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Irish Dancing Hits Center Stage
Interview with Dr. John, Part 1

An Interview by
Annie from Dublin


You have been involved with Irish Dance from your childhood. Was dance part of your family heritage?

Yes. First of all I was born in Cork City in 1939.

My mother was a dancer before me and in my book on the history of Irish Dancing Costume she features on page 22 in her dancing costume. She learned her dancing in the Cork Pipersí Club, and I went to dancing when I was about 11 years of age, so roughly around 1950, here in Cork City.

Iíve traveled the world over, but Iím very, very much a Cork person. Iím lecturing here in this university 40 years this year, and so I learned all my dancing in Cork City.

A lot of the dancing seems to be centered around the Cork area. Is it a bigger or older center for the dance than other parts of Ireland?

Yes. Historically, Cork and Kerry were the great areas for the travelling dancing masters, and to an extent, Limerick. But West Cork and Cork City were great centers going back a hundred -- two hundred years ago.

The arrival of dancing in Dublin, for example, is relatively recent because it only followed the Gaelic League foundations in the 1890ís. The travelling dancing masters, who were the people who really brought the solo dancing into Ireland, came on the scene early in the eighteenth century, somewhere roughly between 1700 and 1750, and they were very, very much a Munster phenomenon, very much Cork and Kerry. So Cork has one of the greatest, longest traditions. So I was born into the right county!

Nowadays the opportunities for children to go to festivals and compete are numerous. Was it very different in the past, and did people travel (even within Ireland) as extensively for the feisanna as they do now?

The answer is, very definitely and obviously not. The feisanna (competitions), or feis, the singular, as we know it today was founded by the Gaelic League in 1893, and the first feisanna were held in Macroom in West Cork in 1898 (this has all been written up of course in my books) -- Macroom, homeland, of course, of William Penn of Pennsylvania - so the whole concept of the feis was actually again a West Cork phenomenon.

Now in earlier times, travel wasnít as easy, and I grew up the 1940ís - 50's, and even then, while we might not have had quite ĎAngelaís Ashesí childhoods, you just did not have the facilities to travel as you do, and we went to competitions and to feis out in West Cork. I went to Limerick once a year and that was about it.

Money was scarce and travel wasnít anything like it is now. And certainly the idea in my young days of going to England or America for competition would have been totally out of the question.

Now, the whole concept of competition has changed. And itís of interest to learn that the first competition in McCroom had about 6 or 8 competitors, and even the first oireachtus in Dublin had only about 6 or 8 competitors -- less than 10 -- whereas nowadays, we are talking about competitions of 2,000, 2,500, the dancers from Cork City, just flying all over the world.

They fly to England quite regularly. They go to North America every year for the North American Championships. Theyíre held at different venues around North America, and they attract somewhere in excess of about 3,000 competitors.

One feis in Chicago alone, where they have 1,800 dancers there in one day -- going on at 8 or 10 different platforms!

And itís fascinating to think of the whole concept of the feis -- the competitions -- starting just a hundred years ago. Nowadays, in the last two or three years, weíve had dancers from Cork travelling to Australia for competition, and so this has brought the whole world of dancing much closer.

One of the down sides is that the regional styles have been blended together. You can no longer tell a Kerry dancer from a Cork dancer, or a dancer from Illinois or Kentucky or North Queensland in Australia. Theyíve all had the same kind of styling of costumes, the same style of dancing, because everybody wants to keep up with what is happening. So certainly the travel now is mind-boggling.

You turned to the sciences for your career despite your passion for Irish Dance. At what stage did you begin teaching dance, and did you ever consider it as the Ďday jobí instead of the university, and if you began again now, would Irish Dance be taking the lead in your life, rather than science?

(Big smile and a chuckle!) Iím not really sure. I suppose in one way I possibly had the best of both worlds -- the freedom of the academic life. And letís be honest -- if I were in another job -- a 9-5 sort of regular job, I donít think I would have been able to pursue the research on the history of the dancing, as I have been able to.

I started teaching dancing in 1965 after qualifying as a teacher. I only taught dancing for 10 years. I stopped teaching formally in 1975. I say 'formally' because I still teach in a different format. Now I go away to places like South Africa, places like the most northernmost parts of North Queensland, and so I extend the boundaries, teaching in a different way.

The Master Class Workshop?

Yes. I think one of the things I found about competition at the time was that it was 'touch and go'. I was lecturing here in university and loved that and loved the teaching side of things -- my pupils and that -- but trying to do that and run a dancing school...

I had a very successful dancing school. They won World Championships, All Ireland Championships, Great Britain Championships, and were very much at the cutting edge of competition. I donít think I could have stayed in it without being at the cutting edge of competition, and yet there was another side to me that kept saying Ďthereís more to Irish Dancing than competition, there are other aspects of ití.

And so thatís what I suppose was in me all the time -- the love of dancing in the whole, broad sense. And thatís where I developed and started my research and my poking around into the background and the history of it.

So certainly at present and for many years past now the research and the Irish Dancing history is my greatest love. And I have completed 40 years of lecturing here and I suppose to some extent have hit the wall. Academic life is changing very much as well. I donít find the same job satisfaction in it. We are now teaching on 6-week modules here, and okay, I can accept that maybe Iím too old for it, but trying to teach somebody something in 6 weeks and saying goodbye to them after 6 weeks and never seeing them again seems to me is not good education and I get no job satisfaction from that. - I think I could write a song about that -- ĎI donít get no satisfaction!í

Well, if you were starting out now -- the generation where all the dancers these days are -- would you go in the same direction or would you let Irish Dance be your life?

I think my problem was Michael Flatley was born too late for my generation! If I were a young teenager now, without a doubt, the wonderful opportunities that are out there now to make a career and to go out and get paid for doing what you absolutely love doing, travelling the world doing something that you absolutely love doing -- that would be an opportunity I think I would absolutely jump at!

It just wasnít there at all in my time, and that is a whole aspect to Irish Dancing that Michael Flatley, to an enormous extent, and people like Jean Butler and Colin Dunne also, but Michael, without a doubt, spearheading the whole thing - they have opened up a tremendous opportunity.

It is fantastic, it is incredible, and Iím only sorry that either I was born too early or that he was born too late! The opportunities just were not there. I would love to have been a professional dancer. I certainly loved the stage when I was young so the whole idea of being part of those shows, feeling the adrenaline flowing, oh! I wouldnít have been an academic!

Tell me about the World Championships and your involvement with them. They were established first in 1970 - which must have been a tremendous milestone in the Irish Dance world, even if no one could have imagined where it might all lead by the year 2000!

Yes.. If I might first fill you in just a little bit - the World Championships and that are run by the Irish Dancing Commission, which was founded in 1930 - give or take a year or two as it didnít come into being at an exact date, so we put 1930 as the milestone, under the auspices of the Gaelic League.

The IDC is the body that runs the World Championship, and I am Vice Chairman of that organization, and that body legislates for Irish dancing worldwide. Even in North America, we have well over 1,000 Irish Dancing teachers who are qualified through the Irish Dancing Commission (IDC).

Now the IDC had what we call All Ireland Championships in existence from about 1933, but towards the end of the 1960ís we in the IDC were very conscious that there was dancing in other parts of the world to reach out to. So contact was made with America and Australia in the late 1960ís -- a reaching out to these other parts of the world - I suppose I get Brownie points when I use the term ĎIrish Diasporaí - that term that weíd never know what it was if Mary Robinson hadnít become President!

But around that time an enormous change came about in Irish Dancing, and it's fascinating to think at that time there would have been about 10 or 12 of us meeting in Dublin, at an average meeting, and I donít think we were conscious of the far-reaching ramifications of all of this. I donít think we had an idea of this, but exams were conducted and America now starts to come into the network, and Australia, all in the latter years, the final stages of the 1960ís, and the idea was also proposed by a man who actually died there on the last day of July, just weeks ago, a man by the name of Matiu OíMallaidaigh, who was the person - as far as I know - came up with the concept that we should all meet with the best dancers coming from the different countries, to compete. I think the original idea was the each country would send - like the Olympics - its best dancers.

Instead, the concept arose of having an open competition and everybody could send whom he or she wanted to. The first World Championships were held in Collaiste Mhuire in Parnell Square in Dublin in 1970, and this brought the dancers from North America, and of course from England where the dancing had always been enormously successful, but mostly from America and from Australia to a lesser extent - because of the costs of travelling from there.

And so the whole seeds of the World Championships were sown. Very quickly we realized that Collaiste Mhuire -- beautiful, magnificent theatre -- just couldnít hold the numbers, and neither could we control the numbers. I think the first Worlds were a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, a two, two-and-a-half day event.

Nowadays they are a seven or eight-day event, and what is even more important is we have to control the entries by qualification. You have to qualify in your region - if youíre living in the New York area you qualify at your regional Oireachtas there. If youíre living in Western Australia, or Perth, you qualify at your regional there.

We must limit the numbers because we have somewhere in the region of two, two-and-one-half thousand competitors, so. They say big oaks from little acorns grow, and certainly weíve built up what must surely be the largest Irish cultural event. It goes on for eight days - starting at 8 oíclock in the morning and sometimes running right through until 10, 11 or 12 oíclock at night - of competitions. Itís a fantastic thing.

But ease of travel means that now North American dancers are coming over and competing in the All Ireland Championships as well as the Worlds, so one of the downsides is that the All Ireland has almost lost its original Irish identity and is now almost like a miniature World. Itís almost a pre-run for the Olympics, you know, warming up, how is Sonja Sullivan running and so on!

You come over and you compete at the All Irelands to be seen there and to know how youíre doing, see what is Ireland producing, what is England producing, to suss up the opposition just before the World Championship. So weíve built up enormously huge competitive events, and by the way almost all the workers -- people working at those events -- weíre all voluntary. We do have an office staff in Dublin which employs two or three full time people, but all the work, I mean Iím there for eight days at the World Championship and we give of our time, volunteer that to organize that event - with, by the way, no financial recognition from our Irish Government.

Where do you see the Worlds going in the coming century? Are the rules of competition evolving with time as the costumes clearly are and is there opportunity for an expansion in the number of different categories? The Olympic Games are constantly taking on board new sports as varieties of many sports formerly not taken seriously become recognized - is there that prospect in Irish Dance, given that the commercial, ĎMichael Flatley revolutioní (to quote your own words) has opened up a whole new world to Irish dance?

First of all could I say that since the 1960ís, say 1970, when we started the World Championships, that did alter the whole style of dancing worldwide. Americans, for example, who up to that had been doing the old Cork-Kerry style, from the 1890 period, made contact with Ireland and now said, 'my God, totally modern stuff over here!' They saw, and then they came back and they blooming well conquered!

And so, it took them a few years to realize what had been happening, because things had been gradually changing in Ireland but in America and in Australia it had remained like in a time warp, and so they had in many ways the same style of dancing that would go back well over a hundred years in Ireland.

They then changed very rapidly and they took the Irish styles on board, and in turn they became the leaders themselves and no one country dominates now. The South African visitors who were over this year were fascinated that the world of Irish dancing does not revolve around Ireland to that extent any more. The Americans dominate it and the English dancers, and they dictate the style and so on.

Now in the meantime the World events and the All Ireland events are very much held Ďbehind closed doorsí, if I might use that expression. I think you would agree with me that the general public really, prior to Riverdance, didnít even know of the existence of these events. The Irish media here in the form of the television and radio did little or nothing. They totally and absolutely ignored Irish Dancing.

I have my own theory on that - that quite a lot of it was a social snobbery, that Irish Dancing was considered a working class, middle lower classes form of Irish culture, and our media certainly paid no attention. Telefis Eireann, our national television station, totally ignored it as far as Iím concerned. They had an event here which brought competitors from all over the world, and yet they never even utilized that to make even a half an hour program, a documentary.

Have they changed at all?

Really Telfis Eireann hasnít changed. I have yet to see them do a documentary.

They cater an awful lot more for the music than they do for the dancing. So the dancing, World Championships and all that were being run behind closed doors. Now they were changing and they were evolving. The general public didnít see this.

For example, at the World competitions we had the solo dancing, with hands held at he sides - that chestnut, we can come back to if you want to - but we also had a lot of other, different competitions that the general public had no concept of.

For example, we had Ceili competitions. They would still be a bit conservative in that you must do your Ceili competition as laid down -- that is part of our strong, traditional heritage -- but we have other competitions. Two categories, one for figure dance and the other we call Ďdance dramaí.

Now in those we innovate. We compose a new dance, and we utilize different tunes, change of tempo, and we also utilize the hands and the bodyís movement, and the head movement and so on. So in that sense the dancing has changed and is progressing, and actually every year when we go to the World Championships the big, burning question is what are you going to do - itís a top secret what you are choreographing with your team.

But that has been going on, all the time. The general public didnít know about it.

Likewise, in the solo dancing, while the hands had been kept by the side, that concept is still being retained, but the footwork and movements have been changing all the time. They now do a lot of even toe-stands, and major high-kicking up in front of the face. When I was young my dance teacher used to play the piccolo, and playing for us while we were learning dancing, and if I lifted my leg above my knee at any stage he used to take out the piccolo and give me a whack across the knee, with the piccolo! That was just unacceptable, you did not lift above your knee. Nor did you move more than possibly, at the very most in a step you might have gone forward about five or six feet, or maybe four or five feet right or left, so the style of dancing has changed enormously.

(By the way, I always like to pay tribute to my Irish dancing teacher and say I was none the worse for getting those slaps of the piccolo! Looking back, they were good times. I mean, you wouldnít dare touch a child now, not even reprimand them with your voice not to mind to give them a belt of a piccolo!)

But the style has changed enormously. Nowadays, theyíre doing toe stands right up on the tip of the toes. They are borrowing movements from other dance forms and integrating them into Irish Dancing. Now this was always going on, at a gradual pace all the time.

What happened in the Eurovision Song Contest was that suddenly the general public was exposed to something that they were totally unaware of. Itís an amazing concept that the people of Ireland really didnít know what was happening in their own culture. That sounds strange, you know, but thatís what happened. The night of the Eurovision Song Contest you had a few thousand people in that theatre that were left stunned. They just said, what was that? Where did it come from?

Now, okay, I take on board, absolutely and wholeheartedly, completely that the night of the Eurovision Song Contest performance had pushed out the boat much further than we had done in competition, but that evolution was going on in the competition all the time.

My team won the World Championships the first 3 years they were held, and my team won the figure dance that I choreographed. Well, what I choreographed in those days was as different as chalk and cheese as what they are winning with now.

You know, mine would have been like the 'Idiotís Guide To How To Choreograph A Simple Dance!'

And now, they donít stand still for one bar of music but itís flowing, itís twisting, itís turning every second, much more fast-flowing and totally pushing out the boat as regards hand movements, body movements and all that. So you know, people still have the idea that whatís happening in the shows is one thing and what is happening in Irish dancing competitions is totally conservative.

I come across that attitude from the media, again, quite a lot. And I get very frustrated at that, because they are the people who are responsible for not exposing the people of Ireland.

The other thing is then, they say to you, 'oh but youíre from the Dancing Commission, the competitive thing, you hold your hands by your side, you must feel dreadful when you see all these shows.'

They completely forget that all the dancers in those shows, including Michael Flatley, Jean Butler and all of those, they got their training in the competitive world of Irish Dance, at the World Championships, at the North American Championships. They trained as dancers going to feis every Sunday of their lives.

So thatís what they came from, and all the dancers in their shows, but the media seems to think, there is a mental block there, they think that in the IDC and the competitions, they havenít modernized.


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This CelticCafeDANCERS mail list has already brought together over 200 Irish dancers and interested fans who enjoy discussing all aspects of the art. This includes step-by-step instructions of many of the dances seen in the major shows like Lord of the Dance, Feet of Flames, Riverdance, Dancing on Dangerous Ground, Gaelforce Dance, etc. Whether you're a dancer or a wanna-be dancer or just a fan interested in what goes into the world of Irish dance, this list is for you.


Cover Image Title and Description

Irish Dancing Costumes, Their Origins and Evolution

Fascinating study of the evolution of costume in Irish Dancing, including unique period photographic record from as early as 1892.

123 pages. softcover. b/w photographs. First published 1996.

Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing in North America

Study og the history of Irish Dancing in Norht America from research begun when Dr. Cullinane was first invited to give workshops in San Francisco in 1972. Includes photographs and sections on different regions of North America, also details of costume evolution and feiseanna in North America.

99 pages. softcover. b/w phtographs. First published 1997.

Aspects of the History of Ceili Dancing 1897-1997

Produced to celebrate the centenary of the foundation of Ceili Dancing, includes valuable photographic records plus sections on the origins, the contribution of the Gaelic League, classification of Ceili Dances and an account of the First Ceili in London, 1897.

80 pages. softcover. b/w phtographs. First published 1998.

Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing in Ireland, England, New Zealand, North America and Australia

First look at world history of Irish Dancing. Includes excellent gallery of photographs, plus sections on the history of the Ceili dancing, the dancing masters, costumes, the Cork contribution, feiseanna, competition, dancing around the world.

185 pages. softcover. b/w photographs. First published 1987.


Further Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing (Ireland, Scotland, Canada, America, N. Zealand and Australia)

This is a real reference book, listing accounts of feseanna and competitions of various years in the different places, and is clearly meant to be read in conjunction with the first book of the title.

150 pages. softcover. b/w photographs. First published 1990.


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