Monday, March 19, 2012

On Sean Nos

This past Thursday makes the 3 week mark since I started learning the steps for sean nos (or "old style" Irish) dancing. I have played music for a lot of different types of dancing, and while I have enjoyed almost all of those, I have absolutely loved sean nos since the first time I saw a video of it -- a home video of lady named Emma O'Sullivan tearing it up at a dance festival. It looked a lot like this:

She is still my favorite dancer in this style, and if I ever get to meet her or study with her, I might explode or something, or at least think in all exclamation points. like this: !!!!!! Anyway, since I've started trying to learn this stuff, I realize all over again how isolated we are in mostly small town America--6 hour (drive) from anywhere, and quite a bit further to find a sean nos dance teacher. So, I have been watching all the youtube videos I can find of anyone teaching anything about sean nos. God bless the internet... I've also noticed a few things about dancing and dancers that I find fascinating.

You know, set dancing is all about the geometry of everyone working together, meeting people, socializing, and sean nos is about enjoying life, through the music, with your feet. I love both of them, and as soon as I can last through an entire set, I'll start dancing those too, but sean nos will always have a special place in my heart, probably as number one. One of the reasons is that this dance is what you make it: it can be as simple or as complicated as you wish. It can just as easily be stepping on the beat as it can be adding in whatever fancy footwork a performer comes up with--because it's more about the groove than it is about showing off or doing more and different steps. For example, here's the real thing coming from dancer/musician Tom King (c. 1970s):

He's not using that many steps, but what he's doing with it is simply rocking. and fun. In the short time I've been doing this, I've had someone come up to me--no matter where I'm doing the steps--and want to participate because it looked like so much fun. They also were quite certain they would never be able to do it, but just wanted to be involved. I have taught more people the basic step than I ever thought possible, just because it is what you want it to be, and if it were any more beautiful, I think I'd have to cry.


A lot of this dance is very improvisational, too. Instead of really choreographing something, a dancer learns a kind catalogue of steps and then mixes and matches them to whatever tune the musicians are playing. Because of this, the dance really melds with the music in a way that few other dances do. Check out this video of Aidan Vaughan dancing and the interaction between the feet and the accents in the tune by accordion player Matt Cunningham:

or this one of Michael O'Brien and Sean Leahy playing for an unnamed sean nos dancer:

and another of Emma O'Sullivan:

I see four musicians, but only John Gerard & Marie Walsh are named--sorry! Actually, it's rather hard to sit here and write about it--I want to be up dancing it!

Although, it is at this point, I should point out that is it not advised to go from zero to dancing constantly without adding in some exercises and stretches. I have noticed in the past 3 weeks, my feet have changed shape (in a good way), but they also understandably lack a lot of the muscle that is needed to dance constantly. I've found and implemented a routine of foot exercises, along with yoga for other body muscles and tension, and it has made a huge difference (in the day and half I've been doing it... which should say something.) If anyone experiences the same thing, here are some of the videos I've found that have helped:

I think there were a few more, but these basic ones were the most helpful to start with.

And, one more of Emma to end with, because she's my hero, and I love it: