Festival Dance at the Core of the Matter

Dance troupe Core brings together 50 champion festival dancers from across Northern Ireland to challenge Flatley's domination of the art-form. 

Michael Flatley and his contemporaries popularised and repackaged a dance tradition once seen as quaint. Unfortunately in the process some of the expressiveness and individuality of this form of dance may have been lost.

In the Northern Irish form of the tradition, the personal expression of the dancer through movement and the narrative of music is what is most important. And now that tradition is making its bid for wider local and international recognition.

50 champion festival dancers from 14 schools right across Northern Ireland have combined to form Core. It's a new dance company with the aim of promoting and preserving this exhilarating form of Irish dance.

Festival dancing is practiced in all communities in Northern Ireland. It celebrates each dancer’s unique style of movement and appearance. In this it differs from the traditional, more rigid and perhaps more familiar feis Irish dancing, from whose auspices it formally separated over half a century ago. That ‘feis’ is simply Irish for ‘festival’ suggests as much about this split as any historical narrative.

Northern Irish festival dancing has a strong ethos of accessibility and cross community participation at its core. It is a surprising yet supremely successful model of cultural integration. Core’s artistic director and driving force, Dominic Graham, a man with 30 years teaching and performing experience, explains the extent of Core’s cross community appeal.

'Festival dance has always been genuinely accessible,' Graham begins. 'We have dancing activity right in the Plantation-heavy heart of Ulster. I mean, I trained and was taught as a child by a protestant woman in the Orange Hall in Ballymoney! So it really doesn’t have that perceived exclusivity or alienation that other Irish Dance forms might.

'I’ve performed in front of loyalist leaders and republican leaders and did a piece for TV about ten years ago called Billy Boys, which referred to a Protestant dance for a Protestant people. There isn’t that kind of fear or uncertainty about what we do and that’s very important to festival dance.'

Graham is impassioned about the other unique aspects of festival dance and the genuine variety that it brings to the form. He is keen to highlight the distinctiveness of Northern Ireland’s own brand of Irish dance, and can’t resist cocking a snook at the ‘big boys’ into the bargain.

'There’s a real subtlety of style with what we do in festival dance; a real contrast of light and shade about the performances. It’s a storytelling medium essentially and centres around a narrative creating a mood and stage presence, which takes the audience on a dramatic journey.'

Graham adds: 'I think a lot of those big commercial shows we see are very robotic. They seem to be just big lines of robotic fast feet. It’s great to watch, of course, but there are other aspects of the dance that we like to highlight in festival dance. It is so easy for the whole dance form to get stereotyped. In the States for example, many people think Irish dancing is actually called Riverdancing! And we really need to change that.'

Organisers hope that Core will demonstrate through showcases and performances just how vibrant and alive festival dance is in Northern Ireland. Graham feels that the time has come for festival dance to shake its Cinderella complex and stake its spot in the Irish dance pantheon.

'We haven’t really been taken seriously in the past by the Feis body, but then, we couldn’t or wouldn’t have taken ourselves very seriously either. Core is about lifting that and lifting our standards, and down the line having the best teachers and choreographers so that the tradition can truly thrive.

'There are so many wonderful things about this kind of dance, but it's no hybrid form. It is absolutely purist. The Irish Feis tradition is all about technique – as many feet beats as possible. We also have that with festival dance, but it also involves heart and personal expression. And our use of music is very unique.

'As well as each dancer exploring the narrative of the music in their own way, we also compose our own music for set dances, which would be sacreligious to the Irish dancing fraternity. But the music is such an essential part of what festival dance is. Again, that sets us apart.'

Northern Irish festival dancing has already demonstrated itself to be a pioneering model for cultural integration in the ease with which it has been accepted into traditionally wary, working class protestant communities. But like a lot of dance forms that don’t involve revolving on the nape of your neck in a school disco, its appeal is somewhat diminished amongst that other great silent cultural majority: boys.

Graham acknowledges and laments the shortage of young males on the festival dance scene. 'I know, there’s not nearly enough boys getting involved. It’s the age-old problem with traditional dance. There’s this cliché that it’s not a very masculine thing to do, which isn’t remotely true.

'There are some truly amazing young male dancers and their fitness levels are that of any athlete. It’s a question I think of showing people what it’s all about and just how challenging and exciting festival dance is. We hope Core will demonstrate that.'

Core’s first big showcase is a three-night run later this month at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey. It’s the first stage of a missionary process that Graham hopes will awaken a passion in audiences and develop a parity of recognition for this singular expressive form of Irish dance.

'I’ve travelled the world with festival dance and it is always well received internationally. I often find people come away with a mixture of surprise and delight. It does confound cliché and it is so much more than the stereotypes have us believe. With Core we want to continue to challenge preconceptions internationally, and probably more importantly, locally.'

With missionary zeal and plenty of conviction, Graham is confident that the dedicated work of Core means that festival dance will not just survive, but give its contemporaries a run for their considerable money. His ambition is as simple as it is vaulting: 'Five years from now? I want Irish festival dancing to be doing as well as Lord of the Dance.'

As oft-quoted Alan Partridge once babbled in an entirely different context: 'Flatley, my dear, I don’t Riverdance.'

Our Core runs at the Theatre At The Mill in Newtownabbey from February 16-18. For more information and to book tickets visit www.theatreatthemill.com or call the box office on 028 9034 0202.