Writing about music or dance is always a somewhat dodgy prospect. Any writer, in any genre or form, appreciates the somewhat essential communicative challenge of language in general: that words are symbols, that reading is an experience in and of itself separate from the experience which it describes, and that this clash of the representative and the immanent is daunting to navigate, even with years of practice. Dance, especially folk dance, especially improvisational folk dance, multiplies this difficulty with its cantankerous oddities and contradictions; it is so essentially present, in so many ways, that trying to concretize and display it is somewhat doomed to failure. Now consider that fact, and imagine trying to actually teach it to someone. Kieran Jordan’s introduction to sean-nós is blunt and brief, passed down from others, and like her steps, not without Kieran’s own sly sense of humor: “sean-nós can’t be taught, but it can be learned.”
Shannon Dunne has managed it with a clear grasp of her project, a forthright and conversational tone, and a unique sense of style about her presentation and point. There are some obvious routes to take when producing a book about dance: the deeply historical and social route, densely academic; the ethnographic and archival route, filled with diagrams and descriptions. Shannon’s Guide veers away from either and instead pursues the much-maligned literary form of the fourth-grade exercise workbook. There are lots of empty white spaces for you to write in and doodle around. There are lots of italicized questions and prompts. There’s a lot of you in it. But Shannon has certainly accomplished an appreciable task with this seemingly-simple approach; the slim book is eminently approachable, and gives sean-nós the same feeling. And what is perhaps most incredible about this fact is that this approachability doesn’t stem from actual simplicity, but instead from the sense of immediate challenge. The value of the fourth-grade exercise workbook is its interrogative character, and in this particular instance, form matches content quite neatly: the book is saved from immobility by actively and aggressively demanding motion from the reader, as subtly and boldly dialogic as sean-nós dancing itself. Shannon intersperses information with exercises that go beyond dancing. She tells you to move. She tells you to go to sessions and dance with live music. She tells you to check out YouTube. And as much as she has, she tells you to think about everything that you’re doing, before during and after the doing thereof.
The result is a fairly light book – you can skim through it without much in the way of roadblocks – but one surprisingly dense with conceptual arguments and hard truths. In describing the act of listening (an ongoing, formative, and enveloping act for musicians and dancers alike, and one neglected by too many), she offers a few sentences about each of the separate conceptual components of Irish dance music, as she hears them, and she lists these components in essential order: the beat; the groove; then, the melody; the rhythm; the phrases; finally, the lift. As a musician (and Shannon is a fine concertina player herself), it’s particularly alarming, and charmingly enlightening, to see melody described as something “that happens over the groove,” an epiphenomenon rather than a deep foundation. Indeed, part of the appreciable depth of the Guide is Shannon’s insistence on the shared roots of the music and dance, and thinking of the beat and groove prior to melody, for both musicians and dancers, offers some particularly keen guidance. If you’re a musician who’s never played for dancers, do it; and if you’ve never danced, do that too. And if you’re not ready for that, you could do worse than read Shannon’s book first.
The only problematic part of the reading process (for myself, as someone with only a rudimentary grasp of Irish music and sean-nós dance) was certainly literary, to return to our first point; although Shannon has done a lot with the printed word, it remains a hefty challenge to get a feeling for an ephemeral physical truth into the shapes of language. In point of fact, Shannon’s overtly and intrinsically musical awareness becomes a thorny turn when you’re reading; her writing is so lucidly propelled by music that it can have an alienating effect – watching someone dance to music that only they can hear. Thankfully, she seems to be in the process of expanding the book into a web-based multimedia project, with a more robust referentiality to video and sound, and I have no doubt this will give the book a clearer sense of direction and a smoother operation in terms of actual development and learning. Of course, as Shannon herself would likely insist, your best bet is to catch her at a gig. Go out; watch it happen; and then get the hell out of your chair.
- Dan Accardi