The Portal

Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy (inaugural residency)

Jean Butler. Photograph by Conor Horgan.

In July 2018 Irish dance practitioner, contemporary choreographer, and Artistic director of Our Steps Jean Butler initiated the first Irish traditional dance archive of set dances in partnership with The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts entitled Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy.

In the form of a living discussion and performative workshop, the focus of the 10-day residency is to collect video documentation and oral histories that consider the lineage of master teachers of Irish dance starting in New York. Beginning with the solo steps of Jean Butler’s legendary master teacher Donny Golden, the project moves to Jimmy Erwin, Golden’s teacher and finally to Cyril McNiff, Erwin’s teacher and prolific style influencer from Belfast, Northern Ireland whose steps date back to the 1950’s.

Utilizing a framework of live transmission, in which dances are taught across generations and geographies, this residency traces the lineage and migration of Ireland and the Diaspora from 1940-1994, a largely undocumented period full of developments within the form and innovations now assumed into the lexicon of the Irish step dance. The focus of documentation will look at the transmission from master teachers to younger practicing students, placing value on the lost history of the Irish dancing body as an agent for change and creative reference for the future.

Innovating new methods of performance documentation, this project places focus on the intricacies of the body moving in space to capture the idiosyncratic stylistic variations that once defined Irish step dance. The dances will be collected over 4 international workshops and will produce over 200 hours of filmed recorded material, including oral histories of master teachers and key participants. The Library will be the permanent custodian of this archive, which will be made available to the public, in perpetuity.