The Irish Dancing: Cultural Politics and Identities, 1900-2000 by Barbara O’Connor

Dance in Ireland has lacked a social sciences approach so Barbara O’Connor’s book is a breakthrough study in this regard, not only for dance but sociological perspectives on Irish culture. Let me tell you more about the book.

Dance is tightly interwoven into the fabric of Irish culture and society. During the first half of the twentieth century it was the most common leisure activity for the majority of young people and the dance hall was the most common place for meeting prospective marriage partners. – The Irish Dancing: Cultural Politics and Identities, 1900-2000 by Barbara O’Connor, (ISBN 978-1-78205-041-4, Hardback €39, £35, 234 x 156mm, 192pp).

The Irish Dancing examines some aspects of the role of dance in the Irish cultural sphere at various points in time over the course of the twentieth century. It is book-ended by two dance events at either end of the century – the first Irish céilí in London in 1897 and the first performance of Riverdance in Dublin in 1994. Between these two events a range of social/recreational and stage/theatrical dance forms and practices are chosen to explore the ways in which dance has built, transformed and challenged Irish cultural identities.

Based on documentary evidence as well as conversations with dancers, the book explores the diverse ways in which dance produces a sense of national and global, ethnic, gender and social class identities. It does so through an analysis of the power, pleasures and meanings of dance at particular points in time.

Themes addressed include the efforts of Cultural Revivalists in the early century to mould an ideal dancing body to reflect the body politic of the newly-formed state; the moral panic that developed around the ‘degenerate’ modern dances of the 1920s and ‘30s, and the ensuing power struggle to determine which dances were to be encouraged and which forbidden; the gender politics of dance including the feminisation of step dance, the demonization of the ‘modern woman’ in the dancehall as well as the pleasures of ballroom dancing for women in the 1940s and ‘50s; the role of set dancing from the 1970s in creating a sense of community among dancers that combined elements of traditional/rural and newer/postmodern identity formations; how dance helped to maintain a sense of Irish ethnic identity amongst the diaspora who, in transmitting dance from one generation to the next, fulfilled the dual desire to connect with homeland and to foster a sense of ethnic identity in their place of migration; the globalization of Irish step dance in the 1990s and its consequences for a contemporary sense of Irishness.

Barbara O’Connor has written extensively on aspects of Irish popular culture including tourism and media audiences/consumption as well as dance. She worked previously as Senior Lecturer in the School of Communications, Dublin City University.