Art Talk with Irish step dancer Kevin Doyle
July 2, 2014
"Irish music is dance music." -- Kevin Doyle, 2014 NEA National Heritage Fellow
While many of us may be familiar with Irish step dancing, whether from the many St. Patrick’s Day parades that take place across the U.S. each March or through Riverdance-type shows—very rarely do we get a close-up look at the actual intricacies of the craft. Irish step dancer Kevin Doyle—a 2014 NEA National Heritage Fellow—started competing in Irish dance when he was just 10. Of course, by then he was an old hand, having spent many mornings before school practicing his steps by the kitchen sink under the direction of his mother. Since then, the student has become the master, and Doyle’s long career has included not only competition but teaching and mentoring others in the lore and practice of Irish dancing. We recently spoke with Doyle who gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the art form. In his own words, here’s Doyle on the dance of the Irish.
On learning to dance
[When I was learning to dance I] would be taking lessons during the weekend, also doing tap during the week and then practicing both things. I know that when I was very young we would practice for about 15 minutes before school in the morning. My mother would have us dress in our school uniform and stand in front of the kitchen sink and go over our reels and our early jigs with her. She would lilt the tunes to use in the morning because she wasn't a musician. She was a dancer, so lilting was something they did very often in Ireland when there wasn't a musician in the house, and it was a way of sort of singing the tune. Only it would sound something like "dum -diddle dee-diddle-die..." and we would do the steps to that kind of music. So we would practice in the morning and then, of course, in the afternoon or the evening I would practice again for about 45 minutes to maybe an hour to keep fresh the steps that we learned so that we could go back and progress the next week at school.
You would practice a little bit each day, and then there'd be other times when you practice a little lengthier of a time, 45 minutes to an hour, just so that you were getting the form and the competitive style effective. Or somewhat near that [to] where you were going to be in good shape for the competition. So you would dedicate a little more time if you had a Feis coming up, which was an Irish dance competition. (That's what you called the dance competitions in the 60's and they still call them that now.)
[I remember] there was a step in my horn-pipe that I used very often in my competitions that it took me probably about two months or so just to master doing that step correctly. Because of the rhythms and the way the rhythm has to flow and getting my feet to do what I wanted them to do.
On the Irish tradition of dance masters
[Traditional steps] can be traced to the later part of the 18th century. The dance master… appeared throughout Ireland and those dance masters were the ones who created these solo steps and the competitive form of dancing. And these gentlemen, these dance masters, used to travel throughout the countryside and they'd stay in villages six to eight weeks at a time and they would teach the people of the village to dance. They were allowed a certain territory [to teach] dance and so when they met at fairs and things, a lot of times there would be challenges… and they would have a dance competition. It would be a dance-off and the last man standing would be the one that was victorious…. Whoever was victorious had the right to teach in that other dance master's territory. Cause it was very territorial.
Because [the dance master] was such a flamboyant, well-respected guy--he used to travel around with a staff and bright clothing--they were put up in the finest homes in the town. And if there was a village (an old story but it's true) and they were envious of the dance master's style over there [in another village] they would actually kidnap him and take him to their village... I don't know if that goes on any more, but sometimes in Providence, Rhode Island that happens. <laughs>
On styles of Irish dancing and creating new steps
Well, there is a lot of difference in styles of dancing. It's mostly the time signatures of the music where the reels are 4:4 time, the jigs being 6:8 time. The rhythms in the hornpipe are very, very choreographed, and steps really [move] to the music…. Each dance looks totally different. Irish music is dance music.
I have invented many, many steps and it's what happens through the years where dancers are known for somewhat stealing other people's dance steps. Not stealing them in a bad way, but [you see] a dancer and they do a really cool move. And so you look at that step--and sometimes the dancer will share that with you--and [you ask] how did you do that move. They share that with you and then you can incorporate that into one of your steps. You create as you go along in your career as well. You always have your true traditional steps that you've learned back in the day; those are always part of your routines. However, sometimes you can add in create and choreograph new steps, which I've done many times.
Between the jig, the reels, and the hornpipes, through the years I've choreographed many steps to fit classes that I've taught like for different levels of dancers--beginners, intermediate. So sometimes you have to take a step and just change it a little bit so it's a little more doable for the class.
Besides tap and the traditional [Irish] step dance, I also do the sean-nos dance… and that was the very early form of tradition step dancing where it's a very loose form. It's not the competitive style where you have your hands stiff down by your side. It's a very loose form with your knees bent. It would be [the style to dance] in a session like or in a kitchen hooly or a cottage in Ireland where they would just step up, jump up, and they would say "Don't let that good music go to waste! Someone get up and do a step to it." It's a very free style, and it's very un-choreographed…. You never do it the same twice, you know what I mean?
I'm always learning new routines because I'm part of a dance troupe, the Atlantic Steps, which is a touring group with six dancers and five musicians. Those routines I go over, and the main thing that I do daily is I do exercise daily with the steps to keep my legs and my wind. Because that is very, very taxing on your legs and your wind. So it's not so much that I'm practicing to know what I'm doing, but a lot of days I'm practicing to stay in the shape you need to be in to do that dance so you don't look like you’re totally wasted when you're done dancing up there. Nothing worse than seeing an old guy up there that you're like he's going be on machines when he gets off. So you try to do it effortlessly and still be able to breathe normally, so it's a lot of it for your wind and just conditioning of your legs and your body.
I would say probably [I perform] around 60 [times] or a little more than that, because I do perform with two different groups and there may be a period around Christmas time, although Christmas time I've been busy with different shows in Boston, Christmas shows. But there are some times where you'll have four or five gigs a month or sometimes you'll have a couple in a week. And it's just the nature of the business, when you can get the gigs or when the funding there. But I say it would be safe to say that somewhere around that it would average out to at least 50 to 60 times.
I would say [I’ve taught] hundreds of students because a lot of my teaching is in schools… Five years old was the youngest [I’ve taught] and my oldest student is probably in her early sixties. You know, it's the type of thing I always encourage people to do no matter what age because it doesn't have to be a competitive form of dance. It can be just be for the love of the music and the love of trying to do some of that dancing so that when you do hear the music you can actually maybe stand up and do a bit of a step. A buddy of mine was 58; I encouraged him to dance and he took up some tap dancing. I sent him out to [my teacher] Teresa who was 90 at the time. She's 93 now and still teaches two days a week. But he went out there and he came out of the class and he asked me, “How do you tell a 90-year-old woman that you need a break?] She's working him so hard.
Visit the National Heritage Fellows page on arts.gov to learn about the eight other master folk artists we're honoring this year. And save the date to join us in person or online for this year's Heritage Fellowships celebration concert on September 19.