Kieran Jordan is an Irish dance performer, choreographer, and instructor in the Boston area. One of her specialties is Irish sean nós step dance, which is improvised, percussive, old-style Irish dance. She taught both mornings and afternoons in July 2011 at the Catskill Irish Arts Week in East Durham where she gave us the following interview.
Question: How long have you been doing Irish dance?
Kieran Jordan: I started Irish dancing when I was five years old and have been continuing it for the 31 years since. I love Irish dance and it is my full time work. I wasn't sure I could have a career in Irish dance because when I was thinking about careers, there weren't many people making it their career. This was before Riverdance became popular. There didn't seem to be a future beyond teaching and running a dancing school, and I never pictured myself doing that. I was performing a lot in my twenties, and one thing led to the next. My career is a balance of teaching, performing, and recordings.
It's great to make a living doing what I love and I like being my own boss, although it is challenging. It is not always easy. But hey, this is Catskill Irish Arts week, so I'm not going to worry about it here. I'm just going to have fun! I look forward to this all year.
Question: Do you teach masses of people at once? Do you teach both new and experienced students?
Kieran Jordan: It fluctuates. I do have some faithful groups of people who have danced with me for years, and I also have new people all the time. Right now I think the interest is low. It might be the recession, but also these things go in trends, waves.
Question: So we are not in a time period like when Riverdance first burst into popularity?
Kieran Jordan: Right now I think the general interest in Irish dance has plateaued. There isn't a huge resurgence right now. Still certainly there are always people who find inspiration in the music and the dance, who get “bit” by this bug!
Question: When you were five years old you learned traditional step dance. How did you make the conversion to sean nós?
Kieran Jordan: In high school I did a little bit of tap dance and then I became very interested in Cape Breton step dance from Nova Scotia in Canada. I just love that music and the steps are so playful and energetic in a way that allows for improvisation between the dancer and the musicians. Things are not as quite mapped out in sean-nós as in traditional Irish step dance. So I started to gravitate toward Cape Breton dance. Then I saw Irish sean nós dancing. I saw Seosamh O Neachtain on a television piece. I watched Donnacha O’Muineachain and Mick Mulkerrin perform at Gaelic Roots at Boston College. And Joe O'Donovan was a great dance master who I was fortunate enough to study with in Cork, at UCC.
In the early 90s it seemed like the interest in sean nós was starting to grow. Maybe there were more opportunities, or maybe it was becoming more visible. So I loved sean nós and I pretty much abandoned competitive Irish step dance. I gravitated toward all these styles like Cape Briton and sean nós, which are about improvising and interacting with the music. I was working with a lot of live music in Boston because there is such a great music scene there. I had a lot of opportunities for collaboration, picking things apart with musicians. I found these dance styles more suitable to my personality. They allowed me to really express myself in my performances and choreography.
Question: Was the dancing in the Titantic movie anything of interest to you?
Kieran Jordan: My memory is somewhat vague but I recall that scene being at the party within the boat among the working class people. Of course it was choreographed for the film, but they choreographed it in a way to make the dance look like a spontaneous party scene. That spontaneity is what sean nós dancing is about. That's what you'll see in the Catskills here. In the sessions at night, myself and other dancers will get up and dance. It's about feeling the moment. Feeling the energy. When someone is dancing and its really synching up well, I think everyone loves that marriage of rhythm and melody. It's great!
So yah, I like that scene in Titanic!
Question: Last year at the dance pavilion there was an exposition of dance. A big crowd came over to see that. Is that what dance does often?
People love Irish dancing and I think if you look at the ratio in a week like this, there may be 300 fiddle players and maybe 30 step dancers and sean nós dancers. We stand out! There are not as many of us.
Dancing is a very out-front kind of thing. We're not sitting behind an instrument. It's your own body making the performance. So for a dancer, the spot light is on you, and you are very visible. Most dancers love that to some degree, even a shy one like me!
Sean nós dance is movement and sound at the same time. Percussive dance is not just about moving your body, but it's about making percussion that contributes as a musical component.
So there is a stage presence – your physical appearance and presence, and then your ability to make music with your feet. It's coordination, skill, and technique, matched with an in internal sense of rhythm, groove, and listening skills.
Question: You said sean nós dance is very applicable to a lot of ages. Why is that and how does that work?
Kieran Jordan: I think there is a very strong connection between sean nós step dancing and set dancing – the group sets. If you look at set dancing, there are moments within it where there is percussive dancing and there are somewhat improvised moments as well. One of my major influences, Aiden Vaughn, dances steps as a solo sean nós dancer, and works the sames rhythms into his set dancing.
Set dancing is a social thing, it's meant to be for all ages. It's not about performance for the most part. Sean nós is also a social dance form and people of all ages do it.
Sean nós is more about being a musical instrument, listening, and collaborating. You can have bad knees or other joints and you can still pull it off. You don't need to have leaps high off the floor, or perfection with your flexibility. You just need to be able to listen and create a few rhythms. It's often the case where less is more.
Certainly there are dancers who are kind of flamboyant, and that's great as one style, but the dancers I like are subtle and have the ability to groove along with the musicians, rather than claim all the attention out front.
Question: How do you know when to dance with a group of musicians? I've seen dancers go up in one of the pavilions during a concert and they obviously are there to dance, but don't just run out and dance the second they get there. Is there some kind of vibe between the musicians and the dancers so they know when to start dancing?
Kieran Jordan: On stage, here at the Catskills, most of those concert performances are unrehearsed. The music is going. The dancer climbs up the stairs to the stage and listens for where the group is in the set. You are following the structure of the music.
In sean nós the start point is a little more relaxed. In Irish step dancing you would start at the beginning of a tune. In sean nós you can slip your way in when it feels right. Also, one of the nice things about the Catskills are the sessions. It's expected there are going to be dancers in the session. To jump up and dance in a session is really fun. You can't always do that. Dance is a welcome part of the performance here in the Catskills!
Kieran Jordan's Web Site
Interviews with 2010 Catskill Irish Arts Week Participants:
- Bernadette Nic Gabhann
- Aoife Clancy
- Brían Ó hAirt (Brian Hart)
- Bairbre McCarthy