Steps Of Freedom – How Irish Dance Became a Global Phenomenon
Producer / director Ruán Magan presents his new documentary RTÉ Steps of Freedom – The Story of Irish Dance, a vast documentary series that chronicles how Irish dance has gone from a peasant dance to a global phenomenon … Watch Steps Of Freedom here , via RTÉ Player.
The story of how Irish dancing evolved from a traditional dance to a major entertainment phenomenon enjoyed by millions of people is extraordinary.
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Listen: Ruán Magan on Steps of Freedom on RTE Arena
Long ago, Irish dancing was something that took place in homes and small cabins, often to mark important personal moments, weddings, baptisms, funerals, or just to have a little craic. Today, with shows like Riverdance and Feet of FlamesIrish dance has reached audiences of over one billion people and is taught in over 50 countries around the world.
About seven years ago I was struck by a question: what about how Irish dance has brought the form together with ballet, tango and ball, known dance forms in the whole world ? Few who have seen him will forget the moment Michael Flatley walked across the Eurovision Song Contest stage to perform Riverdance In 1994.
It was impossible to remain indifferent to Flatley and Jean Butler, the award-winning dancers who accompanied them and the music of Bill Whelan. But could there be, I wondered, other intrinsic elements embedded in their dance that stirred people’s souls?
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This is the question that pushes The marches of freedom, a quest to tell the story of Irish dance from Antiquity to the present day. After years of research, the resulting story is far more remarkable than we might have imagined.
One thing that has become clear is that there is no such thing as pure Irish dancing. As a dance historian, Leni Sloan says in the film: “All art is assimilation, all culture is assimilation, all dance is assimilation. Dance is an expression of the human soul. We do this to free ourselves from the drudgery, to escape the norm or to celebrate important moments.
Many of these moments in our history have involved encounters with fellow seafarers in France, Spain and North Africa and with our close neighbors in England and Scotland. Irish dancing shares aspects of the dances found in these cultures. It’s a hybrid form, but as dance historian John Cullinane notes, our style of percussion “has the fastest footwork of any dance in the world.”
A fascinating aspect of the story reveals how, through interactions between Irish indentured servants and subsequent Irish immigrants who lived and worked alongside people of African descent in slave plantations and infrastructure projects in the United States, a new form of dance evolved that we know today as tap dancing.
It is intriguing that Flatley was an award-winning tap dancer before becoming an Irish dance star. He and Jean Butler are also the heirs to the Broadway tradition established by Irish Americans like George Cohan, Gene Kelly and James Cagney. But one of the amazing things we found is that Flatley and Butler also share a dance lineage that dates back to successive dance masters in Ireland until the 1700s. We also found that many aspects of dance development Irish over time were a direct result of the Irish experience under British rule. Irish dancing was a sort of ‘resistance dance’. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he connects with people all over the world to this day.
The story of The marches of freedom is told through a series of beautiful, original, specially created dance scenes, each designed to stir heart and soul and produced by an extraordinary team of dancers, musicians and creators. Hundreds of wonderful people collaborated on the creation and despite the restrictions of our time, their dedication has resulted in a beautifully spectacular result.
The marches of freedom is not a normal documentary: it is a social story of Ireland told through dance; it is an eye-opening experience that reveals fleeting aspects of the Irish character; and it’s an entertainment show featuring mind-blowing performances from some of the best dancers of the day.
As Morgan Bullock said, “The dance will not be captured. She flies freely. Have fun!
Steps of Freedom, RTÉ One, Thursday December 16 at 10:15 p.m. – catch-up after broadcast via RTÉ Player