As we circle the world, with our wandering airs…

If you’ve ever spent much time watching public broadcasting you have doubtless come across an Irish step-dancing performance, with a group of three or more athletic (generally female) dancers in flawless unison, upper bodies rigid, arms fixedly down their side, and hard-tapping footwork perfectly accompanying the lively traditional music. It’s a dance style that requires supreme balance without the use of arms and although there’s no definitive record as to its origins, theories abound.

Blame the English – Indeed, Irish defiance dates back at least as far as the 14th Century when the Statute of Kilkenny sought to outlaw Irish culture, including games, language and dance. When royalty arrived in the years that followed it was said that the Irish would refuse to raise a hand in greeting, defiantly keeping their arms by their side, hands formed in fists and that this was eventually translated into a new form of dance.

Blame the Church – In a time of rigid Catholicism some believe that Irish dancing came to reflect Catholic ideals, arms down, no smiling and no holding hands between the sexes.

Blame 18th Century Etiquette – Clearly influenced by such continental dance forms as the Quadrille, 18th Century dance masters were mindful of etiquette and danced with their arms in a fixed position (holding a stone in each hand to keep them in a fist) to eliminate unruly arm movements.

Blame a Lack of Space – These same dance masters would travel throughout Ireland to dance at fairs and in competitions.  With little room to perform, they would dance on tabletops or even barrels and, as a result, their dancing needed to be extremely contained. As dance competitions became more sophisticated through the years the dance venues became larger and the dance style grew to include more movement.

Which brings us to the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest being hosted by Ireland. Born in Limerick, composer/songwriter Bill Whelan was commissioned to prepare a piece for one of the intervals. Entitled “Timedance” it included accompanying ballet dancers and was later released as a single.

When in 1994, the Eurovision Song Contest returned to Ireland, Whelan was again commissioned to prepare an interval piece, and the result was a three-part suite entitled, “Riverdance” that included a striking seven minute display of Irish step-dancing and traditional music.  The response was deafening and the performance eventually evolved into the full-length stage production that continues to be performed all over the world.

Perfect for a season-changing Sunday morning, sans any sense of defiance, today’s selection is one of the more languid numbers from the original 1997 Soundtrack of the show with soloist Katie McMahon…

  LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Sunday 9 September

Home and the Heartland

High in the sky

Through the clouds and rain

Every familiar field

Seems like an old friend

When every hand that you shake

Is like a warm embrace

Could only be one sweet place

Home and the Heartland

 Sing out your songs

And ring out your stories and rhymes

Weave from your dreams

The mystical dances that lead us to

Bind in heart and mind

 As we circle the world

With our wandering airs

Gathering here and there

Leaving behind our share

Like the leaves in the wind

They are blown along

Melodies rising from

Home and the Heartland

Sing out your songs

And ring out your stories and rhymes

Weave from your dreams

The mystical dances that lead us to

Bind in heart and mind

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