"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
copyrighted);

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.

Sincerely,

me

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

Dance Kinesiology and the Art of Dance

Kinesiology is the study of human movement. It is the study of how the human body is put together and its mechanics. It is the study of the bones and muscles and the physics of motion. (There is also something else called Applied Kinesiology…but that is a crunchy-granola, “dysfunctional energy pathways” approach that I do not believe in.) Kinesiology encompasses biomechanics which is “the field of study which makes use of the laws of physics and engineering concepts to describe motion of body segments, and the forces [both internal and external] which act upon them during activity.”AIMBE

Dance Kinesiology is the same study of factual human movement within the context of the complex art of dance movement.

My story: My first exposure to the fact that science might have a place in dance, was when Patrice Whiteside came to substitute for my ballet teacher Tricia Kaye (the founder of KD Dids) when I was about 15. In a few short days, I got more practical advice about how to use my body than I had in my entire life. Patrice was responsible for me becoming one of those students who asked why and how…drove some of my teachers nuts. But at 15 it occurred to me that if it can be DONE, there is an explanation for HOW. I wanted to know HOW and was usually very frustrated by the lack of information (and patience!) that my teachers could offer.

My first formal kinesiology class – sports kinesiology – was as an undergraduate dancer at The University of California at Riverside. Although I am sure that Sally Sevey Fitt was well on her way to becoming THE dance kinesiology guru (there is NO info on her specifically that I can find), the field of dance kinesiology had not been widely established when I went to college. Our department chair, though, felt there was value in her dancers learning about the science of movement, and we girly dancers had to join the shocked jocks in a physical education lecture course. My fellow students hated every minute of learning about swinging a bat, throwing a ball, running, moving in the various planes, but I was enthralled. I had the ability to translate this info into dance, and I was hooked. Here were the reasons, the whys and wherefores of human movement no matter the movement style or form. This was not about any specific movement technique, this was biomechanics. My dancing and my teaching changed immediately as I regarded movement as not a style but as manipulation of my bones by my muscles through space, with and against gravity. Sounds dry, I know….but I was in heaven! I finally had a framework for everything I was doing and teaching.

My kinesiology studies went on through the years as I studied everything I could get my hands on. I took a few more sports kinesiology courses because there were no dance kinesiology course being taught anywhere that I could find except at the University of Utah with Ms. Fitt. I was on my own. But, I did encounter so many other experts in other body therapies and techniques, all of whom became integral parts of my developing framework for understanding human movement: Alexander Technique, Feldenkreis, Neuro-muscular Re-alignment, Labanalysis, Labanotation, Dance Therapy, Body Mapping, Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation, Physical Therapy, etc. It all fit in. I had started collecting books on sports kinesiology, anatomy, biomechanics, stretching, injury prevention and rehabilitation, movement analysis, etc. And then I discovered Sally Sevey Fitt’s book, Dance Kinesiology. There it all was! In black and white! Everything I had discovered on my own was true!! It became my bible.

So, when I got my first university position when I was 25, I wanted to teach dance kinesiology. It complemented my studio dance courses. My students soared, and I was the happiest teacher on the planet.

What value does the study of dance kinesiology hold? It teaches dancers about their bodies: how they are constructed, how they are meant to move, how they are NOT meant to move, how movement is produced and/or restricted, how to use gravity. Is it a complex field of study? Yes and no. There are so many “things” to be learned, yes, but the basic concepts, once mastered, give a dancer a framework for evaluating and analyzing any and all movement challenges.

The body is the dancer’s instrument…how can it truly be used to its full potential if it is not understood? Over the years, I have encountered arguments that all resemble this one: one does not need to know how a car is constructed to drive it. Give me a break…does your driving teacher tell you that you can drive really fast by pushing on the brake? This is illogical, right? Well, the body functions in an extremely logical manner, and dance teachers should know the logic! Instead, dancers are routinely told to do things that essentially work against actual body mechanics, against the logic of body construction. A few of my favorites are: “Squeeze your butt muscles to turn out your legs!”, “Lift your arms using your (middle) back muscles!”, “Tuck your pelvis!”, “Lift your leg from underneath!”, and in Irish dance, “Knees forward, toes out!” Even if the students do not know dance kinesiology, it should be a GIVEN that a dance teacher does. Then, a dance student would be getting nothing but correct information.

Sometime in my graduate studies I encountered the discussion about the art of dance vs. the science of dance. I remember not understanding why there was a discussion at all. Understanding my body meant that I could dance my best which meant that the “art” of the dance was clearly illustrated. If a body is performing at its peak, would not the art be best served?

Rather than going off on my own rant about how science and art are not at odds, here is an excerpt from a wonderful article I found once:

‘“Science helps us to understand, to make sense, of the world in which we live. It helps us to understand ourselves. So does art,” Andrade says. “Scientists ask questions, design experiments, make observations, and try to develop answers or understanding of the questions asked. So do artists.”

It’s hard to break a stereotype, however. Scientists and artists, many believe, have as much in common as Dilbert and Salvador Dali.

Engineers, represented in the popular comic strip, are thought of as “left-brained,” meaning they are unemotional, mathematical, exact, and logical. Artists, such as the Spanish painter, have the reputation as being “right-brained,” or creative, spontaneous – even impractical.

“Not quite,” says Andrade, who is driven to debunk the myth. “Scientists and engineers are also very creative – generally the more creative, the more mathematical, logical, and highly experimental.”

Artists often begin a work with a creative vision, undoubtedly stemming from the right hemisphere of the brain, which governs creativity. But the act itself of drawing, painting or composing is a step-by-step process requiring memorizing patterns of logical thought processed by the left hemisphere, the side of physics. Conversely, just as artistry is augmented by input from the left-brain hemisphere sequence, scientific thought depends upon right-sided inspiration, says author Leonard Shlain.’

The rest of the article is well worth the read: What Leonardo Knew

There is another section that reads: McDermott’s own math professors chided him for taking art classes. And his sculpting instructors questioned his decision to spend less time honing his art to crack math texts.”

This was my experience in high school and college. My favorite encounter with a rare teacher in graduate school who got a kick out of my diverse studies went like this:

(This was a math class I took for fun with pre-med students, and the teacher said this loudly for the benefit of the class.) “So, Ann…I see you got ANOTHER A on this test…” Here I began blushing furiously and painfully.

“What’s your major again?”

“Dance,” I whispered, wanting to disappear.

“What? Say it louder!”

“DANCE!”

“Yep, that’s what I thought!” she said as she looked around the class and began a mini-lecture on how many students were failing this required class.

I was mortified…but got over it as she smiled and winked at me. I realized she was not making fun of me, and we had a great conversation after class. She was fascinated by my interests.

Over the years, I began to understand how my right and left brains complemented and supported each other. Fascinating stuff. I took the collaboration of the parts of my brain for granted. It has helped me understand my children and their learning styles.

And only solidified my standing on the art vs science argument…there isn’t one.

Click for more kinesiology info: Dance Kinesiology