- Step Dancing in Ireland: Culture and History by Catherine E. Foley
Catherine Foley’s book is the first systematic, ethnohistorical study of step dance in Ireland, and is a timely and welcome addition to critical dance scholarship. Coming from an ethnochoreological perspectice that engages with the dialectical relationship between movement systems and the historical and cultural conditions in which they are practiced, Foley takes us on a journey with Irish step dance from its roots in rural Ireland of the eighteenth century through to its present day theatrical and competitive practice. Within this trajectory, she identifies three main stylistic forms of step dance associated with the distinctive performance contexts of the local, national, and global. In the local context, she outlines the pivotal role of itinerant dance masters in rural North Kerry throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the role of the Gaelic League in creating a national dance canon in the early twentieth century; and, in the contemporary context, the role of commercial imperatives in theatrical and competitive dance within a global cultural economy. Utilizing a combination of ethnographic observation, oral history interviews, and documentary sources, Foley demonstrates how the changing skills, aesthetics, and symbolism of step dance reflect a changing society and value systems in each of these performance contexts.
Research on the history of dancing as a leisure activity in rural Ireland in the nineteenth century is not new. It has been well served in the work of Breathnach (1983), Brennan (1999), and Friel (2004) with reference to the southeast of Ireland. Both Breathnach and Brennan use data collected by the Irish Folklore Comission, and Brennan’s book also contains valuable ethnographic interview material from various parts of the country. However, Foley’s unique contribution to the history and culture of step dancing is her sustained and meticulously conducted ethnographic research in the North Kerry area between 1983 and 1986, and again in 2001. The author, herself a step dancer and ethnochoreologist, clearly establishes her role in the ethnographic process in Chapter 1. Her own experience as a dancer and her prolonged immersion in step dance culture enables her to bring an embodied knowledge and insider view to the project, while her training in Labanotation assists her in providing a precise and detailed description and comparative analysis of the dance styles under review.
The book’s discussion, laid out in eight chapters, moves chronologically from the nine-teeth century to the twenty-first century. Chapter 2 addresses the influence of the continental European dance aesthetic on the local context and particularly the role of dance in the “civilizing process” (23) and in keeping with an individual’s status in a hierarchical society. Though interesting and informative, this chapter could have been substantially edited without damaging its contextualising function. Chapters 3 and 4 are devoted to an account of the emergence of itinerant dancing masters and of their integral role in rural society within the context of colonialism. Foley’s ethnographic interviews, especially those with dancers who had learned under the instruction of Jeremiah Molyneaux, the last surviving itinerant dance master in the North Kerry, comprise the cornerstone of this work. Based on information about individual dancing masters, including their backgrounds and personal histories, as well as their teaching schedules, practices, and payment systems, she builds a clear profile of their role in the transmission of dance to the local peasantry. Given the reliance on documentary evidence in historical dance research and the “relative dearth of information on the practices and experiences of dancers” (O’Connor 2013, 153). Foley’s recording of a dance tradition on the verge of disappearing from living memory adds considerably to our knowledge of step-dance practice in the nineteenth century.
The embodied knowledge and the cultural meanings of step dance for the Molyneaux dancers are the subjects of Chapter 4. This knowledge, some of which was acquired through formal training and some informally from local culture, included posture and steps, movement and performance style, knowledge of appropriate ritual...