Step Dancing Around the World

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.






Thought of the Day #9

A little less than 1600 years ago, a little Welsh PK was captured to be a slave by Irish pirates. He went on to found a missionary movement that would reach not just all of Ireland, but also Scotland and the Nordic countries.


I can’t help but think he’d be appalled if he saw what people did in his name today.

Latha Fhèile Phàdraig

Or however they prefer to spell it, probably with most of the letters missing.

And yes, I know that St. Patrick’s Day isn’t technically until Thursday, but the parade was today, winding through Adelaide towards the Irish Club, where there was alternating music and dancing for several hours. The second dance school to perform had a fascinating mix of “traditional” Irish Dance with some contemporary bits, and I thought that was pretty cool. I’m a sucker for hard-shoe. I think it’s the rhythms. At Spring Fiddle, there’s usually a step-dance workshop (the Scottish and Canadian version of Irish hard-shoe) and it’s great fun, even if I can’t quite get it. Apparently in Canada, step-dance competitions are the judges seated underneath the floor so they can hear the rhythms better.

It was mostly green. I think I saw about three orange shirts / dresses. I will wear orange next year, I’m determined. “It’s all right if you have orange leanings,” I was told, “But they might make you walk.” The trick is, the Celtic Slow Music Band wears green as its colour, and mostly that’s fine by me (except at Mount Barker Gathering, where I’m turning up in my tartan clashing with a saltire no matter what). The problem is… green on St Patrick’s day? I’m not Catholic.

Anyway, the parade went well, and I didn’t even get burnt. Lots of construction crews turning out to watch (anything to avoid actually constructing something, of course), and we got lots of stares as we wound our way through Chinatown. Seriously, it’s Mad March and people should be used to strange things happening on the streets of Adelaide by now. They probably thought we were part of WomAd or the Fringe.

I don’t usually go to Monday Slow Music Night, mostly because it’s a Monday and it’s inconvenient, but I go a weekend event a couple of times a year. I got in with the Celtic Slow Music group because they started about half an hour before Irish Class finished, back when went to Irish Class for about a month.

Here’s a tip for you: the Irish are racist. Either you’re Irish, or you’re some sort of sub-human not worth mentioning. You can talk until you’re blue (or green) in the face about how you speak Gaelic, and ‘s e Gàidhealaich a th’ anns na Gàidhealaich, we’re all the same, really, I’m here because our languages are similar, it might be nice to talk to each other, widen the pool for conversational opportunities, but if you’re not Irish, they don’t want to know you. God forbid you have even the smallest skerrick of Irish blood in you (as I do), because then you’re a traitor for not acknowledging it. The worst part is, there are people at the Club – and were in the Class when I was – who had just as much Irish blood as I do (umpteen-great-grandparent on one side) but they identified as Irish, so they were in, and I was out.

Yeah, so I don’t go to the Irish club much. I just couldn’t deal with that every week, so I gave up on the whole Irish language idea and just sort of kept in loose touch with the Celtic Slow Music people.

Probably the only accurate descriptor in that title is ‘music’. In this case, ‘Celtic’ means ‘Irish’, and ‘slow’ means… Really quite fast, most of the time. It’s all in good fun, and it’s great craic, as they would say, for a jig or a reel, but I don’t want to hear Raglan Road played in happy jig time when it’s a slow, sad air. Or – even worse – Red Red Rose, on the rare occasion they venture out into other areas of Celtic. These ventures are usually Scottish, admittedly – I don’t know that there are any Welsh, Cornish, or Breton tunes in the repertoire, although there are a few Australian ones – but are still played in happy Irish jig style.

This sounds like I’m complaining, and I’m not. Today was great fun. I’d hoped to catch up with some of the people from the Irish class and chat for a bit, but I only saw one, and she hasn’t gone in about three years and could barely respond to “Dia dhuibh! Cónas atá sibh?” – which, admittedly, is about the extent of my Irish. Besides which, it was a bit noisy for conversation.

There was one set we played twice that I didn’t know, but I’m getting much better at harmonising each time I play, so I felt I did really well with that today. My main problem is with tunes that are in different sets with different groups. For example, the Slow Music people play Blackthorn Stick with Rakes of Kildare, but it’s with Tinpenny Money with the Hills Bush Dance people, and Rakes of Kildare comes after Mucking of Geordie’s Byre – which is slightly different in the second part at each place, but not enough that I can’t get away with playing the Hills version, which I learnt first, at both places.


It’s like “Where’s Wally?” but it’s “Spot the Protestant”. There are three in this photo. Well, three who were actually brave enough to wear orange.


Once we got back to the hall, we had a welcome speech from the president of the Irish Club. I was impressed with how much Irish was actually used – it would have to be 50/50, with everything said in Irish first and then English – but the sound system wasn’t great so I doubt people at the back understood much of either. The woman in question doesn’t really have any Irish, so it really became a question of how many times you can say ‘ceud mìle fàilte’ in a day.

Then we sang the national anthems, to the accompaniment of a guitar. This was a problem for me, because I only know the first line of the Irish national anthem, so it became something like:

“Sinne fianna fáil atá faoi gheall ag Éirinn… buí hurram-da… chan eil fios agam… hurram-durram-da… sin e ar sinnsir feasta… chan eil fios agam fhathast mu dheidhinn na faclair… anns an t-òrain Eireannach an-seo … Le hurram Ghaeil! … bás no saoil… hurram-durran-da… lámhach na piléar… seo leibh, canaidh òrain na bhfiann!”

And then, somehow, it became Advance Australia Fair without even a pause for breath or key change – I’m still trying to work out how that was managed – and I know all the words to that one, at least.

In other news, although still on the topic of national anthems, my Hebrew teacher keeps threatening us with learning haTikvah if we don’t pay attention, so… I’ve taught myself it.

Then I had a textbook to pick up, while I was in the city, and I stopped for a bit to eat at the café there.


Why is food so artsy now? A cake this small does not need a place that large. And surely that’s a waste of caramel sauce…

It’s warm today, so I took my fiddle in with me.

Yeah. Dressed in green and carrying a fiddle in the middle of March. I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that everyone knew where I’d been.

Nor the feeling that it Patrick could only see today (and Thursday), he would be appalled.

Language Update

Would you believe me if I said that in thirty hours, I’d spoken six languages?

Mind you, “spoken” is a bit of an overstatement when it comes to the last. Okay, so, four of the previous five (Gaelic, Hebrew, Welsh, German) have the CH sound, all pronounced without any questions or comments, and so does the sixth (Greek), and yet apparently it’s too difficult to pronounce. But that’s an old gripe. In my opinion, Australian or not, if you’re teaching a language with the CH sound, you can jolly well pronounce the CH sound! It’s not that hard! (And if it is, feel free to choke).

Anyway… Rather than rant about stupid Australian language teachers with dodgy accents (two of the languages), I’ll try and calm myself by detailing my abilities in each language.

ENGLISH (English) – no change, as far as I can tell, to my ability to speak English. Self-rating: C2

DEUTSCH (German) – as I mentioned at New Years’, my German abilities have shot through the floor in the last two and a bit years. Don’t get me wrong, I can still handle a basic conversation, but now I have an obvious accent and a more hesitant vocabulary. As for the grammar – I don’t know that I’d really remember much at all. Self-rating: B1

FRANÇAIS (French) – well, I’m probably not up to the standard I was when I did the Year 12/ DELF B1 exam eighteen months ago, but I don’t feel like I’ve lost much. If there’s any of my languages (other than English) which presents itself in my life regularly, it would be French. I’m not sure why, since I live in one of the Germanest areas of Australia, but I think a lot more people have studied French. It seems to be a pretty popular language at the moment. Self-rating: A2-B1

ESPAÑOL (Spanish) – I can still understand it. I could probably form a sentence or write a paragraph, but to be honest, I haven’t really wanted to since I stopped learning it two and a bit years ago. I’m not even sure why I learnt this language in the first place. Probably something about it being a global language and the only other option at the school being Indonesian. I never got particularly good at Spanish, anyway. Self-rating: A1-A2

GÀIDHLIG (Gaelic) – the only language with which I feel I’m progressing well. I’m not quite making the same leaps and bounds as I perhaps did last year, but we’ve got on to some much trickier stuff and I have less time in the week to devote to it. Self-rating: B1

GAEILGE (Irish) – I only learnt this for about two months before I realised two things: (a) there’s no way I’m ever going to be able to pronounce this language, and (b) Irish people can be really racist to non-Irish. Which resulted in me leaving the classes and never looking back. Ah, well, the more I know of Gaelic, the more I understand of Irish. I’d probably be a solid A2 when it comes to reading and hearing this language.

עברית (Hebrew) – after struggling last year with oh-so-much rote grammar and definitely not memorising lists and lists of vocab words, I realised that basically the only thing I’d achieved was the ability to read the alphabet and a basic understanding of Hebrew tense roots. And that first was rendered almost useless whenever I was presented with anything in cursive. Two weeks in Israel gave me the sound of the language for the first time, as well as a handful of phrases, some useful vocabulary, and two songs. I’ve now enrolled in an evening class at WEA for Modern Hebrew, so I’m actually excited about learning the language now. Self-rating: A1

KOINH (Greek) – all the gripes about rote grammar and vocab list memorisation apply to this, with the notable exception that I haven’t been able to escape to somewhere that teaches it like an actual language. I mean a modern language. You know, with speaking. As it is, I dread the lessons, which are both painful and dull, and got syllabus shock for the first time when going through it in the class yesterday. There is going to be so much homework for this, especially considering we don’t really seem to do any actual learning in class. Or speaking of the language. It’s all syntax, and most of that is just common sense. Yes, we’re reading 1 John, but it’s all, “Let’s challenge ourselves and try to translate directly!” Yeah, right, the only good part about the class is the bit where I get to read Greek out loud. Listening to a couple of the others try, not so much, but that’s the only fun bit, is reading it. I’m so busy this term, I’m strongly considering dropping it, since it’s the only non-mandatory subject I have at uni. And the homework is insane. Self-rating: A0?

CYMRAEG (Welsh) – this was just for a bit of fun when I saw the week-long intensive listed on the WEA catalogue website. In hindsight, it’s probably not the best idea in the world to do a language intensive in the first week of lectures, since I’m so exhausted and actually beginning to dread going again tonight, but overall it’s been fun. Welsh is such a fun and cool language. It has such a cute sound and in terms of vocab and grammar, it’s fairly straightforward. We learnt about mutations yesterday, which was all sort of fun and I’ve been looking forwards to. Gaelic only has one sort of mutation (lenition/aspiration), while Welsh has three (softening, nasalisation, and aspiration). Only problems are (a) the teacher’s actually Australian, although living in Wales for the last 12 years, and speaks Welsh with the most Australian accent I can possibly imagine someone speaking Welsh. Her blàs isn’t there! I don’t know how someone can live in Wales for that long and not pick up the blàs. And (b) speaking Gaelic gives me a distinct advantage when it comes to grammar, while being about 40 years younger than my classmates gives me an advantage when it comes to vocab. Let’s just say that after three days, the gap is widening. Self-rating: A1

Well, it’s a bit of a depressing, gripey list, but there you have it. I even managed to curb my complains about Greek in general and the Welsh teacher and other students in particular.

A Few Similarities and Differences between Gaelic and Welsh

Well, since I’ll be going to my first Welsh lesson, part of a WEA two-hours-for-five-days crash course, this afternoon, I thought I’d do a post about it.

And yes, I know part of my language policy for this year (which I might get around to typing up and posting at some point) was to not run after every shiny new language which catches my eye, but I’m sure I had a very good reason for enrolling in the Welsh course other than sheer excitement at the possibility of doing so.

Distraction from the woes and trials of student life with a sister leaving home? The ability to finally unleash a long-held desire to learn this strange and different Celtic language which none of my ancestors definitely ever spoke? The fact that the teacher is from Wales and probably won’t come out and hold the course ever again?

Anyway, last year at the Sgoil Nàiseanta, there was a Welsh-speaking girl there. Since we were about the same age, we ended up sharing a room, and we stayed up late on the second night nutting out exactly where the similarities and differences between our two languages lay. Some were expected. Some were more surprising.


The Grammatical Similarities

They’re different languages, but they’re still closely related, and after a comment from one of the teachers at the Sgoil, the first topic of conversation was grammar. Welsh and Gaelic do share grammatical features which English doesn’t have, which is only to be expected.

Like Gaelic, the verb comes first. Unlike Gaelic (but like Irish), it conjugates slightly. Like Gaelic, verbs have different positive, negative, and interrogative forms. The negative interrogative is formed with “nach…?” in Gaelic and “nac…?” in Welsh.

Like Gaelic (and Greek, for that matter), Welsh has no indefinite article. It’s “yr”, though, which bears no resemblance to Gaelic’s “an”.

Like Gaelic, Welsh lenites/aspirates/mutates/smooths initial consonants. Unlike Gaelic, the system is much, much more complex. Welsh, like Gaelic, also has prepositional pronounce, although it calls them “personal forms of prepositions”. This means that a preposition joins with a following pronoun to create a whole new word. I’ll use a preposition which is the same in both languages (but not when conjugated) to demonstrate:

AR                          AIR                         ON
arna                       orm                        on me
arnat                      ort                          on you
arno                       air                          on him
arno                       oirre                      on her
arnon                     oirnn                     on us
arnoch                   oirbh                      on yez
arnyn                    orra                        on them

Okay, that’s not very similar. I will point out, though, that prepositions cause the object to lenite/mutate in both languages.

Numbers, which don’t really bear much similarity to each other, have two systems in both languages – one based on scores, and the other decimal. Welsh’s score-based system is a little more complex and requires multiplication by nine a couple of times.

The Vocabulary Similarities

There is a major shift between the two languages involving the P/B sound in Welsh and the C/G sound in Gaelic. For example, “mac” and “mab” (“son”) or “ceann” and “pen” (“head”). An S-T shift (similar to that between German and English) also pops up occasionally – such as “sron” and “trwyn” (“nose”). On the topic of body parts, “leg” is the same, “càs” and “coes”, but Welsh has a word for “foot”, “droed”, while Gaelic just called that the “bottom leg”.

The word for “year” is similar – “bliadhna” (G) and “blynedd” (W) – while “month” is pronounced identically – “mis” (W) and “mìos” (G). “Week”, however, is completely different (“seachdainn” vs. “wythnos”). “School” is similar – “sgoil” and “ysgol” – but that’s pretty much universal. The names for different levels of school are completely different.

“Water” (“uisge” and “dwr”) is completely different, while the similarity between “fire” (“tèine” and “tan”) is visible only if you squint. “Fish” and “horse” are also completely different, with a clear Latin borrowing in Welsh (“pysgod”, as opposed to “iasg”, and “ceffyl” verses “eich”), while “dog” (“cù” and “ci”) and “pig” (“moc” and “mochyn”), and are the same, and “cow” bears resemblance to the Latin word in both languages (“bò” and “buwch”).

“Big” (“mòr” and “mawr”), “small” (“beag” and “bach”), “old” (“sheann” and “hen”), “new” (“nuadh” and “newydd”), and “bad” (“droch” and “drwg”) are all the same, while “glas” is “green” in Gaelic and “blue” in Welsh. “Black” is also similar, with “dùbh” in Gaelic and “du” in Welsh.


This isn’t strictly relevant, but I find the comparison between various names for places in the Celtic languages quite fascinating.

English   Great Britain           Wales                       Brittany
Gaelic      Breatainn Mhòr     Cuimrigh            Breatainn Bheag
Manx       Bretyn Vooar           Bretyn                       Vritaan
Irish         Breatain              Breatain Bheag        Briotáin
Welsh      Prydain Fawr          Cymru                      Llydaw
Cornish   Breten Veur             Kembra                    Breten Vian
Breton     Breizh-Veur            Kembre                    Breizh

It’s almost worse than the “glas” confusion.

I explained this to my roommate at Sgoil Nàiseanta: “In Manx, they call Wales ‘Bretyn’, and in Irish it’s ‘Breatain Bheag’, which is Gaelic for Brittany, and our word for Wales is ‘Cuimrigh’.”

She grinned and said, “Well, at least you know how to pronounce it!” “Cuimrigh” in Gaelic is pronounced exactly the same as “Cymru” in Welsh.

Film: Elizabeth speaking Cornish

About: Elizabeth has been speaking Cornish from childhood and worked for some years as a Cornish Development Officer. This clip is part of the Wikitongues collection of spoken languages.

Language: Cornish

Subtitles: None (English transcript available on YouTube)

Year: 2015

Time: 4 minutes

This is a series of posts showing you some of the films and documentaries I’ve been watching in the past months.