May 6, 2011
BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
Is it too soon to call it “The Greenpot”?
Irish dance – rather than hockey – was the focus of a recent local showcase for several dozen students representing Boston area colleges. The event, titled “We Got the Beat,” took place April 2 at Harvard University, featuring Irish dance teams from Harvard, Boston College, Boston University, and Tufts University (a troupe from Massachusetts Institute for Technology also had been scheduled to participate but was unable to appear).
Their pieces showcased Irish dance steps and figures, or in some cases incorporated these traditional elements into modern choreography. To cap off the one-and-a-half hour production, performers from the four colleges also invited dancers in the audience to join them on stage for a grand finale.
This was the second such collaboration in as many years, and while it has a ways to go before attaining the status of Boston’s storied intercollegiate hockey tournament, participants say the show could be a Beanpot-like tradition in the making. More importantly, they say, the fact that the event involved such a large gathering of students demonstrates the popularity of Irish dance – and underscores Boston’s eminence as a locus for Irish culture.
“Boston has a high concentration of people of Irish heritage, and a lot of dancers as a result, so if any college town was going to have a big Irish dance presence, it makes sense to me that it would be here,” says Claire Schenkel, choreographer for BU’s Irish dance team Step About Boston. “I know many dancers in our group who grew up in Massachusetts ran into some old dance friends at ‘We Got the Beat.’ But I think it’s wonderful that so many colleges have enough interest to get a group together for something unique.”
Brittany Lewis, president of Boston College Irish Dance, says, “We were surprised at first to find that schools like Tufts or BU had Irish dancing teams, but it makes sense considering how many students are involved with competitive Irish dancing in their youth. College is a great place to enjoy Irish dancing without the competitive aspect, and it’s nice to see so many students in the Boston area really having fun with it.”
Alana O’Brien, who is co-president of Harvard Irish Dance, reiterates Lewis’s observation. “I think everyone who ever was an Irish dancer continues to identify as one, even if they stopped after elementary or middle school. A lot of us find we miss the dancing, both for itself and for the social aspect which comes with it. So now we have this opportunity to rediscover Irish dance, and it’s also a way to make new relationships, or even build on old ones – I found out that I knew one of the BU dancers because we had carpooled to lessons for five years when we were kids!”
As the students note, college Irish dance teams are about exploration rather than competition, and thus feel empowered to add creative twists, often going beyond traditional costumes and musical accompaniment, and incorporating the steps and figures into a larger choreographic context. At the April 2 show, for example, Tufts combined stylish modern apparel with the familiar competition wigs and used a recording of popular singer Beyonce for their performance, while Harvard concocted a short dramatic scene that served as a prologue for one of their dances. One of BC’s signature pieces (although they didn’t present it at Harvard) is a salute to Boston’s sports teams – the dancers wear Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots, Bruins and BC t-shirts or replica jerseys and dance to the Dropkick Murphys’ “Shipping Up to Boston.”
“Some take a more traditional approach, some a more modern, but mostly we’re all trying to figure out how to interweave both of those in our dancing,” says Lewis. All have their own identities “and it’s always fun to watch what fellow dancers have come up with.”
Since most local collegiate Irish dance teams have substantial numbers – BC alone counts some three dozen members – students say there is every reason to believe they can survive and replace the drop-off from graduation or other attrition. If that’s the case, Boston could see an annual reprise of “We Got the Beat.”
“We were encouraged by the turn-out, so hopefully it’ll happen next year,” says O’Brien, who is graduating this spring. “Doing some other events together would be fun, too -- like maybe a college ceili. Organizing these kinds of things can be tough, because obviously everyone is focused on their studies and other things going on at their school. But it’s very exciting to see how many college kids in Boston love Irish dancing.”