Back to the Steps

The one thing you always get asked as a foreign Irish dancer is, well, have you been to Ireland. I was never really in a rush to visit – I figured the time will come. It was obvious I “had to” go at some point – the more I learned about sean-nós the more I understood that I needed to immerse to really be able to step it up and take things further. So, when Edwina Guckian announced that she’d do a week long adult workshop in Carrick-on-Shannon, that felt like a great opportunity to finally fly over to “THE ISLE” and see what’s up.

My good Irish friend Marc happened to be in Dublin when I was landing so I was lucky enough to get a quick tour of the city. He’s a member of the Graz band Molly & the Men, but also the Belgrade meta-band entity called Loch Whiskey, which is how we met. It’s been ages since we talked so I’ve thoroughly enjoyed having another banter about trad music with him – always helps my perspective. Also did a quick dance in one of the pubs which was fun, although the head of the band seemed convinced I was Egyptian. Probably has to do with a childhood friend calling me “genie from the lamp” at a wedding recently based on my beard, but I digress.

First impressions of Carrick-on-Shannon were great – I come from a small town myself so it was refreshing to visit one. I quickly realized that, although I really came here to work on my dancing, with all the nature and eco-friendliness around I might end up having a bit of a vacation after all.

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A bird sanctuary on the walk to my B&B? Fine with me! I think.

The workshop itself was good, but the diversity of the participants really made it for me. We had a lot of different cultures and pretty much all ages, but most importantly – very different dancing backgrounds. Lots of experience and perspectives to absorb! And Edwina made sure to give us a tour of the town and the nearby sites as well as to direct us to the right sessions so that we can take in all the aspects of the environment the steps came from.

Coming into this, that’s exactly what I was expecting from the trip. Getting to learn a couple new steps is alright, especially with Edwina’s steps giving me new beats and accents to explore, but in my mind I was looking for something else. In my mind, it was about seeing the dancing in its authentic environment and learning how other dancers see it and approach it (sidebar: I’m only now realizing all the questions that I *didn’t* ask while I was there, damn! Well, guess that will always happen). Turns out the steps would make a bigger impact than I thought and that the breakthrough I was looking for was actually in there.

Back when I started with sean-nós, a lot of it was about learning fixed combinations of steps while working on developing my improvisation skills. But really, the last time I was actively learning and drilling steps was when Marko and Tijana, guys I was learning with at the time, came back from Prague two years ago and brought back some steps they got from Mick Mulkerrin. After that I really locked in to practicing by improvising around whatever my feet find, with an occasional exception in workshops. I guess in my mind I was “beyond learning steps”. Obviously there’s a plot twist coming, given that Edwina’s style is quite different from the one me and the guys here were most focused on.

Initially the difference in style seemed like a minor thing – I would learn the step the way Edwina did it but quickly adjust it to my own style and then work further with it. That’s nothing unusual for sean-nós, and she seemed supportive of this approach. While dancing in sessions in the evenings I noticed I wasn’t really using the new stuff I was learning. I didn’t think much of that neither – it usually takes me a period of drilling new steps before they will emerge in a session. But then, a couple days in, during one fast reel something clicked in my head and for a moment I changed the style toward what she’s been showing us. I emphasize “style” here because I don’t think I really switched the steps up that much, it was more about the way I was doing them. And that switch was really exciting for me! I’d assume it would have to do with the steps and the tunes originating from the same region. Be how it may, at this point I realized that, in terms of dancing, I had been plateauing for a while now and not really discovering much new ground. I was spending too much time locked into my intuition without taking external influence.

Looking back at it, as always, this realization now seems obvious, and indeed something I’d probably state myself and even call out other people for not doing. While we do need to work on ourselves and develop our own style, adapting other people’s styles and movements is an integral part of that as creative work. Without shifting focus we dig ourselves into a hole. So at this point I’m not only arrogant but also a hypocrite. Well, it goes well together 🙂

Either way, this was very good timing for a wake-up call, I’ve been getting a bit disengaged from the dancing. Now I need to go back to the backlog of recordings and instructions that I stashed up and see what new I can take from it. In a week me and a couple more Serbian guys will be in Prague for BSS once again, where I’m sure we’ll be getting more ideas and inspirations. With that, I believe I will soon be ending my gap year in teaching as well. Looking forward to the new start!

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