Below is our interview with one of the Spraoi Agus Rince Irish Step Dance School instructors, Michael McMillion. The interview focused on his personal experience and life in the Irish Step dancing world, along with his involvement with the specific style of dance he teaches at the school called Ceilidh Dance. We learned more about the Irish Dance world in 45 minutes than we could have ever learned on our own.
[Abbey: So, then, I’m assuming the Ceilidh dancing, you don’t really compete?]
Michael: … And those Ceilidh groups usually consist of dancers who are more advanced. They are also going… usually those dancers are going through intensive training to compete as soloists as well. And so they are working on a lot more technique and the group dancing in terms of fancy figures lining up correctly, you know, there’s a lot more technical things that they’re worrying about that you’re not gonna worry about if you go to the pub just have a drink and enjoy yourself [laughs]. So… but people do compete in the Ceilidh dancing, it’s just as big of a thing as the solo dancing.
Abbey: How did you get involved with the… sprai ag… I can’t even say it.
Michael: Spraoi agus Rince.
Michael: Yep, so Spraoi agus Rince, Cathlin Coughlin is the owner and TCRG (Teagascóir Choimisiúin le Rinci Gaelacha: Commission Certified Irish Dance Teacher) and it took me a little bit for me to say her name right!
Abbey: Yeah, I’m always afraid to say it!
Michael: They’re very similar, her first and last name, but it’s fun once you get it. But she and I go back to World Academy. She was teaching at World Academy at the time, and she actually was my teacher, one of my first teachers! So I go to Indiana University South Bend, and when I started going there, I was having a hard time. I was travelling to Chicago and Chesterton for competitive dance training with the Meyer’s School. And it just became so much travel for me, it was interfering with my studies. But luckily I have Cat, and she and I are really good friends and I reconnected with her and went on over to Spraoi agus Rince and I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s been so much fun and we’ve been able to do a lot of work in the community in South Bend and just giving Irish dance to everybody and that’s something that I am very thankful for.
Abbey: Yeah, absolutely!
Meghan: I have a question, she’s [Cathlin] in Ireland right now, are those some of the students from the school that are in Ireland with her?
Michael: Yeah, one of our dancers, he is competing in the World Championships for Irish Dancing. It’s his first time going to worlds; both him and I competed at the regional championships in Chicago. It was in the fall of last year and we both qualified for the World Championships. So, I have to finish up my degree so [laugh] that’s my priority right now, is to graduate.
Abbey: It happens.
Michael: So he’s going to… yeah he just went and competed, and he already danced. No recall, but you know for his first worlds, he’s really come a long ways and we’re really happy that he even got the chance to go and compete there, it’s a huge honor.
Abbey: Oh, my gosh, yeah.
Michael: It’s basically the Olympics of Irish dancing, you know? But yeah, and Cathlin went out there with him and they’ve been… I’m just so jealous that they’re in Ireland.
Meghan: Have you qualified for worlds before?
Michael: I’ve competed at worlds.
Meghan: Oh so you’ve already…?
Michael: Yeah, I’ve been to worlds. I went and I did it in Northern Ireland when they had it in Belfast and I went and competed there; it was a lot of fun I really enjoyed it. And I’ve qualified for the worlds like three or four times now? But I’ve only gone and danced once. It’s a huge trip over, you know? But Ireland’s amazing, any excuse to go there is a great excuse.
Meghan: Okay, so the dancing that you’re doing here, is it the same as in Ireland or has it changed being in America?
Michael: So for the Ceilidh dancing, the group dancing, we dance under the… I’m gonna try and say it in Gaelic [Gaelic speech], which is, the Commission of Irish Dancing. We are a certified school underneath that commission and they have a standardized book for Ceilidh dancing. So if you see us looking in the book during our Ceilidh classes, it’s to make sure that we’re doing it right! Because there’s a commission standard they have a set way to do the Ceilidh dances, so pretty much anybody who dances in the commission is gonna be dancing the Ceilidh dances the same way. And a lot of this is just collected information: information that they’ve collected from regions in Ireland and basically they just documented it so these dances are way older than the commission. They’re basically just a way for us to document all these Ceilidh dances how people practice in Ireland, because a lot of it is just word of mouth. People are teaching the group dancing by they’re passing it down from generation to generation. But the Ceilidh dancing we do here, it’s the same stuff you’re gonna see in Ireland. We all do the same things for the group dancing.
Abbey: So using the book is just kinda to keep it traditional, and things like that?
Michael: Yeah, it’s more of a reference, a guide, just to make sure that it’s as accurate to the original tradition as possible. So there might be some… for instance, when some of our groups go and compete in the Ceilidh dancing, they might add some embellishments to the Ceilidhs, but they’re not changing the actual dance.
Abbey: So core stuff?
Michael: Right. You know, it’s kinda like a piece of music: you can add some embellishment to it, but you can’t change the notes. Cause then you’d be changing the piece.
Abbey: And going on the music, so is it just kind of all Irish step music goes with any dance? Because I’ve noticed you guys use… they all kind of have a similar sound to them but they’re never the same whenever we’ve been to the classes. So is it just kind of, you can pick whatever one you want, or is it, you have a set tempo for some of them?
Michael: For Ceilidh dancing for the most part, we’re gonna be doing reels and jigs. So, in Irish dancing, there’s a bunch of different types of dances, and really, that comes down to the speed and the tune. So how fast the song goes and what’s the tune? But for Ceilidh dancing we’re mainly doing reels and jigs. There is set times for reel and jigs, but most of the time if you’re doing a Ceilidh and there’s live music, it’s whatever tempo the musicians take it at. Yeah for the most part it, there’s a bunch of Irish tunes like Cooley’s Reel, that’s a really popular one, or Haymaker’s Jig, something like that. There’s tunes that are generally Irish bands that are gonna be playing and pretty much any of those will work for a Ceilidh. There are Ceilidhs, though, where they do have set songs. So you can only dance certain songs to that Ceilidh. So like “Haste to the Wedding,” you dance it to the song “Haste to the Wedding.” You can’t dance it to any other…
Abbey: There’s nothing else.
Michael: Right, exactly! So that’s how that works. Some they… yeah some Ceilidhs require a certain dance, and others it’s just, pick a tune. You know?
Abbey: Whatever you want, go with it!
Michael: Exactly, so…
Abbey: Okay, so our only encounter with Irish step dancing has been that class, and it’s predominantly women in the class that you guys teach. But in the broader world of Irish step dancing, do you see it more as like gender specific where it’s more women do it or is it kinda equal?
Michael: Well, originally, Irish step dancing was done by men. So women didn’t really, do the solo step dancing, so the solo dancing was primarily done by men. So that’s the set dancing, solo reels, jigs, all that… all that. Mainly done by men. And then somewhere along the line they started to and… I don’t have dates [laugh]…
Abbey: Don’t really have a time frame, but we know it happened.
Michael: Yeah, somewhere along the line, they had a… they wanted to get, um, women more involved with the set dancing, so they actually created the slip jig, which is a… I guess you could say more of like an adagio, more of a smooth type of dance. It’s supposed to be more ballet-like, and that was to try to get women more involved in Irish dancing, but now I would say women are definitely the dominant dancing force in the Irish dance world. There’s a lot of girls who are competing and they’re more involved in this and it’s very much… girl power. But there’s men that do it, too! There’s men that do that and it’s just as much of a competition. And when you go to the world’s levels, there’s lots of men. At the regional levels, it’s a little smaller, and the local levels, it’s really small. So basically, the bigger the competition is, you’ll see a lot more men.
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