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dramatically in the mid-1990s. Ireland moved from having one of the most depressed economies in Europe to having one of the most quickly growing. Many social and legal changes accompanied this economic growth. Irish step dancing as a cultural phenomenon has been impacted by shifts in the political and economic landscape of Ireland. To address changes in the structure and practice of contemporary competitive Irish step dancing, scholars must assess recent transformations in the sociopolitical environment of Ireland. CHANGES IN IRELAND IN THE LATE TWENTIETH CENTURY WITH REGARDS TO DEVELOPMENT AND WEALTH: THE ‘CELTIC TIGER’ Throughout the middle and end of the 1990s, Ireland witnessed a surge of unparalleled economic growth. The average per capita income of a resident of Ireland, which as recently as the 1980s was far below the European average, has grown higher than that of most countries in Europe. Indeed, the per capita income of Ireland exceeded that of the United Kingdom in 1997, and has continued that trend for every year following to the present—2007 (McCarthy, 13). In the same period, and as a result of various factors, Ireland witnessed a dramatic fall in the level of absolute poverty. The unemployment rate fell from 17 percent to less than 4 percent between the 1980s and 2001. This pattern of growth became known as the “Celtic Tiger” boom. Ireland’s economic growth can be linked to a number of factors. Ireland has a “favorable” environment for foreign investment including low corporate tax rates, an
elastic supply of well-educated and inexpensive labor, flexible labor markets and “industrial peace” (that is, a relative lack of conflict between labor unions and businesses). Externally, other factors affecting Ireland’s economic development include a stable macroeconomic environment and advantageous exchange rates of the mid-tolate-1990s. The concurrent sustained economic boom in the United States also spurred growth in the Irish economy. Stephen D. Oliner and Daniel E Sichel note in their 2000 article, “The Resurgence of Growth in the Late 1990s: Is Information Technology the Story?” that “from 1995 through 1999” the American gross domestic product rose “at an annual rate of more than 4 percent” (3). Overseas investment by U.S. firms also rose dramatically in the 1990s. The transatlantic (U.S. to Europe) flow of this growth is described by Joseph P. Quinlan in his 2003 paper, “Drifting Apart or Growing Together? The Primacy of the Transatlantic Economy.” Quinlan states that out of the total sum of U.S. overseas investments—“in excess of $750 billion”—approximately “half of the global total—went to the Old World, Europe” (9). Ireland was able to corral a large percentage of US investment flowing into Europe during the 1990s. According to Fintan O’Toole, “[from] 1993 [to approximately 2003] 25 per cent of all new US investment in the EU has gone to Ireland, which has only 1 per cent of the EU's population. By 2002, 585 American businesses operated in the Republic of Ireland, employing 94,000 people and representing an investment of $23 billion in the Irish economy. Of the €93 billion worth of goods exported from Ireland in 2001, the chemical, pharmaceutical and computer sectors, in which US corporations are utterly dominant, accounted for almost 60 per cent” (2003: 6-7).
Whereas Ireland had been, until the 1980s, in the words of O’Toole, “an economic satellite of the UK,” political and economic realities were altered as “European and American markets became steadily more important” (2003: 8). This development parallels with changes in Irish step dancing culture in the 1990s and 2000s, when dancers from mainland Europe became more represented within the competitive structure and as the population of dancers in North America steadily grew in size. Investment in education also had a significant effect in boosting the Irish economy and attracting investors. Ireland’s literacy rates have increased steadily since the Irish state began, in 1967, to administer secondary education, which previously had been directed under the auspices of the Catholic church, and generally required a fee for services (Raferty and Hout, 44). In addition investment into university education, and, especially, the promotion of technology education in Irish educational systems prepared Irish workers for the information technology development and manufacturing industries that became such a hallmark of the Celtic Tiger boom. Ireland’s growth was heavily impacted by the development of information technology, largely the growth of “new media.” Because of the high rates of technical education, as well as the relatively low wages demanded by workers (in comparison to the rest of Europe), Ireland was able to attract the interest of software companies and other technological enterprise. According to Michael Cronin, Ireland is the “second largest exporter of software in the world after the United States” (Cronin in Kirby, Gibbons, and Cronin 56). While Ireland’s economic growth had previously been hampered by the particular location of the island, in addition to other factors, the focus
on “informatic and telecommunications networks”—which are not dependent as industries on being in a specific place, or near specific resources—enabled Ireland to “overcome the obstacle of insularity and peripherality” (56). These technologies allowed Ireland to become integrated within the global economy regardless of its geographic isolation. According to Peter Clinch, growth was also promoted by European Union transfers of funds for infrastructure and training (29-30). These structural funds, which were specifically allotted to Ireland because of its relatively weaker position in comparison to other member nations, helped to boost the Irish economy. Clinch suggests that while the growth of the Irish economy may have increased living standards for most of the population and while the incidence of extreme poverty decreased significantly in the 1990s, there was little overall movement towards economic equality (32). Whereas most in Ireland felt some positive economic effects of development and the inflow of investment monies into Ireland, the boom did not increase wealth equally for all, and there remained a high level of inequality between the rich and the poor of Ireland. In the words of Clinch, there was “no significant trend in the level of relative poverty between 1994 and 1998” (33). Subsequent studies, such as one conducted in 2003 by the Economic and Social Research Institute, reported that median relative poverty in Ireland had actually increased more than twofold since 1994, increasing from 6% in 1994 to 12.9% in 2001 (Bacik 17). According to Peadar Kirby, the “high economic growth rates of the 1990s [were] accompanied by growing relative poverty, inequality and occupational stratification, and by a declining welfare effort”
(30). Kirby further locates the engines of “the transformation of Ireland in the 1990s” in the forces of “foreign capital, attracted by a state which has consistently prioritized the needs of the economy over social objectives” (28-29). Ireland indeed spends the lowest percentage of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), out of all of the member states of the European Union, on social protection measures—that is, programs designed to redistribute wealth and alleviate poverty. While the European average for such spending is 27.3% of GDP, Ireland only allots 14.1% (Bacik 16). While Ireland as a whole became far wealthier, Clinch further states, “it is clear that the evidence based on relative income inequality shows a less rosy picture of the effects of the boom than one based on absolute incomes” (33). In terms of economic equality figures Ireland ranks lower, year after year, than almost all other European nations. Irish economic equality figures more closely mirror American than European averages. In the words of Lionel Pilkington, “in 1999, the gap between rich and poor [among the developed nations studied] was second only to the United States” (125). The 2003 United Nations Human Development Report listed Ireland second lowest among seventeen OECD nations in terms of poverty and inequality levels; the only nation Ireland ranked higher than in the study was the United States (Bacik 16). The levels of inequality in both Ireland and the United States are quite a contrast to levels in many countries in the European Union. Thus, despite bettered averages in terms of per capita income, inequalities of wealth in Ireland increased during the Celtic Tiger boom.
In her book, Kicking and Screaming: Dragging Ireland into the twenty-first Century, jurist and feminist Ivana Bacik strongly criticizes the developing inequality in Ireland. She describes this as the development of “two Irelands” composed of: …an Ireland capable of being a force for progress, for betterment, at home and abroad, beloved of other nations and blessed from on high; and alongside that an Ireland that is deeply polarized between rich and poor, where capitalism and aggressive mé féinism have created an appallingly unbalanced society in which different classes lead separate and vastly different lives; gross affluence one side and desperate poverty on the other. (16). She, along with others, notes the different impacts of neo-liberal development and integration into the European Union on different populations. Where in some areas, such as gender, Bacik may see positive developments with regards to Ireland, in the areas of income inequality Bacik is not so positive. She states: It is clear that notwithstanding the ‘Celtic Tiger’, or, more accurately, because of the way in which the Tiger economy developed, the rich have been getting richer and the poor, while admittedly reduced in number, are getting poorer. There is still real poverty amid the plenty in Irish society today (17). Peadar Kirby attributes the lack of economic equality in Ireland to the state’s (and, perhaps, the nation’s) seeming lack of “commitment to socio-economic equality, or equality of condition” (25). Kirby further states that the Irish nation has: reduced its distributional goals to a relatively minimalist objective, recently reformulated… [to] reducing the number of what it calls the ‘consistently poor,’ and to a vague aspiration towards social inclusion… While the aspiration towards egalitarianism remains alive in sectors of civil society, notably in the voluntary and community sector, it no longer inspires a distinctive project for Irish society” (25-26). It is questionable whether the state of the Republic of Ireland has decreased its role in wealth redistribution—the state seems to have consistently been less committed to 109
“socialist” projects than other states in Western Europe. However, Kirby may be correctly identifying a change in ideologies relating to wealth and inequality, or a downturn in support for redistributive or communal efforts. In his chapter, “Ireland, Globalisation and the War Against Time,” Michael Cronin discusses the irregular access not only to wealth in Ireland, but also to freedom in terms of travel and migration. According to Michael Cronin, during the Celtic Tiger boom, the Dublin to London air route became the busiest in Europe. Indeed, in “1999, the number of [residents of Ireland] going abroad was 3,576,000 compared with 2,547,000 for 1996, an increase of almost one million in a relatively short three-year period” (56). Remarking on this phenomenon, Cronin quipped, “movement has most definitely been in the air” (56). However, Cronin notes that airfare, and travel in general is only accessible to some, and not all of the Irish citizenry. Cronin states that although “tourists can now get to the West of Ireland quicker than ever before and the construction of each bypass on the Dublin-Galway means urban elites can reach their holiday homes in a shorter and shorter period of time,” the same does not apply to many of those people in Ireland still living in poverty (61). Poverty, it bears mention, is more and more concentrated in rural as opposed to urban areas, and in the “idyllic” west as opposed to the “modern” east (63). Of the fate of those who live, and are more likely to be impoverished, in the west, Cronin remarks, “the tourists come and go but the poor remain” (61). Furthermore, even as Ireland has become integrated into the European Union and has hence opened up possibilities for its own citizens in terms of crossing borders, Ireland has taken a fairly combative stance against undocumented
immigrants within its own borders. People born in Ireland are no longer immediately guaranteed Irish citizenship; rather their fate is decided bureaucratically. Cronin summarizes, stating that: …as Irish citizens find it easier and easier to travel abroad through the easing of border controls in Europe and the waiving of visa restrictions in more and more countries, Ireland itself for non-nationals proves more and more impenetrable (63). There is some irony in the immigration situation, especially in light of the fact that the Republic Ireland for most of its history as a nation state had extremely high emigration rates. Turnaround, apparently, is not fair play in this situation. Additional Social Changes in Ireland in the Late Twentieth Century Roles for women in Ireland have expanded significantly since the 1980s, as T.W. Moody and F.X. Martin describe in their book, The Course of Irish History. Throughout the 1990s a number of women held high office in the country, most notably the Presidents of Ireland, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. The changing economy “provided opportunities for many women entrepreneurs to come to the fore, and “women attended universities and third-level colleges in increasing numbers” (338-339). However, Ireland falls short of the legal and economic parity achieved by some European countries—such as Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland—and Irish women occupy unstable sexual terrain. As Ivana Bacik details, laws relating to discrimination against women were added in the 1990s and in the present decade. Later, according to Bacik, “the Equal Status Act 2000… extended the concept of equality beyond the workplace” (96). While the potentialities for changes in gender relations and gender equality in Ireland are 111
considerably constrained by both the Irish constitution, with its regard of women largely limited to respect for their place in the home, and by the power of Catholic religious teachings, which still have significant weight in the nation, several initiatives have been made which in effect move the rights of Irish women and homosexuals under law closer to commonality with European models. However, according to Bacik, although certain laws now exist which support the equalization of gender roles in Ireland, there still remain many areas where legal protection does not exist or where implementation is poor. To take only two examples, a “huge” pay differential still exists between men and women, and the “majority of low-paid workers are women” (92-93). Thus, Irish women are positioned within an irregular topography of equality. In addition to changes in laws relating explicitly to women, laws relating to sexuality were altered during the same period, including the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1993, and the decriminalization of contraceptives in 1992 (Bacik 21). The practice of abortion, however, remains hotly contested and is largely illegal. In 1995, divorce was legalized by a referendum in the South (Moody and Martin 336). However, it is important to note that although changes in laws may be triggered by some elements of public demand, they do not necessarily act to change the ideologies of all members of the public, which may be either more progressive or regressive than the law, or may feature a variety of opinions. RIVERDANCE AS A CELTIC TIGER ENTREPRENEURSHIP PHENOMENON In Ireland, developments in art and culture and economic changes have been significantly intertwined. The promotion of “Irish culture” (for example through
creation of internationally successful shows such as Riverdance, or through the use of, especially, music and dance to promote tourism) has been one prominent strategy of Celtic Tiger entrepreneurs. According to Barra Ó Cinnéide: ‘Culture’ has turned out to be one of the boom industries of the 1990s and one of Ireland’s greatest exports. It has been estimated that top selling artists such as U2, the Cranberries, Enya, Sinéad O’Connor, Chris DeBurgh and Van Morrison, between them, have sold over 150 million records worldwide, with a minimum retail turnover of nearly US$2.5 billion” (1998: 5). In addition, Michel Peillon notes in his article, “Culture and State in Ireland’s New Economy,” that “the leisure and art sector… nearly doubled” over the period from 1986 to 1996 (49). Some events that attract tourists, aside from the World Championships of Irish dancing and other competitions, include the Willie Clancy Irish Music and Dance Festival and the Dublin Dance Festival. In addition, there is a business specifically set up to provide tourists with opportunities to access Irish music and dancing culture, called Irish Festival Cruises and Tours (http://www.irishtours.com/), Promotion of Irish cultural forms such as music and dance has had a significant effect on the Irish economy, by providing work for artists, but also as a tool to increase tourism and help sell Irish-themed products worldwide. Riverdance, as Business and Commodity Some social commentators have perceived strong ideological connections between the changes underfoot in the Irish economy and social landscape of the mid1990s, the ways in which Riverdance presented Irish culture, and the ways in which Riverdance operated as a business.
Riverdance began as an intermission segment in the Eurovision Song Contest in April of 1994. The Eurovision contest is, in summary, a yearly one-off European competition wherein pop groups that have been selected to represent various European nations compete in front of a Europe-wide television audience. The contest is hosted in a variety of places, and, that year, it was held in Ireland. The producers of the 1994 Eurovision contest, Moya Doherty and John McColgan, of RTÉ Television, sought to produce something for the interval, or intermission, during the broadcast competition that would create a sensation, and, more than that, present Ireland in an exciting and modern light—or, rather, “postmodern,” as marketers Kieran Keohane, Donncha Kavanagh, and Carmen Kuhling, term it—to viewers in the rest of Europe (11). That “something” was a five-minute Riverdance segment. Noting the extremely positive reaction the general public gave to the short intermission piece, the producers decided to launch a full-scale stage show the next year, in February of 1995. The reception of the full-length show, first held at the Point Theatre in Dublin, was incredible, and the show completely sold out all available seats for all five weeks of the first run. Riverdance: The Show then moved to London. This was only the beginning for Riverdance, which, according to Michael Cronin, had been seen by “more than 62 million people [at] 200 plus shows in over 60 venues” by the end of 1998 (63). Cronin further states that, “the Riverdance roadshow with three permanently touring troupes covering Europe, North America and the Rest of the World became the world’s biggest grossing entertainment event in 1997” (63). For several years the Riverdance troupe was also resident on Broadway in New York City.
In 2007, more than a decade after its debut, the show is still touring in both Europe and North America. In addition, the album for Riverdance won a Grammy in 1997, and was certified Platinum in the US, Ireland, and Australia. More than six million units of the three Riverdance videos had been sold by 2002, sales figures which are according the Barra Ó Cinnéide, “equivalent figures to the top Disney titles.” (2002: 86). Ó Cinnéide further states that, “at the show’s peak, [the three touring companies generated] total office revenues of over ₤100 million annually. To that can be added ₤5 million per annum in merchandising and a total sale of ₤90 million from three Riverdance videos” (2002: 86). It does not seem an overstatement to say that this was “success” on a scale unlike any Irish step dancing had ever experienced. The commercial success of Riverdance was not simply a fluke: the show was designed to appeal to a mass audience. One of the most important factors that distinguishes the choreography, fashion, and ideology of Riverdance from that which is commonly performed by Irish step dancers in competition is that Riverdance was designed as a commodity, and as a media spectacle. In the words of Barra Ó Cinnéide, “on this occasion the dance was designed for international entertainment purposes with a global market in mind” as opposed to being designed for the more insular audience already involved in Irish step dancing (2002: 18). Many sectors of the indigenous Irish economy (that is, sectors not stimulated by foreign direct investment) remained relatively stagnant over the period of the boom. However, Kieran Keohane, Donncha Kavanagh, and Carmen Kuhling, who are experts in marketing and management, posit that “cultural entrepreneurship, or, to coin a new
term, artrepreneurship” bucked this trend, and generated large amounts of revenue (12). In their working paper, “The Creative Scene of Riverdance: Artrepreneurship and the Celtic Tiger,” they address the ways in which art and culture enterprises in Ireland, such as Riverdance, shaped the Irish economic boom. In a related vein, economist Barra Ó Cinnéide analyzes ways in which “voluntary and other nonprofit cultural groups” such as An Coimisiún and An Comhdháil, as well as the many dancing schools under their different jurisdictions, forged the foundation for the development of Riverdance, which was a thoroughly globalized product, and something of a representation of a new globalized Ireland, in his 1998 paper, “The Nonprofit Origins and Impact of Riverdance: The Show That Became More Than an Enterprise” (1998: 403). Ó Cinnéide describes the way in which nonprofit groups raised the capacity of the community in terms of its ability to produce global artistic products, whose popularity is then “indirectly… responsible for the development of many nonprofit initiatives locally in Ireland and globally in the Irish diaspora” such as dancing groups (1998: 409). Other products generated in response to demand resulting from Riverdance might include a variety of accessories catered to Irish dancing markets, such as shoes, dresses, and magazines, as well as tourist ventures celebrating Irish arts, videos teaching Irish step dancing, Irish music cds, and competing stage shows exhibiting Irish step dancing, as well as general interest in Ireland internationally. Barra Ó Cinnéide makes an argument for causality between the advent of Riverdance and subsequent economic developments. In his 2002 book, Riverdance: The Phenomenon, Ó Cinnéide traces the economic history of the Riverdance extravaganza
and portrays it as an important component of the Celtic Tiger economy. According to the author, Riverdance and other cultural arts productions enabled the “development of business and tourism” in Ireland (2002: 4). The producers of Riverdance were able to tap into the global Irish diaspora market, “not just in Britain and the US but also in cities like Sydney, Toronto, Auckland, Paris, Brussels and in the German cities such as Munich, Dusseldorf and Frankfurt” (2002: 53). The imperative to display the arts of Ireland in the Riverdance portion of the Eurovision television interval was driven by the notion held by RTE executives that positive international public relations, as might be an expected result from a well-received and internationally witnessed performance of Irish dance and music, would stimulate tourism. If this expectation holds true, it suggests that the effects of a globally touring stage show in increasing tourism to Ireland may have been quite significant. Some scholars have suggested that the imagery and formations of Riverdance: The Show are a direct product of the Celtic Tiger economy. According to Michael Cronin, “for Irish media pundits, Riverdance was incontrovertible proof of Ireland’s enrollment in the chorus line of modernity” (Cronin in Kirby, Gibbons, and Cronin 63). Cronin suggests that the formations created by the producers and performers of Riverdance echoed economic developments in Ireland. Cronin writes, “The permanent troupes that are named after rivers—the Lagan, the Lee and the Liffey—flow unimpeded through global space” as does capital in neoliberal Ireland (64). Cronin further states: It was therefore highly appropriate that it was one of the Riverdance dance troupes that performed at the opening of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt in 1998. The Bank whose explicit aim is to remove any remaining obstacles to the flow of capital through the European Union 117
and which has resisted pressures to publicly fund social legislation in member states of the European Union could readily identify with the profitable velocity of one of Ireland’s foremost cultural industries (64). The speed and efficiency with which the dancers of Riverdance traversed the clear, open stages of the world, and the way their extensively-trained feet battered precise rhythms in unison became something of a trope of resemblance for contemporary ideals of economic change in Ireland. 1 Keohane, Kavanagh, and Kuhling discuss the ways in which the mechanical reproduction and commodification of Riverdance: The Show affect its interpretation, meanings and reception. 2 The authors describe concisely the way in which the show has circulated as a product: The aesthetic object—Riverdance—is a work of art subject to mechanical reproduction –multiple troupes, individual performers trained and standardized to the point of homogenization, touring globally for over ten years; copies and spin-offs, video and digital recordings reproduced in tens of millions (17). The authors suggest that products such as Riverdance change in the course of circulation, and their reproduction changes their meaning. “Spectacular commodities produced by the artreprenuer,” such as Riverdance “are invested with desires and filled out with the fantasies of the consumer/ spectator/ audience in a mutually fascinated gaze that constitutes the scene of performance” (19). However, to appeal to the mass audience, and to engage with it, some of the complex meanings that Irish step dancing might produce may be watered down; Riverdance in some ways turns Irish step dancing, once a geographically and culturally isolated form, into “a thoroughly metropolitanized and modernized cultural product, as carefully packaged and cleverly marketed as a six-
pack of Budweiser” (19). Some practitioners of Irish dancing may be deeply troubled by what they might perceive as a deterioration of culture in this process. For example, a variety of commentators have had concerns about the effects of Riverdance on Irish step dancing, and the commodification of “traditional” culture in general. This presupposes an anxiety about the disappearance of “authentic cultures” such as Irish dancing. Ó Cinnéide summarizes some of the trepidation that Riverdance inspired in certain onlookers, writing, “Riverdance provoked questions about the long-term effects on Irish culture, especially the dangers to traditional values, if ‘artificiality’ is introduced and excessive commercialisation debases traditional art forms, such as Irish dance” (2). Ó Cinnéide, as an economist, perceives well the connections between economies and cultures. However, he falls into a common trap of seeing “culture” as a static (authentic, traditional) entity, when indeed, it is constantly shifting. Other scholars have different, perhaps more nuanced, concerns—for example about the loss of a capacity to query or trouble Irishness, or the simplification of Irishness to a commercial product, rather than a rich complexity of social interactions. In her article, “Screening the Green: Cinema Under the Celtic Tiger,” Debbie Ging, raises similar concerns about the effects of media images such as Riverdance on Irishness as an identity, and specifically the use of Irishness “as a means of critical self-questioning” (177). Ging suggests that that instead of contributing to such querying, shows like Riverdance, as well as musical artists such as The Corrs and movies such as Angela’s Ashes may “have started to erase this type of self-questioning in favor of a more marketable vision of Irishness” (177). There may be important implications of this
argument for Irish dancing as a whole, as well as its cultural “purpose.” Irish dancing no longer serves the early twentieth-century nationalist purposes of the Irish League, for example. Does it rather act as a promotional vehicle for the consumption of Irish goods and services, or for tourism? With regard to matters of national identity, in her 2003 dissertation, “Mapping Irish Movement: Dance-Politics-History,” J’aime Morrison describes the ways in which “Riverdance sold the world on Irish dance by successfully producing and marketing a particular version of Irish national identity for the global market” (2003: 355-356). As a product, Riverdance presents a portrayal of Irish and Irish culture that, as opposed to “[referencing] Irish’s own evolving multinational society,” portrays Irish among the global, using “global signifiers” of multiculturalism that are ungrounded and disconnected from Irish as a specific, and evolving, place, and only make limited references to racial relations in Irish diaspora countries (2003: 352). Furthermore, Morrison writes, “The show glosses over the material conditions out of which Irish dance and culture emerged, to embrace the image of contemporary Irish as an authentic and ethnically pure nation” (2003: 350). Riverdance also sidesteps developing issues of gender and sexuality in Irish by “[positing] heterosexuality and uniformity as the defining characteristics of Irish culture” (2003: 352). The Irish step dancing and culture that is offered through Riverdance, Morrison suggests, is presented without strong reference to either the historical context in which they developed or the present-day context in which it currently operates, avoiding “matters of colonialism, cultural domination and famine” and “instead [narrating] Irish migration as a ‘story of the
heart’” (2003: 349). Some of the scenes of Riverdance, such as “Trading Taps” and “Irish Wake” could have offered opportunities for discussions of the pain of migration (or indeed, some of the factors contributing to high rates of emigration, such as extreme poverty and the colonial relationship), or interethnic conflict between Irish immigrants and African-Americans. However, Morrison is correct to note that while these topics are given lip service, they really aren’t addressed in any substantive manner. In absenting these contexts, Irish step dancing, as a product that is sold by Riverdance, becomes possibly more palatable to an international market, in my opinion. RIVERDANCE AND THE UNITED STATES Riverdance opened in 1996 in the United States. The original Eurovision segment was abstract in terms of its themes and design, and does not make reference to Irish America. As the segment was expanded into the show, however, the American influences became more predominant. According to Barra Ó Cinnéide, “It has made hundreds of appearances on American television including presentations on top-rated programmes like The Today Show (viewership: 11 million) and full-length broadcasts of the show have been screened on most of the 350 Public Broadcasting Stations (PBS) in the US, ensuring an enviable demographic breadth of audience reach” (114). Ó Cinnéide describes the way in which Riverdance was able to network “into cities and communities who claim ethnic descent or affinity, in markets such as the USA (with a reputed 44 million ‘Irish’ population), Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, etc.” Ó Cinnéide further states that, “Riverdance had a strong first base from which to develop its worldwide operations” because of these ethnic
affiliations (2002: 55). In this regard, is notable that the two lead stars of the original Eurovision segment were both American—U.S. citizens. Michael Flatley danced competitively under Dennis Dennehy, A.D.C.R.G. (Ard Diploma Choimisiuin Le Rinci Gaelacha), in Chicago, and Jean Butler was taught by Donny Golden, A.D.C.R.G., in New York. However, the vast majority of the original cast was Irish-born (many hailing from the esteemed school of Seamus O’Se in Dublin), and the funding and direction of the piece was Irish-led. The themes and subject matter of Riverdance: The Show also directly addressed American audiences in particular. According to Irish social commentator Fintan O’Toole, “It began life as the interval act at the Eurovision, but actually contradicted the very notion of Ireland as a European country, placing it instead firmly in an American context” (147). Indeed the majority of the second half of the full-length show shifts away from Irish mythological tales (a feature of the first half) to stories of emigration to America, and intercultural exchange on the streets of the new nation. In the words of Ó Cinnéide, “…Riverdance: The Show contains themes that are global, such as emigration and justice” (2002: 107). Natasha Casey, who wrote about the show in her 2002 article, “Riverdance: The Importance of Being Irish American,” notes that the show was described by the New York Times as a “mishmash of a variety show with a one-world theme” (11). Although perhaps the attempts to broaden the message of the show, or try to instill a sense of racial harmony are worthwhile in their intentions, the way that the show carries it out does indeed make cultures seem to be little more than signifiers in a smorgasbord of meaning. The meanings actually begin to emphasize untruths about
racial relations and immigration histories—by portraying the process so positively. Riverdance indeed offers a biased, uncritical view of the past. American viewers may well have found the inclusion of these culturally specific messages in the longer Riverdance: The Show attractive. This “mishmash” appealed directly to popular American historical narratives of immigration and cultural interaction. Casey states that the show was an “immediate success with many middleclass Irish Americans,” who may have been attracted by both the glamour of the show and also the multicultural message—the plot suggested positive resolutions to racial and ethnic conflicts could be, and indeed already had been, resolved calmly by activities such as “Trading Taps” (4). Lauren Onkey, in her article “Ray Charles on Hyndford Street: Van Morrison’s Caledonian Soul” alludes to some of the limitations of the Riverdance “multicultural” approach, describing it as “… the Riverdance problem of depicting the Irish as one successful ethnic group among many” (185). The historical accuracy of such a sentiment is questionable. Indeed, the happy narrative of racial and cultural equality in America (and, indeed, in Ireland, where communities of Travellers and immigrants still face significant discrimination) is little more than a fiction, given the producers’ outright neglect of labor hostilities and violence against Irish workers in the nineteenth century United States, as well as historical hostilities between Irish immigrants and African-Americans. According to Natasha Casey, the multicultural messages of Riverdance may have “consoled Irish American audiences by assuring them of their egalitarian past,” regardless of their factual reality. These “consoling fictions” may have increased the marketability of Riverdance to an American audience.
Riverdance takes up an interesting challenge—inserting race into the dialogue of Irish step dancing. However, the manner in which the subject is approached seems more fluff than substance. RIVERDANCE AS A CHALLENGE TO AND REFURBISHMENT OF IRISH STEP DANCING Riverdance was both the bringer and the harbinger of a new Irish step dancing culture that, according to Helen Brennan was “synonymous with glamour and… a passport to world fame” (156). Irish step dancing prior to Riverdance had either faded out of fashion in some areas of Ireland, and particularly among boys, or had been relatively unknown almost everywhere else in the world, with the possible exceptions of cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago and London. After Riverdance, Irish step dancing was briefly one of the “hottest” and most popular ethnic dancing styles around. Although some of the luster of Riverdance has faded over the years, the energy, the new cultural formations, and the social reconfigurations that Irish step dancing experienced after the show will likely remain relevant to the practice for years into the future. Some of these reconfigurations included an increasing emphasis on internationalism in Irish dancing media and increasing recognition of international regions by An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha. According to Barbara O’Connor, Riverdance as a product promoted and “[valorized] youth and beauty, ambition, competitiveness, success and desire for celebrity status” (136). While some of these aspects had been present in competitive Irish step dancing cultures, many of these values and desires seem to have increased in potency. In
his chapter, “Unsuitables from a Distance: The Politics of Riverdance” in his 1997 book, The Ex-Isle of Erin: Images of a Global Ireland, O’Toole suggests that in its appeal to a modernized Ireland, and to the global audience, Riverdance changed some elements of Irish step dancing significantly, for example, “putting back the mission ingredient of sex that had been distilled out of Irish step dance by a mixture of Victorian piety, nationalist purity and Catholic suspicion of the body” (1997: 147-148). In Riverdance Irish step dancing was presented without the heavy embroidery, without the stiffness of either garb or movement, but as something flowing, sparking blue, clean, synchronized, and beyond that, sexy in a heterosexual vein. As a phenomenon, Riverdance posed a challenge to Irish step dancers to present their art form in new and exciting ways, and to reconceptualize Irish step dancing. RIVERDANCE AS A CATALYST FOR THE GLOBALIZATION OF IRISH STEP DANCING The popularity of Riverdance, as well as the popularity of other internationally touring shows such as Lord of the Dance, Celtic Tiger, and Gaelforce, spread the fashion for Irish step dancing around the world, garnered worldwide attention and acclaim for Irish step dancing as a practice, boosted participation in Irish step dancing, created international celebrities, and energized a whole set of industries devoted to Irish step dancing. Although Riverdance was not necessarily designed to have an impact upon competitive Irish step dancing or “traditional” Irish step dancing in general, its popularity has certainly changed the entire cultural environment of Irish step dancing.
According to Helen Brennan, “after Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, registrations in Irish dancing schools more than doubled” (156). Indeed, in many areas all over the world, interest was sparked in Irish step dancing where there had previously existed no formal teaching of Irish step dancing at all. After Riverdance, Irish step dancing itself became a salable commodity in general, and Irish step dancing as a commodity was being purchased (in ticket, video, or lesson form) by more and more people. Riverdance had the effect of promoting Irish step dancing to new audiences all around the world, some of which had never even known of its existence before. The show excited many viewers immensely, and acted as a de facto set of continuously running advertisements for the practice of Irish step dancing. The potential energy that Riverdance generated led to some very powerful changes in the ways in which Irish step dancing operated. The first and foremost is the increase in participation and popularity, which has to a certain extent been sustained even a decade after Riverdance first premiered (for further discussion on these increases, see Chapter Five). A second is the fact that Riverdance helped to generate a career landscape for Irish step dancers. Whereas previously there had been few opportunities for professional growth in Irish step dancing other than teaching, and whereas teaching opportunities had been limited by a relatively low demand, after Riverdance the demand for tutelage in Irish step dancing grew considerably. Many new dancers chose to become certified teachers to meet this increased demand for dancing classes. 3 As well, Riverdance and the subsequent shows that followed its lead also created different opportunities for careers in Irish step dancing, specifically in the area of performance.
In her chapter, “‘Come and Daunce with Me in Irlande’: Tourism, Dance and Globalisation,” in the book that she co-edited with Michael Cronin, Irish Tourism: Image, Culture and Identity, Barbara O’Connor explores the world of stage shows that flourished after Riverdance, according the model of Riverdance. Whereas it was often difficult to find long term and consistent work as a performer in Irish step dance, that it was now possible to have a career in dance and to travel (134). In addition, some dancers appreciated the opportunity to distance themselves from the competitive environment of the feis, which “appeared to be a source of considerable stress and anxiety,” and participate in a different form of Irish step dancing, which “was perceived to be conducive to their own enjoyment which included audience appreciation” (129). Shows such as Riverdance offered individual dancers the opportunity to participate in a highly respected form of Irish step dancing such as dancing in a touring show. Dancers can now continue their careers as they enter adulthood (after leaving the competition circuit) in ways other than teaching. Complicating this, however, is the fact that the existence of shows such as Riverdance also provided incentives for dancers to train harder and compete more actively. Although it is possible for dancers to be hired for the cast of an Irish step dancing stage show without having placed in the top half of the World Championships, for example, this does not always happen. Dancers appear to be at least partially evaluated on the basis of their competitive record, and auditions and scouting for some shows is conducted at major championships. It is my impression that dancers now have definite extrinsic, financial incentives to work their way up the system. Few such
incentives seemed to me to exist before Riverdance, other than intrinsic benefits such as prestige and pride. The impacts of Riverdance also changed the regional landscape of Irish step dancing. Dancers in a much wider variety of areas were participating, and the structures governing Irish step dancing expanded to accommodate their involvement. The concurrent development of internet technology allowed dancers to participate in the shaping of Irish step dance in new ways, to communicate with each other, to find out information about the practice, and to purchase goods and services related to it. The Riverdance phenomenon helped to change Irish step dancing into a practice which was much more global in scale and in practice than it had ever been before. The economy of the Republic of Ireland grew drastically in the mid-1990s. This growth was related to increasing investment in Ireland by both the member states of the European Union and American companies. This growth is often referred to as the “Celtic Tiger” boom. Changes in the Irish economy, however, did not affect all citizens of the Republic in the same manner. The political and social landscapes of Ireland also changed significantly, especially in areas of gender rights, sexuality rights, and emigration/immigration trends. Riverdance debuted in 1994, at almost the same time that the Celtic Tiger economy began to “roar.” The short segment that had been created for the Eurovision Song Contest broadcast was expanded into a full-length stage-show extravaganza, Riverdance: The Show. Riverdance acted as an economic engine, generating a large amount of capital and touring around the world. Scholars have suggested that some of
Riverdance’s thematic elements worked to engage audiences, particularly in the United States, at least by portraying themes that cross the Atlantic Ocean, but that also occlude racial and economic violence that has beset Irish immigration to the United States. Thus, the messages that the engine helped to circulate to wide audiences were in some ways regressive, denied conflict, and mythologized Irish opportunities in the United States. The popularity of Riverdance has led to some dramatic changes in the structure and practice of Irish step dancing. Participation in Irish step dancing increased dramatically, and the areas in which Irish step dancing was being practiced expanded considerably. Riverdance trigged some developments that may be referred to as the internationalization and possibly the globalization of Irish step dancing. This claim—that Irish dancing has been globalized—is addressed in the following chapter.
ENDNOTES 1 Interestingly, in Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance, Susan Foster analyzes a number of different ways that a dance might convey the idea of a river. She suggests that dances might resemble, imitate, replicate, or reflect such an idea. The term “resemblance” is chosen among these because dancers in Riverdance do not pantomime specific aspects of the river, but rather take the qualities, or energies of a river and express them through dancing. Susan Foster, Reading Dancing: Bodies and Subjects in Contemporary American Dance, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 65. 2 These comment seem to make implicit reference to a 1936 essay by German cultural critic Walter Benjamin, called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In this essay, Benjamin argues that when art is reproduced, its ideological or cultural characteristics, also known as “aura” are what circulate. Thus, the relationship with the mode of interception of meaning is changed. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)” Eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner. Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1991). 3 See, for example, one teacher’s narrative on the demand for classes at IdanceIrish. “Stephen Scariff Teaching Irish Dancing in Vienna - IdanceIrish interview of the month.” IdanceIrish. 2005. 23 Feb 2008. <http://www.idanceirish.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=100>.
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