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  • Ethnochoreology as a Mediating Perspective in Irish Dance Studies
  • Catherine E. Foley

Up until the 1980s, dance in Ireland existed as an important human activity, engaged in for various reasons: socialization, entertainment, competition, performance, tourism, ceremonial occasions, and so on. It was not, however, researched and examined on a par with other fields of study within the social sciences. From the 1980s on, however, the academic study of dance within the context of culture increasingly gained ground in the West, due to the influence of a number of anthropologists in the United States interested in human movement studies.1 Academicians also began to note the work of ethnochoreologists in Europe who, since the 1960s, had been involved in field research and studies of dance in their respective cultures.2 Dance and the role that it played—together with the meaning that it embodied within diverse societies around the world— gradually became a significant field of research and study. Scholars within multidisciplinary fields of study—including anthropology, ethnochoreology, ethnomusicology, dance ethnology, sociology, philosophy, cultural studies, cultural geography and feminist scholarship—argued for the significance of dance and the body as a way of illuminating and understanding issues relating to human [End Page 43] movement, culture, and humanity. Certain themes or concepts became prominent in this scholarship: for example the linguistic, ethnicity, identity, politics, cultural embodiment, and gender.3

In Ireland, the ethnochoreological perspective emerged in the 1980s with work by myself, followed by Helen Brennan and Frank Hall.4 My work included physically learning, documenting, and examining a marginalized traditional step dancing practice in North Kerry; it also looked at how the cultural politics of the cultural nationalist movement, specifically the Gaelic League, assisted in urbanizing, popularizing, and institutionalizing step dancing in Ireland. Brennan investigated sean nós (old style) dancing, another marginalized step dancing practice in Connemara, while Hall explored Irish dancing as ideology, sport, art, and duty.

In 1996, ethnochoreology entered the university system in Ireland in the form of an MA in Ethnochoreology at the Irish World Music Centre at the University [End Page 144] of Limerick.5 This was the first program of its type in any university in Europe, and it validated dance and human movement as legitimate fields of study within the social sciences. I designed this MA program, and have directed it since its inception. In 1999, the university added an MA in Irish Traditional Dance Performance program at the Irish World Music Centre. I was invited to design this program as well, and, again, have directed it since its inception. This was likewise the first such program—in fact, the first at any university in the world. They coexist among a suite of nine MA multidisciplinary programs and two undergraduate programs in music and dance.

Starting in the 1970s, modules and programs of dance had emerged at third-level colleges and universities throughout the developed nations of the West; in Ireland, however, such programs emerged a full decade or more later. The general tardiness in the rise of dance studies can be ascribed largely to inherited notions of Cartesian dualism in the West, a worldview that separated the mind from the body, and which favored the mind over the body. Descarte's famous dictum, "Cogito ergo sum," or "I think therefore I am," has been interpreted as being representative of this position. Indeed, the scientific name for human beings, homo sapiens—the wise man or knowing man—has placed an emphasis on knowing by means of the mind, not the body. In the logocentric culture of Western civilization, verbal and literate modes of expression and communication have dominated the nonverbal and the visual.6

This was made manifest within the educational system in Ireland; until relatively recently, academic-based subjects took precedence over the more vocational and practice-based subjects such as woodwork, metal work, home economics, art, and music. Currently, dance as a subject is available at the Leaving Certificate Applied level in Ireland and is included in the curriculums of primary and secondary schools as part of the Physical Education program. For Irish students, however, dance is not as yet available as a subject in its own right, neither in the...


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