So, Marko and I visited the Bernard’s Summer School this summer – it was his second time, and my first. Of course, the thing that brought the event to our attention was the sean-nós dance classes. While we’ve both been practicing the style for a couple years now, we never had a teacher prior to him visiting the School in 2016. This year, however, our interest was also piqued by a lilting class – apparently the first time the school was offering that. Later on we would find out that the organizers had wanted to have it for years, but had trouble finding a teacher. The Irish seem to find that to be so intuitive and natural that they have trouble looking at it as something necessarily “teachable” – you’re supposed to “just do it”. Therefore, there’s very few actual teachers.
Fortunately for us, they finally found an amazing guy named Robert Harvey (you can see him in the video above). He’s actually a VERY accomplished flute player, but lilting is another one of his talents. What struck me in our work was the way that he was balancing the raw singing exercises, constant memorizing of new tunes and hinting at the fact that, while we are discussing and exercising lilting as vocal patterns, the end goal is to improvise. Or, to try and phrase it differently – while the tunes themselves are clearly defined, and there are the inevitable stylistic constraints in the phrasing, there is no strict pattern to be followed. That really clicked well with my recent attempts to push my steps to follow the tune rather than dance on top of it. It seems to me that the search for unison that’s typical for Irish traditional music does indeed extend to the dancing. This is further enforced by the idea that, at it roots, traditional music and dance should be a transic experience, and this is best achieved by finding unison.
Indeed, one of the first things Robert mentioned is that lilting, in a way, imitates the battering sound of dancing. And there does seem to be a lot of emphasis in learning Irish trad music that there should be “following the leader” between the participants. Yet, to someone learning Irish dancing, this has become a very counter-intuitive idea. The most extreme example of it is, of course, the step dancing competitions, where a dance is defined solely based on the rhythm and speed. For example, an Intermediate Slip Jig would mean a tune in 9/8 at 113BPM. The musician’s choice of the tune is arbitrary, as long as it’s in the right meter and tempo. On the other hand, the dancer will do the steps that he was taught to the best of his ability, and do it the same way regardless of the tune. There are exceptions to this, but the majority of the categories work this way. There are reasons and logic to this as well, and it’s a point that can be passionately discussed about. For now, it’s suffice to say that, for better or for worse, there’s a stark difference in the approach happening here.
With all that in mind, as someone who’s been dedicated to figuring out improvised Irish dance, it has STILL taken me years to come to the notion that this improvisation should actually have something to do with the tune that’s being played. In hindsight, this is a depressingly obvious idea. I’m thinking that this is probably the biggest gripe a session player might have with a dancer: similar to the stereotypical bodhrán player, they tend to be too loud and not really following the tune – outside of the not uncommon tendency to be off beat although they’re supposed to be percussionists.
In his own way, Robert has reminded me that there’s something inherently broken about the way we teach Irish dancing, at least if the end goal is improvising to live music. More accurately, I believe the way we’re teaching/learning Irish Dance is very appropriate for the competitive dancer and his needs. The issue is that we seem to cling to that method too much even when practicing other styles. I really feel that the thought of a) knowing the tunes in the first place and b) being aware that their melody needs to be followed as well as the rhythm are two points the dancers are commonly not really taught.
Right now I’m on a break from attempting to teach people sean-nós, but the BSS experience and especially Robert’s classes have been really inspirational to me to rethink my approach and try to figure out new ways to share what I’ve managed to learn in this little dance laboratory of mine, and I’m very very thankful for that. If you have any experience working with dancers trying to improvise – whether as a musician, a teacher or indeed learning yourself, please feel free to share – I’d love to exchange the experience.