For better or for worse I’m pretty much self-taught in sean-nós dancing. I used my step dancing experience, as well as a plethora of instructional DVDs and a couple online courses. And a lot of reading up, watching dancers on YouTube and such. One thing that has really left a mark on me is the way Kieran Jordan and Shannon Dunne apply so-called “walking” steps into their methods.
Now, having danced for years before moving to sean-nós, of course I could treble (or indeed, diddly) a person to death. However, the walking steps – i.e. doing completely basic rhythmic exercises and steps using only heels, toes and stamps – were very inspirational to me. I felt, and still do, that if you “forbid” yourself to use brushes and trebles, it has at least two good benefits. One, you force yourself to be creative by limiting the number of elements – this gives you more flexibility in “the real world” where you will still use all your tools. Second, it helps you appreciate and recognize how useful the pauses in the footwork can be. It’s a great way to let the rhythm breathe. With all the focus on technique and complexity that competitive dancing has, it’s not hard for the steps to slide into woodpeckering territory. Cool for showing off, but that’s not what I’m after (woodpeckering that is – I like showing off as much as the next person does lol).
In my mind I like to consider sean-nós dancing an organic affair. Back when I started step dancing someone said “If at any point you start feeling relaxed, your technique is probably off.” It’s supposed and intended to be difficult! You need to work and train your body intensely before you can do it properly. As time passes, I’m more and more inclined to take the exact opposite approach with sean-nós – to me, it should be everyman’s dance and the dancer should find ways and tools to make his dancing easier*. Trebles and faster parts are absolutely necessary and they are inherent to the style, but walking can (and should?) be leveraged too. So nowadays when I improvise, I really strive to do the steps in a very casual and relaxed style, much like walking. Most of the time I don’t even break a sweat anymore.
And when I work with other dancers I try to encourage them to keep things simple – if done right, it’s perfectly ok for the audience and it can really help get your steps flowing. In that aspect, I can still agree with the competitive step dancing approach – you should avoid dancing at your maximum capacity, i.e. it’s good to have more steps (and stamina!) at your disposal than you’re actually going to use in a performance, be it at a competition, on a stage or in a pub. Too many times the dancers really try to throw their all on the floor and it tends to mess up their focus and timing.
Don’t get me wrong – I still like to “attack” the rhythm from time to time. For example, I will never get tired of diddlying the ending of Drowsy Maggie as the musicians are speeding it up, but I probably wouldn’t use a diddly at any other point in the all-night session. Conversely, sometimes just doing the walk is actually all the tune needs.
How do you feel? Do you expect dancers to be flashy and impressive all the time or do you prefer them looser?
*There is a degree of contradiction here – if I hadn’t pushed myself physically for years prior to moving to sean-nós, I doubt my technique would be as nimble. It did take conscious effort to actually relax the movements due to old habits, not to mention getting the heel work down, as they are seldom used in step dancing, but still I’m sure my previous experience did make it easier to work on this.