Performing the Nation-State: Political Geographies of Irish Step Dance

This is a guest post by Gisele O’Connell, one of our postgrad students.

Speaking on the potentialities of the performative body to confront cultural nihilism, Friedrich Nietzsche (1968:462) was once adamant that “we do not yet know what bodies can do.” Given the productive possibilities for bodies to radically transform social space, what, then, could be said of the Irish dancing body performing the nation-state? Irish dance is more than merely a hobby or a sport, but is a distinct cultural art-form in itself, depending on who you speak to. For some, Irish dance evokes uncomfortable childhood memories of knotted hair-curlers and long afternoons spent at post-mass competitions! Taking these contested views as a point of departure, I want to argue that Irish dance, is, by its very nature, inherently geopolitical. As a political geographer and occasional Irish dancer, I have recently been reflecting on the inter-relations between these distinct, but not entirely unrelated, forms of knowledge. While there have been a highly engaging and enriching litany of dance and music ethnomethodologies within cultural geography, I do not attempt to explore these here. Nor do I profess to be an expert in this area. Merely, I want to briefly suggest two ways in which I believe we can see the Irish dancer ‘embody’ or ‘perform’ conditions of the nation-state. These are namely, what I have termed; ‘performing pastoral power’ and ‘Irish ipseity & the will to perform difference.’


Source: With kind permission from our dancing school: Scoil Rince Ni Doirbhin

Dance occurs in a myriad of forms across cultural and geographical space. Yet one component which remains invariable to its execution, is the performing body. This body, with its various inner components and outer parts, endures in a perpetual state of motion and circulation. Despite this, the moving body as a performative force, rarely receives analytic attention. Short-sighted understandings of the characteristics of bodies are often reflected in the technical mechanistics of dance performance itself. As Richard Schusterman in ‘Performing Live’ (2005) has shrewdly observed, there are certain norms to the appreciation of live performance whereby tapping fingers, moving hips and bobbing heads are themselves aesthetically disparaged. Yet as Turner (2005) makes plain, it is these very unpredictable and unstable motions and ‘mobilities’ of bodies which, when arrested, make dance a special art form, distinct from its cultural counterparts. The performative qualities of dance, and its ability to articulate a socio-spatial immediacy, secure it from an unauthentic and mechanical reproducibility in an age of ever-growing technological advancement. Thus performing bodies, and their corporeal identities, are important conduits for political and geographical processes, and deserve our attention. As a geographer, I consider bodies to be largely reflective of the environmental conditions in which they are both produced and sustained. In this way, the state of the body, and the body of the state, are always intimately interlinked. Judith Butler, for example, has argued that we can never separate out the materiality of the performing body from discursive regimes which constitute and regulate it. Taking discourses and practices as mutually constitutive then, may require a praxiographic shift in our thinking, to consider bodies not merely as pre-existing ‘matter’ but as something which arises only within and through enactments of governmental power. As the dancer will be acutely aware; the body is always made and remade through practice! These power regimes are both embodied within, and continually reproduced through, national dance genre.

Performing Pastoral Power

Dance has always been a site of political contestation over state control and regulation of sexuality in space. Following Foucault’s (1979) celebrated elaboration of biopolitics in ‘History of Sexuality’, the power of the state can never be divorced from power over bodies and control of life. This was particularly evident in some of the acid-raves in the late 1980s, when dancers who challenged national heteronormative assumptions, became the object of state-induced violence. Raves were often associated with queer identities, the use of illicit drugs, but most importantly; intensive dancing. Yet with the development of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, rave houses were soon seen as the stigmatised sites of over-sexualized subjects and were subsequently targeted for closure by governments.

Anxieties over the body and sexuality are perhaps nowhere more evident than in Irish dance. Again, we can see how throughout history, subjectivation of the body occurs within and through social space, as informal gatherings of Irish dancers became the target of a panoptic Catholicism. Throughout colonialism, traditional Irish dances were held in communal spaces such as meetings of crossroads, or at ‘house dances.’ Informal spaces afforded dancers with an ability to express national identities and affinities to home, while dancing itself possessed a cathartic effect, as the rhythmic movements shook off foreign oppressors. Yet the rise of a nascent Republic; so- called ‘de Valera’s Ireland,” saw these spaces and their potentialities for colonized subjects, not only regulated by the state, but in some instances, entirely foreclosed. Wulff (2005) writes of the prohibition of house-dances by law under the ‘Public Dance Hall Act’ 1935, which restricted Irish dance to licensed halls only, dually serving as a space for consumption and thereby raising taxes for the burgeoning nationalist state. These laws were largely the work of Catholic Bishops who associated unregulated and informal spaces of dance with “occasions for sin” and the ignition of sexual deviance.


Source: A dance at a traditional crossroads taken from:

Dancers today still largely embody and (re)enact the pastoral power which has shaped the evolution of their bodies. The stiff posture and straight arms which gives Irish dance its unique cultural aesthetic, reflects a Catholic tradition of hostility to dance as a stimulant of sexual desire, (Wulff, 2005; Turner, 2005). Similarly, Theodores (1996: 204) while commenting on the solitariness of Irish dance, observes how Ireland has probably been one of the few countries to successfully remove ‘les pas de deux!’ from its national dance culture. Wulff’s (2005) interview with choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan goes on to note how there is a parallel Irish tendency to avoid physical contact in everyday life, even among family members, claiming that ‘‘in Ireland, we’ve never been in touch with the body.’” While we may be cautious to avoid generalisation and simplification here, the fact remains that an ‘Irish fear of touch’ and ‘lack of sexuality’ persists in the embodied solo step dance, and undoubtedly results from the pastoral power of the Catholic Church, (Wulff, 2005).

Irish Ipseity & The Will to Perform Difference

Irish step dance is largely seen as the embodiment of Irish nationalism. Foley (2001: 35) traces its cultural representation of ‘Irishness’ back to the founding of Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) in 1893, which had, as its primary agenda, the “deanglicization of Ireland.” The League selected various practices to assert a nationalism, of which the Irish language, and step dance were included, (Foley, 2001). Irishness thus came to be defined over and against what the Imperial ‘Other’ was not. Irish dancing today however, marks a contested boundary between tradition and modernity which troubles these previously held conceptions of Irish exceptionalism and any cultural essence of ‘Irishness.’ For example, ‘Jig’, a documentary released in 2011 which followed a series of competitors in the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne (World Championship) featured many dancers of mixed and non-Irish origin. Some of these included Julia O’Rourke of Filipino descent, Melanie Valdes whose father is American- Cuban, and Sandun Verschoor a Dutch competitor of Sri Lankan heritage, (Valde, 2015). This has now lead some commentators to speak of an emergent ‘Feispora’ as opposed to ‘diaspora,’ given that today’s Irish dancers come from a range of geographical origins and multi-ethnic backgrounds, and indeed a great majority, “claim no Irish heritage at all” (Valde, 2015: 64). As Valde (2015: 64) documents, “non-Irish dancers [now] vastly outnumber the Irish.” While there are roughly 500 certified ‘An Comisiún le Rince Gaelacha’ teachers in Ireland, more than 1,500 are residing outside of Ireland, (Valde, 2015). Difference and ‘Otherness’ has always been a structuring component of Irish dance, yet any appreciation of this has been entirely removed from the dominant conceptualisations of Irish identity. Foley (2011) shows how, up until the establishment of the Gaelic League, ‘Ceili’ never in fact had any association with dance in Ireland. The word: Céilí, took its meaning from the art of ‘neighbourly conversations’ in Ulster and Scotland. A ‘canon’ of Gaelic League dance was merely constructed to include some of the widely known; Bailai Luimní (Walls of Limerick) and Ionsaí na hInse (The Siege of Ennis) while writing out of history the more traditional Irish folk or ‘séan-nós’ brush and barrel dance. Most strikingly however, Foley’s (2011) genealogy of Ceili dance, finds that the first Irish ceilí was, rather ironically, held in Bloomsbury Hall, London, in October 1897. Ceili then, remains part of an invented or imaginative geography of homogeneity which emerged in the midst of a cultural revival of nationalism.

Despite alterity being an inescapable element of Irish dance, the state, through ‘An Comisiun La Rinci Gaelacha’ (The Irish Dancing Commission) continues to pervade a hegemonic aesthetic ‘norm’ of Irish dance, which precludes the involvement of ‘other’ forms and folds of bodily flesh. Some of the more competitive dance companies even institute regressive age, height and weight restrictions for participating bodies. In this way, cultural capital is achieved through bodily form, shape and measurements, establishing young, slim, white bodies as a normalized ideal. And hence, dancers can be congealed in unison to essentially ‘perform’ the state’s imaginary geographies of sameness. As a result, ‘Other’ bodies which do not fit this narrow standard – those who are too small, too tall, too old, too dark, too unfit, or simply too ‘different’ – are removed from our spheres of visibility.

Critical geographers, artists and activists alike, have a particular responsibility to challenge these regressive and exclusionary logics. One example of a very successful initiative by Irish emigrant activists which has progressively reclaimed space for abject bodies of the Irish nation, is the ‘St Pats For All’ New York parade. According to their website, St Pats for All “welcomes all to celebrate Irish heritage and culture regardless of race, gender, creed or sexual orientation… as the principal way to celebrate and understand contemporary Ireland and its diversity.” Together with Caroline Duggan’s ‘Keltic Dreams’ dance troupe from the Bronx, this parade brings an array of bodies and voices into our sphere of visibility through dance and song, as they freely and collectively express their identity, their connections with Ireland, or simply their solidarity and love for the Irish. What this social movement eloquently captures, is that there is a relationality and alterity to Irish identity which needs to be cherished. As Jacques Derrida (2000) famously noted, we can never make a universal claim to ‘ipseity’ or wholeness; essentially, we can never form our identities without the presence of difference. The ethical horizon of hospitality or ‘cosmopolitanism’ which we must move towards then, is achievable not simply through lip-service to multiculturalism, but is found in the deconstruction of violent binaries between Self and Other. This is exactly what the dancers of ‘St Pat’s for All’ embody. They exemplify a politics of hospitality and inclusion, which, in advance of the Centenary celebrations, forces us to question how indeed we might ‘perform’ the 1916 Proclamation to a diversity of Irish people today.


Source: Keltic Dreams dancers seen at St Pats for All Parade – with kind permission from Brendan Fay of St Pats for All

Yet we might extend this thinking to the role of dance and performance itself. As dancers, we always require the ‘Other’ when we perform on stage, as we can never see our own selves in the act of dancing as ‘Other’ onlookers are be able to do. As such, the ‘Other,’ in the act of seeing, will always know aspects of ourselves and our dance, that we do not even know. And it is in this way, that the dance materializes and acquires new meaning, through the eyes of the Other. Yet this in itself, raises further important ethical questions of who comprises the ‘dancer’, and who at any time, is merely the ‘observer’. For Derrida, the Self and Other never arise in hierarchical arrangement, but rather, they emerge simultaneously: the Other precedes, and exceeds the Self, making the Self possible. Therefore, we might wish to consider how all forms of bodily movement and comportment could, to some degree, be classified as a form of dance. Hence this may enable us to re-think dance as something which truly ‘moves’ beyond the nation-state; open to all, and compelled to be appropriated and re-conceptualised by a multiplicity of bodies.

Gisele O’Connell


Works Cited:

An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha. (The Irish Dancing Commission). Available to access online at:

Barrel Dance at the Wild West Irish Tour: A sean-nos barrel dance is available to watch online at:

Brush Dance at the Cliffdon Music Festival: A sean-nos brush cance is available to watch online at:

Foley, C. (2011). ‘The Irish Céilí: A Site for Constructing, Experiencing, and Negotiating a Sense of Community and Identity’ Dance Research:The Journal of the Society for Dance Research. Volume. 29. Issue No: 1 Pp. 43-60.

Foley, C. (2001). ‘Perceptions of Irish Step Dance: National, Global and Local.’ Dance Research Journal.

Foucault, M. (1979) History of Sexuality, Volume. 1: The Will to Knowledge. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

‘Jig’ (2011) An Irish Dance Documentary. Directed by Sue Bourke. Available to watch online at:

Keltic Dreams Dance Troupe: ‘Irish Dance Teacher Honored for her work as Founder of the Keltic Dreams’ Irish Central. Available to access online at:

Nietzsche, F. (1968) The Will to Power. Translated by Walter Kauffman and R.J Hollingdale. New York. Vintage Books.

Shusterman, R. (2005) Performing Live: Aesthetic Alternatives for the Ends of Art. New York: Cornell University Press.

St Pats for All. Available to access online at:

Theodores, D. (1996) ‘A Dance Critic in Ireland’, Dance Chronicle: Studies in Dance and the Related Arts 19(2): 191–211.

Turner, B.S. (2005) ‘Bodily Performance: On Aura and Reproducibility’. Body and Society. Volume 11: Issue 4. Pp 1-7.

Varade, K. (2015). ‘Dressing the “Feispora”: Changes in Irish Dance Costume in the New Millenium’. New Hibernia Review, Volume 19. Number 3. Pp. 58-75

Wulff, H. (2005) ‘Memories in Motion: The Irish Dancing Body.’ Body and Society. Volume 11: Issue 4. Pp 45-62.

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