Dance featured in the Revels is often primarily based on traditional Morris dance, but not this year. When we’re not doing a “strictly English” Revels, dances highlighted in the show must be relevant to the script and at least roughly related to the time period. The exception is Lord of the Dance, which is a signature Revels piece and occurs in every show. The Lord of the Dance was choreographed by Jack Langstaff’s daughter Carol, and incorporates steps and moves from several Morris dance traditions.
Most people are familiar with Irish Step dancing, a la Riverdance, but this year the Christmas Revels is featuring sean-nós – a very distinctive and old style of Irish dance. There is also sean-nós singing, which is a distinctively Irish a cappella style.
Sean-nós dance is an improvisational style with an emphasis on percussion. It accompanies instruments the way a drum would. This style is very relaxed, featuring low to the ground stepping and easy arm and torso movements. Because it is an improv style, no two performances are alike. The music and dancers are “one”…. the music informs the dancer and, as a percussive counterpoint, the dancer informs the music.
There’s not too much to research on the origins or sean-nós but step-dancing can be dated to the 1750s. In the 1800s the role of “Irish dance master” appeared. These itinerant dance instructors each had a “district” in which they traveled from village to village giving dance instruction. And in 1893, following the great Irish diaspora, the Gaelic League was established “to preserve and strengthen all elements of Irish culture.” The League organized dance classes and competitions, which focused on step-dancing.
In this year’s Christmas Revels you’ll see examples of traditional sean-nós dancing, as well as a “set dance” or social dance, often found in the context of a Ceili or other Irish dance gatherings. Set dances are thought to be related to the French Quadrille. We’ve been instructed to dance as though we were dancing in a kitchen, complete with obstacles! I suppose that’s what it might have been like, dancing on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic.
For a chance to try out the kind of dance you’ll see at this year’s Christmas Revels, join us on November 14th for our Family Friendly Irish Ceili Dance at the Kells. More information can be found here.
Some Sean-nós and dance video
You can see Maldon Meehan our dance master and choreographer dancing at minute 2:45:
A short but pointed introduction by someone who’s been doing it a while:
Irish set dancing example (video plays on YouTube.com):
Resources and information