"Dear An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha…"

There have been interesting conversations happening about what Irish dance teachers should know in terms of body mechanics and kinesiology. There are strong feelings on both sides of that fence. Links to this blog have been posted a couple of times on the TCRG exam board…but they were removed because dance kinesiology and even the discussion of whether or not ID teachers should know this information is not currently relevant to taking the ID teaching exam. Fair enough.

I was interested in what is required to pass the TCRG (teaching) exam. This is from the syllabus at http://www.tcrgexam.9k.com/:

The examination consists of six sections as follows:-
(a) practical test in stepdancing
(b) written ceili dancing test
(c) practical test in teaching ceili dancing
(d) practical test in teaching stepdancing
(e) written music test
(f) oral Irish language test (optional if candidate lives outside Ireland).

The syllabus also includes detailed information on each section of the exam: TCRG Exam components

Very, very thorough and intense examination process. When certified, TCRGs are rather incredible resources for Irish dance history…by the very act of certification, the Irish dance historical survival is ensured. Fantastic.

So what about addressing the current situation in which contemporary ID teachers are leading ID forward by continuing to introduce innovative steps into Irish dance which is making it more athletic and changing it from being simply a folk dance form, as many folks call Irish dance?

That being said, I looked up the definition of folk dance. Wikipedia says this:

Folk dance is a term used to describe a large number of dances, mostly of European origin, that tend to share the following attributes:

1) They were originally danced in about the 19th century or earlier (or are, in any case, not currently

2) Their performance is dominated by an inherited tradition rather than by innovation;
3) They were danced by common people and not exclusively by aristocracy;

4) They have been developed spontaneously and there is no governing body that has final say over what “the dance” is or who is authorized to teach it. This also means that no one has the final say over the definition of folk dance or the minimum age for such dances.

Some other definitions also state clearly that folk dance forms have evolved without the benefit of a choreographer… I think this is another way of saying that folk dances “develop spontaneously.”(For more great definitions and resources, click here.)


So does Irish dance qualify as a folk dance?

Of course it does. Irish dance encompasses ceili dancing, set dancing, and sean nós as well as step dancing. The first three forms definitely satisfy the criteria above…except for the “governing body” part, but I will get to that in a moment. Irish dance does have a rather long history of dancing masters who developed their own steps…I read somewhere that these dancing masters had their “territories,” areas where only they taught dance and others were not welcome. I have also read that sometimes dancing masters were kidnapped to teach in new areas…gotta love the Irish! So, although there is this idea that folk dance “develops spontaneously” (sounds like the myth of the fruit fly!), except for the improvisational forms (i.e. sean nós) someone, somewhere “choreographed” the dances, even if it was by committee over a long period of time or, as with the Irish, the dancing masters who helped spread the tradition.

Now, this “governing body” idea… I looked up a few things to see if other folk dance forms have programs to certify teachers. Yes they do exist, though I did not find any that were as big and organized as the CLRG (An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha). But it does seem as if folk dance certifying bodies are all interested in preserving their own dance form’s history, just as CLRG is.

This is a wonderful thing, of course, but it makes me smile because of its irony. There is a peculiar characteristic of the Irish (not that it does not exist in other cultures, but being Irish meself, this has familial implications as well)…if I had to describe ONE trait that seems to be genetic in the Irish, it is our contentious individual independence. “You wanna tell me what to do? Go suck a lemon!!!” When was the one time that Ireland was unified under one leader? The early 11th century under Brian Boru, and that only lasted about 12 years! But, threaten me, challenge me, and then my brothers and sisters will stand right behind me…we’ll unify!! My father always talked about how my siblings and I would fight and tease each other mercilessly, but as soon as one of us was in need, the wagons would circle, no questions asked. Being fractious is an Irish trait, for better and for worse.

And yet, we have had CLRG since 1930. It was established by the Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League) which itself was created in 1893 to preserve the Irish language. And I am guessing that the motivation behind this was to unite against those who would deprive the Irish of their culture… circle the wagons as the oppressed are wont to do. And Irish dance has flourished.

So, the folk dance angle…yes, I see most of ID as fitting into the folk dance category, even if we do have a “governing body” (can’t do EVERYTHING like everyone else!). But, is Irish step-dancing still classified as folk dance? Is step dancing “dominated by an inherited tradition rather than by innovation,” as stated above? No, innovation now seems to be the order of the day.

I have not been able to find that the CLRG states that Irish dance is a folk art, yet folks argue that CLRG is only there to certify the teachers on their historical knowledge of this folk dance form. One cannot compete at feiseanna unless one’s teacher is certified by the CLRG. (I know there are other ID organizations…)

But Irish step dancing is no longer folk dance. Innovations are happening at an ever-increasing rate. Fantastic. No problem. But, as any dance form evolves, so should the teachers. The first section of the TCRG exam is a “practical test in stepdancing” followed later by a “practical test in teaching stepdancing.” If what is being tested is the historical knowledge of what are considered to be the traditional steps, why are teachers not restricted to using only traditional steps in their choreography for competitions? If having the teacher certification is so important, and they are not restricted in this manner, then who is governing the step innovations, making sure that teachers know how to teach them? In order to get the certification, don’t teachers have to demonstrate that they themselves know and can perform the traditional steps? So why do they not have to know and be able to perform all of the new steps that are now being used in solo Irish dancing? Is that not within the purview of the CLRG?

I do not fault the CLRG for the state of things, but since it is such a strong presence in ID, is it not now time to step up to the plate and address the very serious issue of their certified teachers knowing how to safely and correctly teach students how to perform the new steps, the tricks that have been borrowed from other dance forms? There are many ID teachers who have taken it upon themselves to be educated in anatomy and kinesiology, but what about those who haven’t, those who say that since the CLRG does not require it they do not need to know it?

This is from the exam syllabus:

14. Rince Aonair: Stepdancing Teaching Test

…Amongst the qualities taken into account in assessing a candidate’s capabilities in this section are:-
(1) Instruction (should be clear, concise and suitable for those under instruction);
(2) Clarity and audibility of instructions;
(3) Ability to demonstrate and break down steps;
(4) Selection of suitable steps;
(5) Manner of handling dancers;
(6) Identification and correction of faults.

The CLRG DOES want to know that a teacher can identify and correct faults…but since only certain traditional steps are identified on the syllabus, those are the only steps the exam candidates worry about.

Since the CLRG already has a teaching evaluation as part of the exam, can they not start to include some of the harder steps (toe stands, changement, entrechat, etc…) that have made their way into mainstream ID into this evaluation along with rocks, cross keys, trebles, etc? CLRG did make a ruling against toe stands for dancers under 12. To me, that means that the organization has acknowledged that toe stands have made it into mainstream ID. Is CLRG evaluating their teacher candidates on their ability to correctly evaluate whether or not their students are ready to execute toe stands and then how to teach them safely?

Now, this does not address the issue of dance teachers being fully educated in human movement, but it would be a start. Adding another component in this area would be quite an enterprise and one that CLRG may not want to take on. Perhaps in the future a class in kinesiology or injury prevention & rehabilitation will be required in order to take the exam. That is simple enough.

Here’s my plea:

Dear An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha,
Irish dance is changing, and you have a significant place in this growth as either a support for innovation or as a brake to keep ID traditional. Your certified teachers, the wonderful repositories of Irish dance history, are moving forward as many believe they should. They trust you. You have created an excellent exam…if innovation is to be encouraged, please think about including other elements to be tested in the step dancing portions. Please consider requiring a class in kinesiology, or anatomy, or injury prevention & rehabilitation before a candidate can take the TCRG exam. Please add your authoritative voice to this discussion.



Click for more kinesiology info: Dance Kinesiology
To start educating yourself, try here.

My dance background

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As I peruse the Irish dance message boards, I inevitably run across questions that pertain to how the body works, how specific steps are performed, how to do toe stands, how to gain more turn-out, how to recover from injuries, etc, etc, etc… At the beginning of my involvement in this dance sub-culture, I would offer my opinion and try to pass on information that was correct, helpful, and above all would not add further injury or fuel to the rampant ignorance.

Ooohh, is this another rant? No, not really.

Brief resume: I was initially trained as a classical ballerina. At 16, I had to make a choice – quit school to pursue ballet or go to college. I was raised knowing that I was going to college, so when my choice was made, I was invisible in class. A sad time for me. Had a great guidance counselor who discovered I could get a degree in dance, so off I went to college to be a dancing doctor (I am not kidding). After a couple of years, I made a choice to pursue the dance only, get my Master’s degree and be a university dance professor. I got my first full-time university position when I was 25 in Memphis. Started my dance company there with my partner Judith Tribo Wombwell when I was 27.

I taught many things during my university career, but my loves were teaching modern dance and dance science/the science of movement. Each informed the other. What we learned in technique class, we took apart in kinesiology. The bio mechanics and physics of movement that we explored in kinesiology were put to use in technique class. Watching my students soar with this information was such a fantastic thing. I was always excited about class. I believe that I lived to teach.

I was on disability for a while after I got sick in 2000 and was unable to teach, but it never occurred to me that I would ever stop teaching. I just needed time to recover. I finally went back and continued doing what I had always done, but before long, I had to face the fact that my illness had made many changes at very fundamental levels. I retired.

I was still invited to be a master teacher at various workshops. I did a few, but there were obstacles to continuing even in that vein that I found insurmountable because of the particular way that I wanted to teach students. I could not perform that way any more, so I stopped accepting the invitations (except for the occasional one for my BIL’s Stage Combat workshops).

As I said above, I used to try to answer anatomy and technique questions posted on the various message boards, but I finally stopped doing that because for every correct answer given by me or someone else, there were 10 ridiculous ones. I retreated once it became clear to me that so many TCs did not actually know much about how the body works which meant that they and their students were responsible for the silliness that was (and still is) being posted on the boards as fact. I stopped really even reading the questions when I started reading “fairy tales” about how to do the many steps that have been borrowed from ballet.

Tonight on the main Voy board, a mother got on to ask for help in addressing her daughter’s hip rotation problem. I thought about it and decided not to tell her what to do but gave her a suggestion about where to go for help. So far, that seems to be the gist of the replies. But there were a couple that contained some “ideas” that brought on the twitching tics: “hip rotation with foot turnout” & “hips cannot achieve turn out so it has to come from ankles and knees.” Erg…

One poster was obviously well-educated in correct movement training and started her longish post by writing, “As far as I can tell, 10 years into it, ID teachers generally appear to know very little about anatomy, physiology, kinetics and how to move and train to avoid injury. As much as I respect my DDs current teacher, the general approach they mostly seem to have is based on what they learned from their teachers and is focused on the art and how it looks…not the science and how it is best done…” This is also how I see it. Yes, the art form is extremely important, but better awareness of the dancing instrument (the body) and how it actually works would only elevate the art.

When the teachers at my daughters’ first ID school found out about my background, they used me as a source of information. They went on to change some things and seemed to seek out workshops for themselves that furthered their education in these matters. And many times they sent students to me to talk about posture, jump elevation, turns, etc. They always told me what my kids needed help on and the lucky little monsters were always so appreciative when I would work with them at home!!!!

We are with a new school now, and the teacher is a very smart young woman. I have not asked her about her actual anatomy knowledge base, but I have also not heard or seen anything incorrect. She is a very good teacher. I have not told our new TC about my background. I am content to be the divas’ mom and the dressmaker. But I do watch and give the divas those lovely corrections they love so much.

I have thought about posting links to informative dance technique, anatomy and kinesiology sites…but I have not done it. Tonight, I thought about writing about the anatomy of the hip and the exercises that can be done to identify and strengthen the six deep external rotators. But that thought turned into this post.

Maybe I do not want to write about these things because I cannot see the people who ask these questions. There are so many, many factors that affect posture, incorrect muscle use, and injuries, and there is no way at all to take stock of these things fully without having the body in front of you. All who answer these questions on the boards as if they have the definitive answer should perhaps keep that in mind.

Susan has told me many times that I need to write about faulty dance postures that affect the way ID dresses fit, how incorrect alignment, over-developed muscles, and faulty notions of what good dance posture is can screw up the hang of the best made dress! She and I have discussed this at great length as we figure out fitting issues. But, although I am drawn to the idea of starting to write about these things, especially since we dressmakers have to deal with this all the time, I have yet to do it. I really am not sure why.

But after this thought process, maybe I will start working on it. It interests me because it is for a different audience. It is not for young movers who may misunderstand and incorrectly use what I write. I do not want to be responsible for dancers injuring themselves. But, we dressmakers are used to looking at dancers and making the dresses look right on each one. Maybe understanding what is causing a particular body lump will help us fit them that much better.

A bit more about my past dancer/teacher life here and here.

More kinesiology here: Dance Kinesiology