On a dark December night, in a lighted midtown storefront, a gaggle of Tucson teens are stomping out an age-old Irish dance.
Members of the crack dance team of the Bracken School of Irish Dance, the kids are whirling through "Trouble Reel," a dizzying dance of meshing lines and circles and step-kicking solos. They're practicing for an appearance at this Saturday's Irish Christmas at the Tucson Children's Museum. Called Nollaig Shona, Irish for "Merry Christmas," the festival will also feature traditional music by Irish Coffee, a mummers' play and music by the O'Rourke and Eller families, storytelling and crafts for kids.
For rehearsal the Bracken teens--12 girls and two boys--are in T-shirts and shorts, not their fancy performance costumes embroidered in Celtic coils. But they can't do without their specialized "hard shoes." These dance clogs come outfitted with a piece of fiberglass, which the kids bang on the wooden dance floor with maximum percussive effect.
"When I was dancing (as a child) the shoes had a piece of wood, with hundreds of nails hammered in to make noise," says their teacher, Rosemary Brown, an Irish dance veteran native to Connecticut. "But we have moved on to fiberglass. It's better for the floors."
The equipment may have changed but the dances have remained the same for centuries. Irish traditional dancers' legs fly and their feet stomp; by contrast, except when they join hands for a furious circle dance, the dancers' arms dangle down their sides and their backs remain ramrod straight. The strange pairing of controlled upper body and explosive lower body is distinct to Irish dance.
"I have heard three stories explaining it," says Brown, whose parents hail from counties Waterford and Cork. "One is that it's the Irish spirit (on bottom) with the Catholic Church on top--the church is controlling the spirit." Another explanation cites the Penal Code, the draconian English laws that abrogated Irish rights and tried to suppress Irish culture. The Code banned dancing, Brown notes, so feisty Irish men and women danced with arms straight down--so British soldiers couldn't tell they were making merry. Brown's favorite tale blames an inadvertent architectural loophole in the Penal laws for the dropped arms. The code banned dancing "inside the house and outside the house--so people danced in the doorway."
Irish poetry and music have ancient histories, Brown says, but Irish dancing is "not mentioned in the narratives until the 1500s or 1600s. Itinerant dance masters used to go from town to town. They taught hard shoe dancing, which was then for men only." Irish community dancing, or ceili dancing, danced at the crossroads in the villages of rural Ireland, spawned American square dancing and reels, she says. Irish hard shoe step dancing inspired American clogging.
A physician, Brown turned again to Irish dance as an adult when she retired temporarily from medical practice to raise her three children. After winning a degree in Irish dance in a competitive exam, she got hired by Thomas Bracken, a world-dance champion who directs the eponymous school, which also has a branch in Chandler. The school has produced numerous champions, including, most recently, Brown's daughter, Caitlin Meaney, 14, Matthew O'Leary, 16, and Kyren Lynch, 10. All three will travel to Ireland in the spring to compete in the Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne (World Dance Gathering).
The Bracken dancers each year prance downtown's streets in the St. Patrick's Day Parade. Their Christmas turn this year is part of the museum's Festivals of Lights, which for the last month and into the next celebrate midwinter festivals from assorted cultures. Nolaig Shona will also present an Irish mumming pageant, which, as far as anyone knows, is a first for Tucson. Tony O'Rourke, an Irishman who's brother-in-law to Tucson's Margie Eller, says he first heard of the pre-Christian rhyming rituals from an old-timer 15 years ago.
"We were in a public house having a drink, and we heard about it," says O'Rourke, who's visiting Tucson for the holidays from his home outside Dublin. "It died out in the 1960s. We decided to resurrect it. We had all the rhymes from the old man. It's part of the oral tradition."
Since then, the O'Rourke family and friends have performed the mumming plays each year. Traditionally staged in both in Ireland and England, the comic dramas are "very pagan," O'Rourke says. "They're slightly disrespectful toward the Church; they're an alternative, a poor man's Christmas."
Told in rhyme, the early Christian stories usually had St. George defeating a devil; the tales later evolved into Irish battles against the English. In the version to be staged here, Rim Rhyme, an Irish rebel, slays the English Prince George. "I'm the doctor, the reconciling figure," O'Rourke says. "I resurrect Prince George and say we will be friends forever."
Caroline O'Rourke composed the mummers' play in the old style, and a platoon of O'Rourkes and Ellers will perform it. The clan will also provide some Irish music, with champion fiddler Clíodhna O'Rourke on violin, and other family members on bodhran (Irish drum), guitar andconcertina. Aoife O'Rourke and Aisling Eller will perform Irish dances.
Irish Coffee, a Tucson group, offers up tunes on fiddle, whistle, guitar and bodhran. An Irish shanachie, or storyteller, will recount such folk stories as "Angus Og and the Swan" and "The Adventures of Finn Mac Cool." Kids can make Christmas "crackers," which pop when pulled apart, and color Celtic knot designs.
The Irish double-dip a bit in the Festivals of Light lineup: Sunday afternoon's Winter Solstice party is billed as a Celtic Heritage Celebration. Co-hosted by the Tucson Celtic Festival Association, Winter Solstice presents harpist Dave Shaul of Tucson, whose CD is titled Sing a Celtic Noel. Shaul, a music director at Tumacacori National Historical Park, will perform and lead kids on a procession through the museum. Storyteller Glenda Bonin, who has practiced her art for 20 years, will regale festival-goers with Celtic tales. Apple roasting is on the agenda, as well as the making of noisemakers and wreaths by the kids. In honor of the shortest day of the year, the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association will bring telescopes that deliver views of sunspots.