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Reviewed by:
  • Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland
  • Sherry Johnson
Helena Wulff , Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland. 2007. New York: Berghahn Books, 192 pp.

"Dancing at the crossroads" is a key metaphor in Helena Wulff's study of Irish dance, Dancing at the Crossroads: Memory and Mobility in Ireland, the first volume in a new series, Dance and Performance Studies (Helena Wulff and Jonathon Skinner, eds.). Wulff writes that crossroads dancing is no longer considered a living practice in Ireland. Indeed, my own experience took place in the context of an internationally-renowned music festival, and although undoubtedly a "living practice," it was more about display and spectacle than it was about participation and practice, as it would have been in the past. The idea and image of dancing at the crossroads represents, to the Irish at least, "a changing society where tradition and modernity meet, and are being negotiated in many ways in different contexts" (p. 14); thus, it is an apt metaphor for this book.

Wulff examines this relationship between tradition and modernity in relation to relevant and timely issues in contemporary culture and society— [End Page 621] memory, identity, and cosmopolitanism—and she explores these issues through ideas that, if not unique to Ireland, are certainly highly significant to it. Themes such as land, the "Troubles" (conflict between the Republic of Ireland in the south and Northern Ireland in the north), hospitality, home, emigration, and story telling, as both explicit and underlying ideas in dance performances, relate these performances to larger issues in Irish, and indeed global, society. For each issue, Wulff provides a brief review of selected literature and then provides short case studies as illustrations of how these issues might be understood in terms of dance performance. The case studies are based primarily on a description of the choreography (in the case of dance theatre) and/or a particular event (in the cases of seannós and competitive step dancing), as well as interviews with participants and reviews by dance critics. Indeed, the integration of diverse sources of information is a strong aspect of this book. Unfortunately, many of the descriptions of movement lack sufficient detail. Perhaps Wulff has tried to focus on too many performances, missing the necessary depth of any one, or possibly she felt that such detail was unnecessary. As a critical reader, I would like to follow her analysis right back to the source of her understanding, that is the movement itself; her connections to larger issues are substantially weakened when the analysis is not grounded in a detailed description of the movement. Lacking detailed description, or even in addition to it, an accompanying DVD with excerpts of relevant performances would be a beneficial addition to the book.

Although many dance studies focus on only one dance form at a time (p. 2), Wulff examines larger issues of memory, identity, and cosmopolitanism across and through three main dance styles, which she identifies as solo competitive step dancing, folk dancing, and dance theatre (she later mentions the old-style sean-nós step dancing as a fourth style); she suggests that these styles represent the stratas of popular, folk, and high culture. While I feel uncomfortable with her easy division and labelling of these styles, I do appreciate her attempt to look at how these issues play out through a number of dance styles. Her insights into how these styles influence and shape each other, and particularly in relation to issues of memory and identity, are rich, and make a strong contribution in the study of dance.

Another of the strengths of this book is Wulff's presence in the text. She provides interesting and detailed narratives to describe her experiences at performances and dance events. Particularly evocative is Wulff's opening narrative to Chapter Two in which she describes how she was chosen, by [End Page 622] a raffle, to adjudicate a sean-nós step dancing competition in the west of Ireland. Despite her initial discomfort, she chose to accept her unexpected role in order to gain a unique perspective into the dynamics of the competition. Although she had done little Irish dancing...


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