First Published in jimsresearchnotes 30 August 2011 (revised 5 May 2014)
Dance has been one of my interests as a subject for analysis. In an early draft of a working paper I looked at some of the social meanings and symbolism behind dancing:
“It was through Roy that I got to know Bruce Kapferer and his fieldwork in Sri Lanka on exorcism, dance and ritual set in the context of individual identify-formation through ritual dance. This in turn provided the inspiration for me to write a working paper on more modern dance in relation to individuation and with a strong gendered dimension, that had its first draft in the late 1980s. I really need to update it again to an on-line paper.” Research Note 28 March 2011 on Social Anthropology. See also http://jimkemeny.wordpress.com/about/
Riverdance was one of the styles that caught my attention in the wake of winning the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest:
“Individuation is clearly not the only sociological dimension that can be applied to dance – gender is an obvious dimension and has been touched on in several places – but it gets more complex and problematic to take another aspect such as struggles for independence, or religious motifs. Riverdance, to take a current fashion, with its characteristic male (but also sometimes female) pose based on dancing in line and with a rigid upper torso and stiff military-like footwork gives an impression of militant resistance (as distinct from attack) that may well reflect the long struggle for Irish independence against anglo-scottish colonialism. But here we are on less certain ground. Perhaps such analysis could be grounded in background research. In any event, here is a rich topic of study for sociologists.” (part of Dance: Working Paper n.d.)
Since writing that, I have had plenty of opportunity to watch videos of Riverdance and it is clear that any gender bias there may have been towards men has gone (if there ever was any), with women as prominent as men. Many will remember the active role Bernadette Devlin took in The Troubles.
More recently I found an online dissertation that discusses the colonial resistance aspect of Riverdance and the introduction of more commercial themes in Hynes, Colleen Anne (2007) “Strangers in the House”: Twentieth Century Revisions of Irish Literary and Cultural Identity University of Texas, Austin (Doctoral Dissertation):
“…the negotiation of tradition and modernity was, at least in part, what made Riverdance so successful. The show embraced a traditional dance form that was closely tied to colonial resistance and postcolonial identity to revise Irish cultural identity for a current international stage.” (Hynes, 2007 p. 28)
The “negotiation of tradition and modernity” that Hynes discusses involves the combination of “Irish cultural identity” and “current international stage”, and represents the kind of revisionism that adapts the dance to modern marketing for an international audience where many perhaps do not relate to Riverdance as an expression of the struggle against colonialism in Ireland, a struggle that both men and women took active part in.