“The Steps of Freedom. The Irish dance” on Arte: from the fight against English oppression to cultural soft power


The “rince fada” is one of the most unusual Irish dances.


From a sacred ritual practice to a rigorous competitive sport, “Irish dancing was born out of oppression, it’s a raw form of expression”. Ruan Magan explores, in his documentary, the meaning of Irish dancing for its people and the whole world. “According to Confucius, one can know the state of a man’s kingdom by the one in which one finds the dance”explains the Irish director.

Thousands of years ago, poetically and ritually danced, the ceili represented joy, fraternity, a means of communication between the instrument and the dancer, one cannot exist without the other.

Then the dance became a weapon against the colonization of Ireland. The invasion led by Oliver Cromwell in 1649 during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, under the reign of James II Stuart, pushed the Irish soldiers to draw their strength from the rhythm of the bagpipes. “You can take everything from people, their property, their livelihood, and try to strip them of their culture, but you can never take their bodies away from them”, says Jonathan Skinner, professor of economics. By their fastest footwork in the world, their straight back and their hands at their sides, the oppressed show their strength: they will not fall, they will not stoop, proud before the enemy.

“A technical feat”

During transatlantic slavery in the 19e century, Irish servants and African slaves found themselves in the West Indies, sharing a very similar rhythm and the same desire to exist, free. The “minstrels”, often Irish-Americans, expatriated to the United States after the potato famine, then appeared on the American continent and blackened their faces (the famous “blackface”): “Racism was profitable”comments Dewitt Fleming Jr, dancer and choreographer.

Since the declaration of independence of Ireland, adopted in January 1919, this dance has been modernized, framed by increasingly strict rules. “Winning competitions has become the raison d’être of dance schoolsemphasizes Professor Skinner. This art is no longer an expression of joy, but a technical feat, it is millimetered to give a “suitable” image. »

For Michael (left) and Matthew Gardiner, Irish dancing is both choreography and music when the steps on the floor set the pace.

The decline of the power of the Church, over the XXe and XXIe centuries, led to the popularization of Celtic dance competitions and performances, a real soft power of Irish culture. Friday, March 17, at the Olympia in Paris, the Irish troupe Celtic Legends, created in 2001, will celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, as part of its tour for its twentieth anniversary. “Long considered old-fashioned, Irish dancing has evolved a lot from a dance of freedom to a national and international dance”concludes Ruan Magan.

The Footsteps of Freedom. the irish dance, documentary by Ruan Magan (RU, 2022, 73 min). Available on demand on Arte.tv until March 16.


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