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  • A Changing Focus: The Evolution of Irish Step Dancing Competitions in Australia
  • Jeanette Mollenhauer (bio)

Irish step dancing1 is, arguably, one of the most globally recognized genres of traditional, culturally specific dance. The descriptor “step” means that the dancing “involves a concentration on foot movements close to the floor in which the tempo of the accompanying music is beaten out by the dancer” (Brennan 1999, 63). The worldwide recognition has been largely due to the stage show Riverdance, created in 1994, and the subsequent shows such as Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames. Step dancing has also benefitted from recent scholarly attention, with its history, development, and cultural significance discussed in a range of publications (Brennan 1999; Foley 2001, 2013; F. Hall, 2008; Wulff 2009). The globalization of step dancing began with processes of emigration from Ireland, but the stage productions allowed many more people to be exposed to the dance form. Currently, the genre is propagated within a variety of disparate geographical and sociocultural contexts, and so there is potential for a worldwide study of the localized idiosyncrasies which may be identified, recorded, and analyzed.

This article presents research about step dancing competitions2 in Australia, and hence there is a need for some preparatory discussion of both the Australian context and the nature of competitions. Australia is a nation which has been inhabited by indigenous people for centuries, but which has a relatively recent immigrant settlement history, dating from the arrival of the first group of British ships in 1788. These ships carried military and administrative personnel, whose tasks included surveying the new land to determine its agricultural and economic potential, supervising the construction of buildings and roads, and controlling the prisoners who had been banished from homes and loved ones to serve their custodial sentences in a land which is thousands of kilometers away from the places they knew as home (O’Farrell 1986). The ships contained approximately 1,500 people, some of whom were Irish3 (Reid 2012), thus making the Irish one of the oldest nonindigenous groups to reside in Australia. In total, 39,000 prisoners were sent from Ireland to various locations in Australia between 1788 and 1868, before the decision was made, by the British government, to abolish transportation (National Archives of Ireland n.d.). An even larger number of migrants left Ireland voluntarily; 300,000 free settlers arrived in Australia between 1851 and 1914 (Department of Social Services 2014). The migratory flow continues even now, and in the 2016 population census, Irish ancestry was the third most commonly [End Page 68] listed, following “English” and “Australian” (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2017), although the latter category may disguise the presence of even more people with Irish ancestry.

The situation for Irish immigrants in Australia up until the early twentieth century was dire; they were treated with disdain by the British administration (D. Hall 2014; Hall and Malcolm 2016; O’Farrell 1986), and the subsequent positioning of the Irish immigrant community has a direct bearing on the historical analysis of Irish dancing practices in Australia. The marginalization of people who had migrated from Ireland to Australia (for whatever reason) provides fundamental contextualization for step dancing4 within the settler society. Stereotypical representations of Irish immigrants were commonplace up until the middle of the twentieth century. For example, an article on the difference between crime in England and in Ireland published in The Times in London on June 19, 1947, was reprinted later that year in the Sydney Morning Herald, which stated that

The Celtic Thug is not the member of a secret and separate sect. It is a national profession. ...What makes Irish improvement almost a moral impossibility is the fact that the greater part ... sympathize and conspire with the murderer.

(The Sydney Morning Herald 1947)

This popular conceptualization of Irish people as being culturally and morally inferior is also demonstrated in nineteenth century newspaper advertisements for positions vacant, which often carried the caveat “No Irish Need Apply” along with a description of the tasks to be performed by the prospective employee (Hall and Malcolm 2016). Finally, Irish immigrants were frequently depicted in cartoons with simian facial features, a practice...


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