Miss McLeod’s Reel at 113

How Irish dance connects with traditional music today
Episode Trailer

How does Irish dance connect with traditional music today? And what’s up with all the different types of social, performative, and competitive trad dance? Kieran Jordan, Liam Ó Scanláin, the Glencastle Irish Dancers, and Jimmy Keane help host Shannon Heaton detangle a few musical threads in Irish dance today.


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Seán McGinnis, John Kerr, Brian Benscoter, Davy McDonald, and two anonymous donors.

Episode 08-Miss McLeod’s Reel at 113 

How Irish dance connects with traditional music today
This Irish Music Stories episode aired September 12, 2017

Speakers, in order of appearance

>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories

>> Liam O’Scanláin: County Mayo-born sean nos dancer, collaborator and teacher

>> Kieran Jordan: Philadelphia-born, Boston-based dancer, teacher, and choreographer specializing in sean-nós and old-style Irish step dance  

>> Glencastle School dancers: Wisconsin-based dance school offering Irish step instruction to children and adults

>> Jimmy Keane: Chicago-based accordion player born in London of Irish-speaking parents from Connemara and Kerry


>> Shannon: Hi, it’s Shannon Heaton and before I offer Episode 8 of Irish Music Stories, I wanted to invite you to visit www.IrishMusicStories.org. There are links to past episodes and playlists of all the music featured … AND there’s a donate button. Your support helps me pull these stories together.

[Music: “Mount Phoebus Hunt and The Hunted,” from Cover the buckle
Artists: Seán Clohessy, Sean McComiskey, and Kieran Jordan ]

And speaking of stories….

This is Irish Music Stories, the show about traditional music… and the bigger stories behind it.

Like how Liam O’Scanláin experiences Irish music.

>> Liam O’Scanláin: I think it’s one of the nicest ways to appreciate the music as well, is just to feel it in your body and let it out. 

>> Shannon: And how Kieran Jordan feels when she dances steps with Irish tunes.

>> Kieran Jordan: We’re born to move, and movement to music puts it all together. It gives you that full sense of wholeness. 

>> Shannon: Kieran and I talked about Irish dance in her home in Dorchester, Mass. Now, talking about Irish dance is like talking about Irish traditional music—it’s hard to talk about it. It’s a sonic and visual and emotional thing. And there are many different forms it takes.

In the case of Irish dance, there are different types of social dancing, and different types of step dancing. And with all these forms, there are casual and there are more performative and competitive ways to do them. Most dancers do a mix of styles, so getting a simple overview can be tricky. With the help of Kieran Jordan, the Glencastle Irish Dancers, accordion player Jimmy Keane, and sean nos dancer Liam O’Scanláin, I’ll try to detangle a few of the musical threads in Irish dance today.

Kieran Jordan comes from traditional Irish step dancing—the stuff that Riverdance comes from. She’s a thoughtful performer, teacher, and choreographer. And she was one of the first Americans to showcase sean nos or old-style dancing onstage. Kieran has an innate musical sense, and she cites music as the central hook for Irish dancers, regardless of their style.  Well, that, and maybe also the shamrock step dance costumes… 

>> Kieran Jordan: It’s a visual art form. Dance. You know, so I think that when people see it, and feel the energy of that connection of music and dance together. That attracts people to it. I mean, for me? The thing that got me into to Irish dance was seeing it—I actually saw it when I was just about four-years-old in a St. Patrick’s parade. 

>> Shannon: You remember it from when you were four.

>> Kieran: I do. I remember seeing those dresses—they were white with green shamrocks stenciled onto them. And, they were simple, they weren’t the ornate, embroidered fluorescent color ones we think of today. 

That’s how the story goes. My parents said I saw the dancers and demanded to learn that.

>> Shannon: Kieran is quick to point out that girls in bright dresses aren’t the only ones who dance. Many dance masters are men, like Rhode Island-based Kevin Doyle and Aidan Vaughan from Clare, two big influences for Kieran.

[ Music: “Tracing the Lines,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Kieran: It’s not just for little girls—that’s one of the commonly-held notions about Irish Dance is that it’s just for little girls. And people will meet me and say, “Oh, Irish Dancing, my nieces do that.” And, you know, I want to say, oh, my uncles do it, too, you know. I think people are attracted to the idea of movement. And it’s a way for people who aren’t musicians to participate in the music. That’s a huge piece of it. It gives you that full sense of wholeness. That you’re moving to the music—you’re part of the music. Even if you’re not the one sitting at an instrument. And that could cover a wide variety of dancing. Social dancing and then step dancing. And sean nos dancing, more of an improvised free-style dance form.

>>Shannon: OK, so you got your social dancing. The ceili and set dancing: kind of like line and square dancing. And then you’ve got your solo sean nos dancing. Sean nos means “old style”. And this is more spontaneous and less choreographed. It works onstage and in casual party and pub settings.

And then you’ve got your virtuosic, percussive step dancing. 

[ Music: “Thunderstorm,” from Riverdance
Artist & Choreographer: Michael Flatley and company ]

It’s flashy. And it’s often competitive and highly costumed. Now, there are step dancers who are more chill—they’re playful, they’re flexible. And they have a great rapport with musicians. Dancers like Kieran and Kevin Doyle, who is a master of old-style Irish steps. Kevin also incorporates elements of the American tap that he studied as a kid. 

And he really connects with musicians, and other dancers, and audiences. At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival earlier this summer, Kevin leapt off the stage to join an elderly dancer on the floor. I’ve got the video link at www.IrishMusicStories.org and it’s one of the nicest displays of Irish music, dance, and generosity, and there’s great playing from Billy McComiskey on the accordion, Mick Moloney on the banjo, and a cast of D.C.-area musicians and dancers.

But the competitive step dance thing is a little more intense. Now as a musician, dancers have asked me to play a reel at 113. That’s a tempo marking. It’s exactly this fast.

Now, this is not a totally natural tempo. Most old metronomes have marks at 112 and at 116, but not 113. And it can feel weird to just, well, provide a number. I asked Kieran for a little backstory on how these tempos and this approach to competitive step dancing has evolved over the decades:

[ Music: “The Three Sea Captains,” from Cover the buckle
Artists: Seán Clohessy, Sean McComiskey, and Kieran Jordan ]

>> Kieran: The traditional step dancing was fast. So, the steps were designed to composed, choreographed, to be danced to traditional tunes the way the traditional tunes were played. And the steps were simple in the sense that the dancer had to be able to execute rhythms that were really connected to the tune—you could hear the tune in the feet. And as Irish dancing became more complicated, the steps got more intricate which required the music to get slower. So, kind of moving through history, you could see the steps becoming more complicated, and the music slowing down to allow for that.

>>Shannon: So Irish music and dance became a bit more of a performative thing and this took it out of the realm of it just being kind of a purely easygoing social expression.

>> Kieran: Yeah, it’s not at all a pub dance any more once you’re—especially then, you know, in recent years, let’s say the last 30 or 40 years, as you get into like national championships and world championships and stuff. That part of Irish dancing moved very far away from, you know, the pub expression or the house party. Any type of performance, but especially in the Feis and in the larger championships. Those became your final round of the performance.

>>Shannon: The Feis. The COMPETITION! This is the CENTRAL way that some kids interact with Irish dancing. Here’s what a few young dancers with the Glencastle School had to say, when I chatted with them at this year’s Milwaukee Irish Fest:

>>Shannon:  Do you prepare for competitions and performances both?

>>Student 1: Yeah, we have practices every week.

>>Student 2: Um, we compete at local competitions, and you move up throughout the levels. And, um, the higher up the levels you get, the more time you spend practicing and going to class. And more competitions. And you end up traveling. So, um, a few of us just went to the national championships which were in New Orleans. And then coming up we have the Midwest Regional championships in November in Chicago.

>>Shannon: And is that sort of something you work toward? Is that a big part of your dancing?

>>Student 2: Yeah, people work toward trying to qualify to compete at those competitions. And at those competitions you can also qualify for other competitions.

>>Shannon: And are they fun?

>>Student 2: Yeah, they’re really fun and it’s really good to get into the competitions and, like, get yourself out there.

[ Music: “Pound the Floor,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]


>>Shannon: And do you do any ceili dancing or set dancing?

>>Student 3: Ah yeah, a couple of us are on team. Um, in the Fall four of us are going to be on a team—just a ceili dancing. And yeah, we’ll go and compete at the regional championships like he mentioned before.

>>Shannon: Wow, so ceili dancing, which is social dancing, also has a competitive avenue for it?

>>Student 3: Yeah! We can compete at, like, regionals, nationals and world championship level.

>>Shannon: What type of competing do you like the best?

>>Student 3: Ah, I personally like probably solo dancing the best. And it’s gotten me, like, the farthest with solo dancing. So, I like solo.

>>Shannon: Farthest, toward… ?

>>Student 3: Um, I’ve competed at the world championships a couple of times in London and Ireland and stuff. And those are my favorite types of competing.

>>Shannon:  So, it’s gotten you the farthest geographically…

>>Student 3: Yeah.

>>Shannon:…and also in terms of sort of mastering the dance a bit? 

>>Student 3: Yeah, ah huh.

>>Shannon: That’s really exciting!

>>Shannon: A few stages away from the Glencastle Irish dancers, accordion player Jimmy Keane was performing uplifting dance tunes—without dancers. Though hearing and seeing him play is a dance unto itself. Jimmy is from Chicago, and we chatted about dance and rhythm. You’ll hear more from him next season.

>>Shannon: So, what’s up with playing dance tunes without dancing?

>> Jimmy Keane: I suppose because I grew up playing within the dance community, and, and at one time I was a dancer myself. I’ve always—my personal style of playing—I’ve always been kind of a rhythmical style player. So, it’s, that’s the way I know how to do it. It enhances the music when someone else is dancing to what you’re playing.

[ Music: “Reagan’s, Shepherd’s Daughter, Rolling In The Hay, Colonel Rodney,” from bohola
Artists: Jimmy Keane, Sean Cleland, Pat Broaders “ ]

When we started out, myself and Liz Carroll and we would play for Feises all the time. You know, you’d start at 7:00 in the morning with the seven-year-olds and the next thing it would be 1:00 am, the next morning and you’d be finishing off with the championship dancing. Doing, actually, set pieces in addition to the reels, jigs and slipjigs. So, I’ve seen the whole gamut.  

If you’re talking about competitive dancing, it’s just #98. That’s all they want. I mean, you don’t even need music. They’re just going click, click, click. 

>>Shannon: Right, right.

>> Jimmy: Doesn’t make any difference if it’s a jig, reel or hornpipe. I mean, so that’s the sad part. There’s no connection between the two at all. 

>>Shannon: Yeah.

>>Jimmy: In competitive dancing. Set dancing, different story. I mean it really helps to accent the music. 

>>Shannon: Right.

>>Jimmy: I mean as you’re playing for sets, you know—when they’re digging into it, it makes it so much easier to play, ‘cause you know you could… 

>>Shannon: Oh, yeah.

There’s a simpatico going between you… And, you know, if there’s bad dancers, sorry dancers, you know, it makes it really tough. It’s like dragging, you know, around a concrete block.

>>Shannon: HaHa! Yeah!

>>Shannon: What about sean nos dancing, now, a big resurgence in this, too.

>>Jimmy: Oh, exactly. Well, you know I mean, that’s part of the whole set dancing thing. There’s a lot of movements the same, a lot of the rhythms they use.

>>Shannon: Yeah, most set dancers love sean nos dancing, and most sean nos dancers do a lot of set dancing.

>>Jimmy: Correct, yeah. They mesh perfectly together. 

>>Shannon: Even though Kieran Jordan, as a child, was lured by the shamrock dresses and the choreography of a traditional step dancing school, her work today also shows love and respect for sean nos and social dancing—and for improvisation, musical collaboration, and joy of movement.

>> Kieran: One of the defining aspects of sean nos dancing for me is the improvisational aspect, um, which is very different from step dancing. Step dancing you’re talking about steps that are composed, as, think of it like a sentence: it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and then you do the same thing again on the left foot—on the other side. And so, there is a process in step dancing, there’s a process of memorization and practice makes perfect and kind of honing the craft until you really know that step in your body. Maybe that’s similar to learning tunes and playing them. But with sean nos dancing it’s a lot freer. Because you might, in fact, make up steps on the spot, and more commonly you may change the order of your steps each time you do them. You may beg, borrow, or steal from someone else’s sean nos’ steps. And so, I think that it allows your personality to weave in and out a little bit more and to, um, respond more moment by moment to the music and to whatever else is happening.

[Music: “The Sand Hunter,” from Celtic Colours Live, Vol. 2 (2013)
Composer: Maeve Gilchrist
Artists: Nic Gareiss, Maeve Gilchrist ]

>>Shannon: OK, so I’ve been teetering on sensational ground here, sort of pitting sean nos and set dancing against competitive step dancing. To be fair, Jimmy did mention concrete-block set dancers who don’t lock in with the music. And now you know Kieran, Kevin and Nic Gareiss (whose feet you’re hearing), who are just three of the many incredible step dancers who improvise, and who lift the music up like instruments. 

So, it’s not fair to say that one dance style is more musical than another. But really, that fluid connection with music is not on easy display at dance competitions. The kids showcase their abilities, one after another. The musicians are often on the side of the stage, and they rarely talk to—or even have eye contact with the dancers. 

And sometimes the big Irish dance shows don’t promote a deep relationship with music either. Riverdance does. It’s the model for these shows. But Riverdance was created by a flute player. And some of the subsequent productions, like the Irish step dance show I played for in Branson, Missouri… well, some of those shows do not have that same link to music. Those dancers in Branson could not have cared less about Irish music!

And there are step dance students out there who have managed to develop incredible facility with dance steps without having a basic grasp of the rhythms of the music. On numerous occasions, I’ve been playing music in a session when a dancer I’ve never met before comes up and asks for a tune she can dance to. “Great, a jig or a reel?” I might ask. And that’s where things can get weird. Some of these eager dancers don’t actually know the difference between this:

[ Music: “Munster Buttermilk,” from Solo Fiddle
Artist: Sam Amidon ]

(This is a jig). And this:

[ Music: “Miltown Girls,” from Solo Fiddle
Artist: Sam Amidon

(This is a reel.)


And maybe who cares if people are just excited to dance?

But maybe it does matter. Just like when Irish musicians get that it’s not just about the notes, but it’s about who you learned the tunes from, and how your rhythm jives with other players. Well, maybe having a connection to music is essential for mastery, regardless of dance style. And, maybe having a broader connection to the social aspects of the Irish tradition makes the whole experience, well, more whole.

>> Kieran: In my classes, um, we talk a lot about, like, the history and progression of Irish music and dance, and the community that is alive and well here in Boston, and of course in Ireland and in other parts of U.S. And, um, and also in some of the trends that have taken place in Irish dance over the centuries. And also, the fact that, um, dance and music for people were really all they had in some of the difficult times through Irish history—and there have been so many! Um, people’s stories and songs and dance were their only outlet, you know, that was their only form of release, and these things were free. You could get up in a room full of a few people and make music and make dance. And um, I think that that joyful element is something that continues to live and it’s something that I try to promote in my classes and my programs.

>>Shannon: So, have you had pushback yourself from not being Irish and teaching craft that originated in Ireland?

>> Kieran: I mean, I’ve certainly had a few raised eyebrows and questions—my name raises a lot of questions too. My name is a male name, Kieren—it’s St. Kieran. And um, I was named that because my dad’s family came from Mooncoin in County Kilkenny, and there were lots of guys in the family who went to St Kieran’s College—it’s kind of a Kilkenny name. So, my parents were well aware that it was a male name. I was christened Kieran Mary, so that’s the girl part of it (chuckling). But, you know, in Ireland I’ve certainly had questions about my, my family background. My name being the most fundamental part of how you identify yourself—and introduce yourself. But, you know, I don’t make any pretense about being from Connemara, or being an Irish speaker, or anything like that. So, I think it’s just important to be who you are and contribute whatever it is you have to say in the tradition. And I’ve had students from Romania, Japan, um, Mexico, um, you know the list goes on, really. It’s not that big of a deal whether your family comes from Ireland or has an Irish background.

[ Music: “Breath, Body, Movement,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

>>Shannon: So, you don’t have to be Irish to study Irish dance. But Kieran is hardly an outsider. Growing up in Philadelphia in an Irish American family, she was immersed in Irish dance from the start. She also lived and studied dance in Ireland for a few years, and she goes back frequently with her husband, who’s from Cork.

As Irish dance has spread around the world—and as broadband is abundantly accessible—people who have no connection to Ireland can learn steps and styles online without knowing about Ireland or Irish culture. I asked Kieran what she thought about this.

>>Kieran: You know, I’ve had opportunities to sit in on, like, Flamenco workshops and Indian Katuk workshops and to work with artists in those fields. And, what connects me to dancers like that is the rhythm, the sense of percussive dance that we all stamp our feet to make sound and connect movement through rhythmic patterns of the body. And how that links to the music. But I know, for myself, in those situations, I’ve always felt very much on the outside—like the cultural aspect of it was something I wasn’t familiar with. And it would mean more to me if it were—if I was a little bit more inducted into the culture of Flamenco or Katuk. I could embrace the music and the movement a little bit more.

[ Music: “Pound the Floor” reprise ]

>>Shannon: Yeah, if you’re learning videos in your living room, you’re also missing the community part. 

>>Kieran: I’m kind of old fashioned when it comes to technology myself. And so, I’m slow to the party, you know, with these kinds of things. But I’m coming around, because I can see that that’s the world we live in and if that’s your only access, um, I think you can learn a lot that way. I still think that, you know, being in a community—even if that just means you have just two dance buddies who come to your house and you look at YouTube videos together—you know, I think being in a community amps up the fun and keeps it lighthearted, and gives you a chance to learn by sharing and learn by watching how other people might interpret the same step.

I actually used to resist, myself, learning off videos because I wanted…I mean, I value the steps that come with a story attached to them. If I have steps in my body and my mind that I learned from so and so 20 years ago, I remember, not just the steps, but so many things about the person, the place we were when I learned that step. So, I didn’t want that removed sense of learning from video. And um, not too long ago there was a dance on a video that I really liked, and I said, “You know, I’m just going to learn this off of YouTube. It was a strange experience, and I did the dance, and I can do the dance now and I have new memories that have built around it. So, you know, I think there is value to all of it.

>>Shannon: That’s interesting that you mention the memories built around something. That’s hard to do when the only memory you have is in your little room watching it on the YouTube video. If you learn it on the YouTube video with your buddies and then you go out have other dimensions to it.

>>Kieran: Yeah, then go take it out and go perform it at your whatever, your local fair, festival or talent show, or just for family and friends. You start to bring it to life that way.

It’s important to take dance outside of the dance studio. People who are committed dancers—lifelong dancers, we LOVE our studios. Dance studio is like church, a dance studio is like sacred space because it’s a space to have low or no technology and to reunite—reconnect with yourself: breath, body, movement, music, and other people. It really is like a sacred experience, taking dance class. And teaching dance class. But I think in Irish dance it is very important to get out of that, you know, your once a week or twice a week structure inside the four walls of the dance studio and bring it into a more social context, whether that’s a ceili, or a session, or a house party, or a festival. An informal type of gathering where music and dance can happen spontaneously together without the five, six, seven, eight of the dance class.

>>Shannon: Why?

>>Kieran: Because the spontaneity, the playfulness is a big part of how it originally existed. And that’s kind of how the tradition lives on is those partnerships that form spontaneously, and um, it’s a big part of it.

>>Shanon: Liam O’Scanláin is from Glenhest in County Mayo. He’s distinguished himself as a sean nos dancer, collaborator and teacher and was named 2016 Associate Artist by Dance Ireland. In between chats with the Milwaukee step dance school and Jimmy Keane, Liam and I talked about how sean nos dance has allowed him to integrate many styles and experiences.

>>Liam O’Scanláin: So, like every Irish person I went to Irish dancing lessons until I was about 10 or 11. And so I did step dancing. And, but I also would have done set dancing and kind of went to ceilis and social dancing at home. So, I learned a lot of my dancing from dancing with other people and kind of just being led through the dance and being brought through it with the music. And, like I—then with the sean nos, it was, I went to one or two classes. But a lot of it adapting it to suit yourself and then being able to create your own thing. So, if you can’t do a certain step a certain way, you can alter it or change it to make it work. And then I also, I suppose, I’ve experience with some—I’ve tried some Cape Breton step and Quebecois and some type of other type of dancing. And all of that, I can’t do any of those properly, but they’ve all fed in somehow and like come out in a different way within the dance. So, like even by watching other dancers and listening to other types of music, that all influences how you hear the tunes then again. And yeah, it’s kind of like the dancing you do is the sum of all your experiences in one way. It kind of comes out whether you mean it to or not. You kind of show your true self in your dancing. 

>>Shannon: I asked Liam how it feels to work with musicians.

>>Liam: I suppose it’s not so much dancing over the music as well, it’s kind of like dancing with the musicians. Like…

>>Shannon: Sure.

>>Liam: … almost making music with the musicians…

>>Shannon: Sure.

>>Liam: …maybe an embodied version of it.

>>Shannon: Sure, like you’re the third ensemble member.

>>Liam: Yeah, and if you watch the musicians, like they’re playing music, but they’re moving the whole time. Like their bodies are feeling the music as well. They’re literally dancing in the chairs.

[ Music: “The Priest And His Boots,” from Cover the Buckle
Artists: Seán Clohessy, Sean McComiskey, and Kieran Jordan ]

>>Shannon: And last night I saw you jump up with Liz Carroll and Troy MacGillivray. 

>>Liam: Yeah, that was good fun. And it was the last set of the night. And then Troy had said if I wanted to join them for a dance that I could join in on the reels. That seems to be a common thing—like to come in on the last set of reels. By yeah, it was really, really nice because they kept it simple and then they started playing off each other and building the whole and the spirit and the vibe and by the time they hit the last reel there was a like a huge energy. Which is like, it’s really nice to be able to join in with and well, to try and contribute to, without destroying the whole thing.

>>Shannon:  Well, it was nice, because they were kind of loose, um, and then you could kind of feed off of that too and there was a real spontaneous sort of improvisational element.

>>Liam: I find when I’m dancing that’s my favorite time to dance, is when it’s not planned. Yeah, the less you have to think of in your head, the more you can just be in the moment and the more you can, you know, just add to it—or contribute. Like whatever they were doing it would try to spark something to go a certain way with the rhythm or step or whether to go quieter, or to push it home, or to… like a conversation.

>>Shannon: You’re talking about a more improvisatory approach, and then do you have experiences with bands where you’ve kind of worked things out in advance?

>>Liam: Yeah, yeah, sometimes, like eh, if it was in a show or something that was set that you were repeating every night, the musicians were playing the same tune in the same way—even improvising you start ending up in a rut maybe. Like it’s uh, you know what comes next, and this movement comes with this bit it starts to take form. And there’s other times where you might have a piece of music for its, whatever way it’s structured, it’s not like a regular reel, and you have to choreograph a piece to it. Um, that’s nice in its own way. You can add in more complicated things, or you have time to make something. 

>>Shannon: Right.

>>Liam: What I find hard is you spend a lot of time trying to remember what that was and try to remember it in your head, which kind of takes away from the being in the moment. So, it becomes a different type of dance. Like, to me, that’s not so much sean nos. That’s uh, it’s still dancing, and it can still be really good. But it takes away that element of spontaneity and of freedom. 

Like, I think it’s really important for dancers to listen to a lot of music. I think dancers forget sometimes, too, that there’s a relationship with the music. So, like the more you listen to the music, the more you can interact with it. Because not every step fits every tune. I think sometimes, like, dancers might choreograph a dance to a reel. And then there might be a different reel played, but they want to force that other reel on top of the tune, and they don’t necessarily fit together. But it’s eh…yeah, no it’s nice when they come together and have that kind of conversational aspect.

>>Shannon: To be more casual and more community music-based, is sort of the opposite…

>>Liam: Yeah

>>Shannon: …of bringing your steps and then bringing musicians along in that kind of competition setting is a very different interface.

>>Liam: Yeah

>>Shannon: Here I’m veering into a dissenting tone again. But to me, Liam’s attitudes about dance with music… well, they feel very different than the Feis-fueled step dancing approach.

>>Liam: Yeah, like um, competitions are a strange thing. Once you, once you make something a competition, not matter what it is, there’s a different…it takes on a different meaning. 

>>Shannon: Yes.

>>Liam: Yeah, and I suppose people are being graded on certain things like maybe timing, rhythm, athleticism. The musicians don’t get a look in, sometimes so like—not intentionally, it’s just unintentional because they are positioned off the stage. There’s nothing about atmosphere or um,… 

>>Shannon: People aren’t having conversation and drinking pints and saying hello.

>>Liam: Yeah, and it like, not every moment is right for dancing. Like you have to feel it. It’s like playing a tune. You can’t just go PLAY.  You can’t just go jump into the best set of tunes ever. And I suppose in competitions you’re expected to go straight. And like, everyone is hushed beforehand, and there’s this awkward silence, and there’s this weird stress. It’s a really alien thing. 

>>Shannon: And if that were, say, a young person’s only experience say, with music and dance together, it might be a less holistic view of the Irish tradition.

>>Liam: Absolutely, like competition has its merits as in it promotes, like um, being focused and practicing, and aspiring for something. But as you said there’s a holistic approach, like there’s a social aspect to it. Like it’s a social tradition about coming together with your community, whatever that may be, and playing tunes and dancing and singing and having fun and talking. Humans are social animals. Whereas if it’s just solely competition, like your only interaction is the sterilized competition form which really doesn’t… Which, I’m just gonna contradict myself now, has its own social aspect in a strange way. I suppose some people meet—the only time they meet—is at competitions and come together. Which is funny though. It’s kind of… it’d be nice to see if you could marry the two together in some way.

>>Shannon: Sure.

>>Liam: Yeah.

>>Shannon: A deep melding of music, dance, and community is probably not a realistic ideal for a competition—or even for a big commercial show. But it does happen for Liam onstage. It happened for Liam in Milwaukee with Liz Carroll and Troy MacGillivray. And with my husband Matt and me and with many other musicians that weekend. And it happens all the time with Kieran, and Kevin, and many of their students, whether they’re dancing onstage or at our local pub. It happens with Jackie O’Reilly and Joey Abarta here in Boston. And it happens over Thanksgiving when Bridget Fitzgerald pulls together a half-set in the living room.

So, I guess whether you’re laying down a flashy hornpipe at a competition or doing sean nos in a pub or moving around the floor with other couples; maybe the heart of Irish dance is feeling the music, embodying it.

And maybe to get to the core of Irish music, you’ve gotta feel the movement and the rhythm of the tunes.

There’s rhythm in flute breath. There’s melody in the steps. And there’s harmony when players and dancers have that conversation.

My thanks to Kieran Jordan, Liam O’Scanláin, the Glencastle Irish Dancers, and Jimmy Keane for the great conversations. Thanks to Nic Gareiss for the track. And thanks to Kevin Doyle for teaching me more about Irish music with his dancing. You’ll hear more about Kevin next season, in my Irish Music in America series.

[Music:  “Anlon McKinney, Mind the Dresser,” from Christmas Celtic Sojourn Live 2010
Composer: Liz Carroll
Artists: Nic Gareiss, Liz Carroll ]

This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. With support from these generous donors: Seán McGinnis, John Kerr, Brian Benscoter, Davy McDonald, and two anonymous donors.

Thank you for your show of support. It helps me pull Irish music stories together, to share with everybody.

If you’d like to learn more about the people and the music in this episode—or if you can kick in with a show of support—please head to IrishMusicStories.org. 

Next month’s show will air on Tuesday October 10th. It will be an episode about… WIT!! I hope you’ll tune in. 

Thanks again for listening, everybody!


>>Liam: You can’t just jump straight into the best set of tunes ever, like…

>>Shannon: Well, maybe you can!

(Both laughing!)

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

County Mayo-born sean nos dancer, collaborator and teacher 

Philadelphia-born, Boston-based dancer, teacher, and choreographer specializing in sean-nós and old-style Irish step dance 

Wisconsin-based dance school offering Irish step instruction to children and adults

Jimmy Keane


Chicago-based accordion player born in London of Irish-speaking parents from Connemara and Kerry

The Heaton List