, matching short pants, thick white socks, and buckled shiny shoes.

However, proficiency in the Irish language was compulsory, and to fail the subject in your final exam meant another year spent in high school.

Hence, along with some of my friends, I signed up for a month of total Gaelic immersion in Ballingeary Irish College, West Cork.

A kindly Christian Brother suggested we teenage clodhoppers take céilí dancing lessons before our departure, lest we turn the college ballroom into an emergency ward.

That month was wonderful. We spoke Irish all day, and at nights wowed the young ladies of Cork with our Walls of Limerick/Siege of Ennis steps; some of us even acquired Rebel County girlfriends, and returned to West Brit Wexford changed men.

We all handily passed our Leaving Cert Irish exams, but upon graduation we promptly ditched the dance steps.

Small wonder, The Walls of Limerick were scorned in Dublin dancehalls, while the Siege of Ennis never found a foothold in the moshpits of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City.

But I never lost my fondness for our native music. So when Chris Byrne and I formed Black 47 we set Irish Trad to Hip-Hop, Reggae, and Funk beats. This unholy concoction rang a bell with young Irish-Americans, many of whom had been enrolled in Step Dancing schools by their native-born Irish parents.

We encouraged these dancers to join us onstage and link their steps with our beats. Dressed in the urban styles of the day, they were a sight to behold as they kicked high into the overhead lights.

The pace and general delirium onstage seemed to liberate the dancers, and I began to wonder if something similar had happened to the young Famine Irish in the dancehalls of The Five Points when they cut loose to the music of Irish fiddlers and African-American percussionists.

Fast forward to the musical Hard Times which dealt with the amalgamation of Irish and African-Americans in those downtown dancehalls amid the general social upheaval of New York in the Civil War era. Zestfully choreographed by Joe Barros and Niall O’Leary, this re-imagined 19thCentury dancing brought audiences to their feet.

Soon after the final Hard Times production in 2013, Bill T. Jones, the renowned American choreographer, joined the creative team of what eventually became Paradise Square.

Bill set out to get to the core of what was going on in both African and Irish dance in that turbulent time, and then interpret it through the prism of American social and political history.

And when we needed Irish choreography that would match Bill’s intensity and innovation, enter Hammerstep, Jason Oremus and Garrett Coleman. Riverdance veterans both, they were also conversant with Break Dancing and Hip-Hop movement.

Being in the room while these three gentlemen birthed the Tony nominated choreography of Paradise Square was a creative experience I will always treasure.

Irish dancing across the US continues to amalgamate with other art forms, and I’m sure there will be many surprises in store. Speaking of which, it’s only fitting to give a word of appreciation to Trinity Irish Dance and Mark Howard who have pushed the Irish Dance envelope for decades.

And if you live within striking distance of New York’s Irish Arts Center, make sure you check out the upcoming collaboration between Seán Curran Company and Darrah Carr Dance.

Sean performed with Bill T. Jones for years and began his career as an Irish step-dancer in Boston, while Darrah, always on dance’s cutting edge, has never lost her affection for Irish dancing.

Céilí is the title of their Masters in Collaboration that will premiere at the beautiful and spacious new Irish Arts Center on 11thAvenue and 51stStreet.  Don’t miss this performance and the sparks these two companies will strike off each other.

With an original score by Dana Lyn and Kyle Sanna, one can be sure that it will be a scintillating evening of tradition, spurred by an innovation scarcely imaginable by the tough skeptics on the back streets of Wexford all those years ago.


(For tickets and information,  Sep 29 – Oct 2, 2022)

Sunday 18 September 2022

Rockin' The Catskills

 One of the interesting things about playing with Black 47 was that I became familiar with so many areas of the USA.  By extension, I got a unique insight into Irish-America.

The biggest reveal was that this vast country has had a very varied impact on Irish immigrants. 

Of course the Irish have exerted a major social and political influence on the USA, yet I never cease to marvel at the difference between, say, the Irish of South Boston and those of South Chicago, or the Irish of Tipperary Hill in Syracuse and their compatriots on Geary Street, San Francisco.

I often thought about such matters around Labor Day Weekend, no doubt because of the intense summer schedule of the band.

Black 47 usually played parts of Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends at The Blackthorne Resort in East Durham, NY.  If you’ve never been up to the Irish Alps (Catskills), you owe yourself a visit.

I actually began playing that area in Gerry O’Shea’s Irish Center in Leeds, NY before I even set foot in the dead center of Irish America, hallowed Bainbridge Avenue in The Bronx.

Talk about two contrasting areas of Irish settlement – one calm and rural, the other urban and turbulent.

No matter the person, the Catskill Mountains seem to have a soothing effect on the most riotous of Irish souls. The Irish who live up there are quite content with their surroundings, and for the most part have no particular desire to return home.

The weekends of Memorial Day and Labor Day in East Durham, however, are as different as chalk and cheese, hence Black 47’s obligations were different too.

On Memorial Day we were hired to get the season swinging with a bang. Our brief was to attract crowds from New York City, Albany, Syracuse, Springfield, and every burg in the Hudson Valley on Friday night, and keep them reeling and rocking through the weekend.

We would play the East Durham Irish Festival on Saturday evening and hurry back to The Blackthorne for a post-midnight 2-hour set.

We would then hop in the van – to hell with sleep – and head for NYC, catch an early flight for Chicago to headline the Gaelic Park Southside Festival on Sunday and Monday.

Though the audiences were equally vociferous and welcoming, yet there was no mistaking that the mosh pits of the Mid-West were more hospitable than those of the East.

That makes sense, for the Irish from Springfield, IL have been shaped by different circumstances than their brethren from Springfield, MA; likewise, the Irish from Ames, Iowa have little in common with those raised in Woodlawn.

By the time we arrived back in NYC on Tuesday morning my foggy brain would be awash in such sociological musings. But with a busy summer playing festivals and beach towns I often wouldn’t have time to make sense of what I’d experienced until we hit East Durham again on Labor Day Weekend.

This was a much more leisurely affair. Occasionally we might speed off for an afternoon gig in Cape Cod or Rhode Island, regardless we’d be back in time to play The Blackthorne at midnight.

Though people still came to East Durham from all over for Labor Day Weekend, less traveled up from the city. Take New York out of any equation and things move at a more leisurely pace.

You had time to talk, and observe the differences between people from Buffalo and Scranton, Albany and Yonkers, Pittsfield and Kingston, Cairo and Catskill.

And you had time to glory in the majesty of the mountains that were but a background blur on Memorial Day.

Most afternoons I’d head off down a different country road, and over the years I found quiet spots where, if you remained still, you could become one with the birds, rabbits, racoons, and the occasional fox who studied you from a distance.

In one abandoned field I used sit on a wall constructed of mossy flat stones built by someone from Mayo or Connemara in a previous century; and as the sun declined in the September sky, I could comprehend what attracted the Irish to these mountains in the first place, and just how much more the place we choose to live in shapes us than we will ever shape it.