Yesterday, my mother showed me this clip, which pitched two tap-dancers and three Irish dancers against each other.
As I was watching it, I started thinking about step dancing. Now, I’m no brilliant step dancer. In fact, I know a grand total of three steps, which I can do much, much too slow to sound rhythmic at all. But I *am* familiar with Cape Breton step dancing, because there’s a session of it most years at Spring Fiddle camp. In fact, what the three Irish dancers do in the clip, once the tap dancers get them to loosen up and use their arms a bit, is basically step dancing. I’m sure an actual step dancer would tell me I’m wrong.
Tap dancing and Irish dancing are related arts. The whole genre of dance form seems to have started somewhere in the British Isles and just spread from there. Here’s a quick overview of some of the different forms of step dancing around today.
First, I’m going to mention soft-shoe step dancing, and then ignore it for the rest of the post. Competitive Irish dancing includes both soft-shoe and hard-shoe; in the more Scotland-based traditions, soft-shoe became Highland dance, and hard-shoe became step dancing. Soft-shoe Irish dancing and Highland dancing is slower and more ornamental, as opposed to step-dancing, which is very much about the rhythms.
So, I’m talking about Irish hard-shoe dance at the moment, because I think that’s probably the sort of step dance people are most familiar with. Maybe not. Maybe it’s tap-dancing. Either way, here are a few clips of Irish hard-shoe dancing.
That’s not as exciting as when they go a capella, though.
Modern Irish dance came out of an older tradition called damhsa sean-nós. I should mention that saying “sean-nós” by itself usually means the old style of singing. Here’s a video of someone dancing sean-nós in the 70s.
As far as I can tell, from watching probably far too many Irish documentaries, sean-nós dancing is fading in popularity in the face of both modern Irish dance and popular culture. Nevertheless, here’s a modern clip of a girl from the Conamara.
Step-dancing mostly died out in Scotland, aside from Highland dance which I’ve mentioned earlier, but has recently been re-introduced mostly by Canadians, because the style lives on in Cape Breton.
Just out of interest, that’s where Catherine Fraser learnt it, more or less, before she started teaching it at Spring Fiddle. I’m not quite sure how they stopped step-dancing in Scotland (aside from them all being exported to Canada), because it’s very much a part of the music. Just check out Natalie McMaster’s feet going as she fiddles away in the background of this clip.
Although Wikipedia tells me that step-dancing was also practiced in East Anglia and Dartmoor, I can’t find much to back that up. I was interested, however, to read about clogging, a southern US variant.
It seems to be mostly practiced in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Appalachia, which is no real surprise since the local style of folk music there, bluegrass, still shares a lot of similarities with Irish and Scottish fiddle styles (a lot of the common tunes are the same, too). Here are some kids going freestyle in North Caroline.
Clogging, apparently, is the predecessor of tap dance. I don’t know any more about tap dancing than the next person, but here’s a clip that seems to be pretty typical. Their arms and upper bodies are a lot more choreographed than the other step-dancing styles.
I’m not sure what happened to Australia in all of that. As I’ve mentioned before, our local folk music style is still pretty close to the Scottish/Irish styles, so it seems odd that we didn’t inherit the step-dancing as well. If anyone knows about any sort of Australian step-dancing, do let me know.