A Step In Time

Ulster Folk & Transport Museum exhibition traces the history of Irish dancing at home and on the global stage

Outside the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum in Cultra on the outskirts of Belfast, visitors are welcomed by a huge whickerwork sculpture of a faceless girl resplendent in traditional feis dress, her hair in tight curls, her arms hidden behind her back.

She seems to be in full flow – a dancer from the time of Irish legend, performing for an audience of giants, perhaps – an inanimate object fizzing with life. The best Irish dancers would appreciate her stillness, her posture, her grace.

The sculpture was created by Bob Johnston, an employee at the museum, who teaches traditional willow work techniques, and specialises in 'living sculpture'. When I phone the museum to enquire about the piece, I make the receptionist's day.

'It's a wonderful sculpture,' she beams. 'And Bob made it with his own hands. He's incredible, and such a humble man. A true artist. He really deserves all the credit in the world.'

I'm glad I called – Johnston's stunning art work is not mentioned in the programme for the museum's current exhibtion, A Step In Time: The Story of Irish Dance. It's not officially a part of the exhibition at all, and because it is constructed of a perishable material, it will welcome the visitor only temporarily.

For those who didn't or won't have that privilege of witnessing the sculpture (I'm informed that it may not see out the summer in situ), there is plenty more to see inside the museum's gallery space – A Step In Time is well worth visiting in its own right.

A comprehensive study of Irish dancing – tracing a timeline from late-19th century ceilis to Michael Flatley's all-conquering Riverdance – it features video, paintings, production programmes, medals, pins, examples of Celtic Revival embroidery and more, all relating to the history and evolution of Irish dancing in Ireland and abroad.

It also shows how costume designers have adapted their Celtic creations with the times. Whereas our grandparents may have competed in plain green, red or blue dresses, for example, today's Irish dancing competitors take to the stage sparkling with diamantes.

'Competition has changed,' agrees exhibition curator, Valerie Wilson. 'But that is inevitable. Today, the kids keep in touch through things like Feisbook, and there are competitions in America, across Europe, in China and Japan. Irish dancing is truly a global art form, and it's about much more than simply Riverdance, which we hope this exhibition will go some way to showing.'

A Step In Time runs in the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum until January 2016.