Eight Feet Tall: Connecting Music and Dance

Eight Feet Tall: (L-R) Rebecca McGowan, Jackie O’Riley, Armand Aromin and Dan Accardi. Video capture

All well and good when you have an artistic inspiration that seems fascinating in concept and explanation. But can you make it come alive in a way that actually is fascinating?

If you’re Jackie O’Riley and Rebecca McGowan, two Boston-area Irish dance performers, choreographers, and teachers, and you have a pair of very willing and able musical allies in Armand Aromin and Dan Accardi, the answer is yes.

Actually, the answer is Eight Feet Tall – the formal name of their collaboration, which has produced live performances and more recently, an album.

For Eight Feet Tall, there is no distinction between music and dance; the former does not simply complement the latter. As sound without a corresponding visual element, O’Riley and McGowan’s shoes, Accardi’s accordion, and Aromin’s fiddle and vocals all occupy the same territory, pull the same levers, and push the same buttons, whether performing traditional Irish instrumentals – reels, jigs, hornpipes – or songs. In that spirit, the collaboration’s name is a play on words, the “Eight Feet” referring to the quartet’s combined number of pedal extremities, while “Tall” suggests a single, cohesive unit.

“It’s really taking a very molecular view,” explains McGowan, who like O’Riley favors sean-nos and other older “low-to-the-ground” styles of Irish step dancing focused more on rhythmic patterns than athletic leaps and kicks. “Musicians – a fiddler, an accordionist, a flutist – do more than simply play the music; they think about ornamentation, phrasing, and other subtleties and how to incorporate these in a particular tune.

“Similarly, dancers think about the mixture of sounds and timbre in their steps, and how one step will flow to the next, depending on the texture of whatever piece of music they’re dancing to. So, with Eight Feet Tall, we’re showing dance as part of the music, where the sound dancers make evokes the music being played.”

Adds O’Riley, “Being drawn to this more contained style of dance has inspired us to look inward to its basic elements. We’re inviting audiences to do likewise and listen closely – to zoom in aurally, you might say – to appreciate the sounds of dance as a percussive and harmonic component to strings, reeds, and voice, and all the associated sounds of the music: the scuffs, taps, and breaths, the scraping of a bow, the press and draw of the accordion bellows. When you put all that together in one room, you feel an energy, and our hope is that others can experience this, too.”

The Eight Feet Tall brand of energy sometimes is a steady, accumulating build, such as on the album’s opening track, which starts with the sound of feet as an intro to the hornpipe/hop jig medley, “The Humours of Tullycrine/The Promenade” – the latter in a relentless 9/8 – or the mesmerizing “Tyrone March.” On “Maid in the Meadow,” with Aromin lilting the melody in unison with Accardi’s accordion, the quartet deftly transitions from 6/8 to 4/4 time and back again, and you can just sense the collective joy in the room.

Aromin’s vocals are out in front on “Katie Cruel,” a song with some Scottish ancestry but popular in New England (this version collected from a singer in Newton, Mass., in fact) and a chorus – “If I was where I would be/Then I’d be where I am not/Here I am where I must be/Where I would be, I cannot” – which is awfully tempting to sing quickly. But the quartet takes it at a somewhat slower, more even pace, and the combination of stepping, accordion, and voice makes for a quiet but potent combination.

The album’s sleeve notes, meanwhile, display a laudable attention to detail: Much as a fiddler, accordionist, or singer might cite the source of a tune or song, or point to a distinguishing phrase or verse, O’Riley and McGowan offer insights into their selection of steps, listing where appropriate the names of specific tunes and dancers that guided their creative process.

Eight Feet Tall is the latest avenue of deep exploration of dance for the duo, who both have impressive resumés: O’Riley is an original member of the touring sean-nós dance show Atlantic Steps, runs a non-competitive Irish dance program for children, and was a co-recipient of a 2017 Boston Foundation grant for choreographers. McGowan, co-founder of the contemporary step dance company Rising Step, has appeared at the Kennedy Center, in WGBH’s “A Christmas Celtic Sojourn,” and at numerous festivals in the Boston and Washington, DC, areas. She has also taught at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, Pinewoods Camp, and CCÉ MAD Week, among other places.

In 2019, the two collaborated on “From the Floor,” a “visual album” of Irish music and dance comprising six separate but associated videos of the pair dancing in tandem or solo to music. O’Riley describes it as a means “to bring the viewer into the ‘small parts’ of Irish dance and address how it’s presented” and to convey “the language of sean-nos.”

McGowan and O’Riley continued to ponder Irish dance in a granular fashion, with an eye toward arranging a more focused combination between music and dance. In 2021, they obtained support for their project via a Live Arts Boston grant from the Boston Foundation and a Somerville Arts Council ArtAssembled Residency (AiR) fellowship. And they found another pillar of support from Aromin and Accardi, former members of the traditional Irish music quartet The Ivy Leaf (Aromin is one-half of the irrepressible duo The Vox Hunters).

“We’ve known Armand and Dan for years, and they certainly are solid musicians in their own right,” says McGowan. “Armand is a dancer as well as a singer and musician, so we felt that would provide some valuable perspective as to what we were trying to do. Also, Dan and Armand have known each other and played music together for a long time, and so they have this strong connection. We felt it would be great to work with another duo that has its own language, just as Rebecca and I do.”

Having the grant and fellowship was integral to the collaboration, notes O’Riley, because at the outset there was no clear end-result in mind. “The support enabled us to meet weekly for about a year and gave us the freedom to refine and try out ideas. For us, it was all about the process rather than the product.”

Aromin and Accardi also relished the opportunity for a deep contemplation of the connection between music and dance. “I loved being given space – physical, temporal, financial – to focus on the ‘what-ifs,’” says Aromin. “Those moments I’d often daydream about while at sessions or in other musical environments where experimenting with particular concepts wouldn’t necessarily make sense or be appropriate. What if we meditated on just the one tune? What if I sang a song with percussive dance as an understated groove? What if we played with the timing of a jig and quoted the reel version in seemingly random measures?”

For Accardi, the most interesting aspect of Eight Feet Tall was the focus on arrangements. “Historically, I’m mostly a ‘show up and play your tunes’ kind of person, even in the context of a band performance. There are no preconceived notions with Eight Feet Tall: We might start with fiddle and box and feet, in a pretty standard style, but end up with lilting and box-but-only-bass-chords and a totally different relationship between what Jackie and Rebecca are doing with their steps. There’s a lot of potential in that fiddle-box-dance combination and it makes the exploration unusual, somehow asymmetrical, and a lot of fun.”

Eight Feet Tall made its public debut in June of last year as part of an AIR residency performance, then later that month presented the full piece in a double bill with fiddler Jenna Moynihan in Cambridge. Recording the album – which came out this past spring – was no simple feat, O’Riley and McGowan note: They had to bring in pieces of plywood to provide a dance surface, and it took some experimenting and adjustments to position the microphones so they would capture the dance steps effectively – fortunately, they add, their recording engineer Brad Bensko was up to the task.

The quartet has done several other performances since then and are eyeing more in the months ahead, including a short tour early next year.

Reflecting on Eight Feet Tall, “From the Floor” and other ventures, O’Riley says, “Including dance in any project adds hours and complications, and we haven’t quite figured out the challenges that go along with this. Dance really lives in its own sphere. But that’s part of what makes it such a fun and rewarding experience, and we’re looking forward to coming up with more ideas and concepts that explore the inner workings of dance.”

For more on O’Riley and McGowan and their projects, including Eight Feet Tall, see fromthefloordance.com