Helen Brennan’s The Story of Irish Dance

Kim Bates penned this review.

Helen Brennan’s The Story of Irish Dance is an engaging, personal, informative, and opinionated look at the reclamation and revival of traditional Irish Dance in the past 40 years — it’s the sort of story that one imagines could be heard in conversation at a congenial pub, sitting by the fire with a pint, or in someone’s living room with a cup of tea. That said, it’s also well organized and gives a succinct history of the decline of Irish dancing in the 20th century, the victim of commercial zoning laws and clerical vendettas. Brennan holds a masters’ degree on the subject of Connemara old-style dancing from Queen’s University in Belfast, and has consulted on Riverdance, making her an acknowledged authority on this art form. What I liked about this book, as compared with similar accounts, was the immediacy of the writing and Brennan’s willingness to take a stand. Through stories recounting her journey collecting dances and interviewing dancers tucked away in unlikely corners of Ireland, Brennan conveys both passion and knowledge.

Some of the stories are bittersweet: interviews given by aging dancers who soon afterward passed on, sometimes taking a wealth of dances with them; or police raids on country houses where dance parties were being held. The book also has a number of historical photographs, some from as far away as Australia, documenting the persistence of Irish dancing at home and abroad. Brennan has the story teller’s gift, making this book an interesting as well as informative read. She is not afraid to state her opinions either, castigating the elaborate wigs worn by young girls for dance competition — an import from North American dance schools — and commenting frankly on the pressure placed on both teachers and pupils when parents spend lavishly on costumes for their little protégés.

With the popularity of Irish dance driven by the spectacle of Riverdance and its competitors, many have been drawn to this dance form, but often without a background in the subject. The Story of Irish Dance is a great place to start learning about it. If you have an interest in Irish dance, or are supporting children who are involved in dancing, this is an excellent book, because it is both highly readable and informative. For readers more knowledgeable in the subject, the book’s main appeal will be Brennan’s personal stories of collecting dances and talking to dancers in the mid 20th century, as well as her detailed history of the decline and revival of this art form. Brennan has contributed an engaging addition to existing material on Irish dance that deserves praise for its solid prose, personal material, and frank treatment of its subject.

(Robert Rinehart Publishers, 2002)


About Kim Bates

Kim Bates, former Music Review Editor, grew up in and around St. Paul/Minneapolis and developed a taste for folk music through housemates who played their music and took her to lots of shows, as well as KFAI community radio, Boiled in Lead shows in the 1980s, and the incredible folks at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which she’s been lucky to experience for the past 10 years. Now she lives in Toronto, another city with a great and very accessible music and arts scene, where she teaches at the University of Toronto. She likes to travel to beautiful nature to do wilderness camping, but she lives in a city and rides the subway to work. Some people might say that she gets distracted by navel gazing under the guise of spirituality, but she keeps telling herself it’s Her Path. She’s deeply moved by environmental issues, and somehow thinks we have to reinterpret our past in order to move forward and survive as cultures, maybe even as a species.

Her passion for British Isles-derived folk music, from both sides of the Atlantic, seems to come from this sense about carrying the past forward. She tends to like music that mixes traditional musical themes with contemporary sensibilities — like Shooglenifty or Kila — or that energizes traditional tunes with today’s political or personal issues — like the Oysterband, Solas, or even Great Big Sea. She can’t tolerate heat and humidity, but somehow she finds herself a big fan of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys (Louisana), Regis Gisavo (Madagascar), and various African and Caribbean artists — always hoping that tour schedules include the Great White North.