Telling Nonbinary Stories With My Feet

Telling Nonbinary Stories With My Feet

It’s been a bit over a year since I returned to Irish dance, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about my relationship with it and how that’s changed.

Irish dance is, at its core, a competitive art form. It’s a sport. It’s notorious for the pageantry that goes along with these competitions: the bedazzled dresses and curly wigs and far too much makeup. The trophies are large and usually tasteless, and the whole thing is completely bizarre to an outsider.

I knew that the dresses and wigs were even less my thing now than they were in 2010/11, so when I returned to competition, I did so wearing trousers. Combined with my short hair and the cut of my waistcoat, I occasionally get mistaken for a boy at competitions, with stage helpers being surprised when I line up to compete in slip jig. That’s more than okay with me. (Not least because I wish I didn’t have to compete in slip jig…)

At the McGahan Lees feis in March (my first competition as an adult)

I enjoy competing, though that might be partly because all but one of my competitions have gone pretty well for me so far. But as a late starter who doesn’t have the time, money, or physical fitness to commit 100% to a training plan and daily practice, I know I’d never get to the top — and that’s without taking into account the chronic pain. It’s just not on the cards. And while there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had from lower levels of competition, part of me thinks that I could never be satisfied with that. If I’m going to do something, I want to do it properly.

I found myself wondering where else Irish dance could take me. It’s a much smaller world than, say, the ballet world. There are hundreds of ballet companies if you’re good enough to be professional, who do different shows every season — it’s not like joining the cast of Riverdance and then just dancing the same show 900 times. There are also probably more amateur opportunities for ballet dancers. Don’t get me wrong — I never thought I’d be part of the professional ballet world either, but I knew the world was there. With Irish dance, it can be hard to see what alternatives there are to competition or Riverdance.

Until I went to Blas. At Blas International Summer School of Music and Dance, I got the chance to try other forms of Irish dance: sean nós (old style), which I was terrible at; fusion with hip hop; fusion with ballet/contemporary; lighter more traditional steps… And I was only there for one week of the course.

The pivotal moment for me was learning a routine from Noctú by Breandán de Gallaí, taught by James Greenan. De Gallaí is heavily influenced by ballet and contemporary dance, and particularly Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring. Most of you haven’t known me since 2011/12, but for those that have, you may remember I based my final GCSE Art project on the Rite of Spring and was also, at one point, attempting to write a novel inspired by it.

This was the first page of my sketchbook.

(Breandán de Gallaí has choreographed an Irish dance version of Rite which premiered in the summer of 2012. I’m not saying we’re telepathically linked but there was definitely Stravinsky in the air.)

De Gallaí’s choreography spoke to me. Maybe it’s because it draws on ballet too, and that’s something my body understands, perhaps on a deeper level than it understands Irish dance. When I improvise in the studio, I always end up drifting towards balletic steps and styles, even when the heart of it is Irish dance. Combining the two created something that felt right: all the power and noise of Irish dance, with the possibilities of an art form that actually uses your upper body. Combining with hip hop, by contrast, was an interesting challenge, but it didn’t give me the same feeling of control and power over myself that the more rigid ballet fusion did.

De Gallaí’s work also spoke to me because he does some fascinating things with gender, which is a topic I’m really interested in from a dance perspective. I could blather on all day about the contrast between gendered choreography in Lord of the Dance and Dancing on Dangerous Ground, the latter being my favourite Irish dance show. The excerpt from Noctú that we learned was entirely gender neutral; in the real show, the cast has a fairly even gender split, but they’re all doing the exact same steps and wearing very similar clothes.

I watched the rest of Noctú after I’d returned home, and saw that it’s just as interesting from a gender perspective. There are a bunch of soft shoe numbers for the male dancers. There’s a group dance for the female dancers that is entirely about military precision and synchronicity and isn’t sexy in the least (subverting most other Irish dance shows’ choreography). Male and female dancers mirror and reflect each other, proving that most gendered choreography is not actually about anatomy. As a nonbinary dancer, the feeling I got from it was… hope. A sense that maybe there was a place for me in dance. Maybe one day I’d be able to go on stage and not feel out of place.

(De Gallaí’s Rite of Spring, which I haven’t been able to track down and watch in full, has a male Chosen One — a major departure from the traditional young maiden chosen in all the versions I’ve seen. I love that.)

I’ve known for a while that I’m interested in choreography. It makes sense; it’s just another form of storytelling. When I first hurt my wrists in 2013, I remember turning to dance as the only way I felt able to express myself and take back some control over my own body, and I guess as I continue to struggle with pain in my hands, that’s part of what I’m doing now. I start (and often finish) every practice session with improvisation, usually to non-traditional music, working out little pieces of rhythm and footwork that I can reuse over and over again until I make something more polished.

I haven’t been practising much this summer, thanks to the heat and the exhaustion from my new job, but yesterday I had a proper practice session. I spent most of it going over and over the Molyneaux version of The Blackbird. It’s the most traditional dance I’ve ever learned — steps that fit a particular tune, and have done for decades, since Jeremiah Molyneaux choreographed them. But I started and ended my practice with improvisation, steps that were — consciously or unconsciously — a fusion between Irish dance and ballet.

The more I learn, the more I want to take that knowledge and use it to make something.

I want to tell stories. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Mostly I tell them with words, but sometimes those aren’t enough. The reason I love Dancing on Dangerous Ground is because it’s an adaptation of a (medieval Irish) story I already know. I’d like to retell more stories like that. I still think the Táin would be fantastic in dance form, even if it would be exhausting for whoever danced the part of Cú Chulainn…

My goals, then, have shifted. For the time being, I’m still interested in competing. For me, that’s a way to prove to myself that I’m improving, to chart my progress and push the limits of what I’m able to do. It’s a way of solidifying my understanding of Irish dance, in order to then use it in other ways — as well as a chance to meet other dancers and win shiny trophies I don’t have space to display, obviously.

But I’m also interested in branching out. In seeing what else Irish dance is capable of. My interest in finding a job in Dublin sharply increased when I discovered that Breandán de Gallaí teaches adult classes there, because I feel like we’re on the same wavelength and as a result, I could learn a lot from him. (Maybe one day?) I’d also like to go back to ballet, or perhaps contemporary, but finding classes that suit me and don’t give me Bad Gender Feelings is something of a challenge.

Playing one of Tybalt’s henchmen in a gender-neutral production of Romeo & Juliet was by far the most enjoyable ballet performance I ever did. Not least because the costume was way less revealing than anything else I’ve had to wear on stage.

I’m grateful to Blas, for helping me realise that this was partly where my interest lay, and because for the month before the summer school, I’d been feeling restless. Where was I trying to go with dance? What, if anything, did I hope to achieve? While I know, consciously, that it’s okay to have hobbies just for fun, I need to feel a sense of purpose and a long-term goal if I’m going to commit to something.

It’s been just over a year. I’m still aware that last time I had a passionate love of Irish dance, it only lasted a year and a half. It was there right up until the day it wasn’t and I walked away. Knowing myself, knowing these intense phases I go through, I try to keep a lid on those long-term goals, acknowledging that my interest might shift and it’s okay to let go if it does. But my love of stories has always been there. Maybe it’s not so unlikely to think my interest in telling them physically will last too.

You can find my dance pictures and clips of my improvisations on Tumblr and Instagram.

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2 thoughts on “Telling Nonbinary Stories With My Feet

  1. This is so interesting! I did a spot of competitive gymnastics, ballet and creative dance when I was younger, but didn’t really continue. I really like seeing all your dance related posts. It definitely can be hypersexualised and enforcing traditional gender roles, although I can’t say much more because I KNOW NOTHING. But I think it is very very cool that you dance and that you can do it in a non binary way :) <3

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