Michael Tubridy led a workshop on the Dan Furey dances during a 2011 visit to Boston. (Screen capture from the film.)
BC’s Gaelic Roots program to host screening, talk about Kieran Jordan's work on Nov. 18
This month, Irish dance performer, teacher, choreographer, and Dorchester resident Kieran Jordan will present the in-person premiere of her recent project: a documentary about a stalwart group of individuals that has shared a love for Irish dance across time and distance — and in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic.
On Nov. 18, the Boston College Gaelic Roots series will host Jordan, a Lower Mills resident, for a screening and discussion of “The Dan Furey Group and a Circle of Squares,” at 6:30 p.m. in the Theology and Ministry Library Auditorium on BC’s Brighton Campus.
Produced, directed, and narrated by Jordan, the film honors the legacy of Dan Furey, a County Clare fiddler celebrated for his knowledge and teaching of Irish set dancing and old-style step dancing. After Furey’s death in 1993, a group of his dance students resolved to keep his memory alive by gathering regularly to share and reminisce about what he had taught them, and passing it along to others. Over time, their numbers grew and expanded well beyond Ireland to the United States – including Boston – Canada, many parts of Europe, and even Japan and Taiwan.
The documentary comprises excerpts from the Zoom session as well as various photos, videos, and film clips, including one of Furey – then about 80 – dancing. In addition to providing narration, Jordan interviews some of Furey’s friends and others who were inspired by him—among them Michael Tubridy (a founding member of Ireland’s world-renowned band The Chieftains), who, along with his late wife Céline, became a key figure in preserving the dances championed by Furey, as did Furey’s close friend and neighbor, James Keane, who died in 2000 but led the group for several years after Furey’s death. “The Dan Furey Group and a Circle of Squares” had its official debut earlier this year in virtual format through the Leitrim Dance Festival, which commissioned Jordan to put the film together.
The “Circle of Squares” refers to a vital, if improbable, means by which the Dan Furey Group has kept its link intact during the pandemic. When the pandemic shut down international travel and most in-person gatherings in 2020, more than 70 dancers turned to the Zoom platform one day in June to communicate, and to keep dancing. Instead of dancing to pre-recorded music, the Furey Group dancers were accompanied in real time by accordionist Dan Accardi, a Boston-based musician.
“When we’re together in one place, we form a circle to go through the specific steps Dan Furey taught,” explains Jordan, who organized and hosted the meeting. “Since we couldn’t do that, we connected over the Internet, and tried to recreate the group experience as best as possible; instead of a physical circle, we were a ‘circle’ of Zoom squares. It wasn’t easy: Some people weren’t experienced in using Zoom at all, let alone for dancing. But we managed to make it work enough so we could keep the tradition alive and enjoy ourselves.”
For Jordan – who will demonstrate and teach some of the dance steps at the Nov. 18 event, with Accardi providing music – the endurance of the Dan Furey Group illustrates not only the worldwide attention traditional Irish dance has garnered over the last three decades, but also how strong a bond it has proved to be, especially at a time when so many felt isolated and cut off from their communities and the things that bring joy to life.
“It’s a personal, compelling story about Irish step dancing – not as a performance art or competition, but rather as a social activity that has united dancers internationally, even during the pandemic,” says Jordan. “I think there is something comforting in the idea that, for all the changes in the Irish dance world, and in the world itself, you have a group of several dozen people from different generations and backgrounds that has found joy in a very traditional style of dance.”
For many, the words “Irish dance” summons up images of high-octane, athletic displays of stepping punctuated by grand leaps and leg kicks. But Furey taught an older, “low to the ground” style of dance, subtle by contrast but certainly intricate and invigorating. There is a tighter connection between dancer and musician, with a focus on rhythmic footwork that aligns with the music; dances can be done solo, with a partner, or in a group. Although the “sean-nos” old style typically features improvisation, the dances associated with Furey have specific choreographed steps.
Furey began teaching dance at the Willie Clancy Summer School, or “Willie Week” – a hugely popular annual event in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare – in the late 1980s, and attracted an initially small but loyal following, who became known as “the Dan Furey Dance Group.” Michael and Céline Tubridy were among those intrigued by the dances, and sought him out for private lessons, as Michael recounts in the film (he recalls how at first he was content to let Céline work alone with Furey, until Furey urged him to participate: “You’re going to be bored out of your mind watching us. Why don’t you get up and try it as well?”). The Tubridys went on to continue the Dan Furey dance legacy at Willie Week after James Keane’s death, and when Jordan invited Michael to give a special performance/teaching workshop at her studio in 2011, there was an enthusiastic response; the Dan Furey Group now had a Boston/Massachusetts/New England chapter.
As it expanded, Dan Furey Group members often got together outside of Willie Week, sometimes to travel to festivals or other events, or simply to enjoy one another’s company and the shared repertoire of Furey dances.
“One of the fascinating aspects about the old-style dances such as those taught by Dan Furey is that they have not changed or been influenced by modern trends,” says Jordan. “These particular dances are just as Dan did them. Some of them are unique, with quirky little steps or different tune types than what modern dancers use.
“But that’s also the beauty of the dances. When we get together, we’re not bringing in individual variations, but sharing solo steps as part of a group. It’s really a special language that we share.”
Jordan adds that some of the dances aren’t especially difficult, and don’t require prior experience in or knowledge of Irish dance to learn.
“I hope those who come to BC for the screening will give the dances a try. You may not ‘get it’ at first, but the thing is, there is a whole group of people literally around the world who are happy to help you find your way.”
Information on the November 18 event, including directions to the Boston College Brighton Campus, is available at events.bc.edu/group/gaelic_roots_series.
For more about Kieran Jordan, go to kieranjordan.com.