Arms in Irish Dancing
The decommissioning of arms
Sean O’Togda complained in 1924 of the ignorance of youth as a result of the decline of the old dance masters. Mr O’Togda had a teacher of the traditional style who taught dancing to women in the following way:
“To add grace and variety to the dance, he showed them how to dance with arms akimbo and to place the hands gracefully on the hips…He also showed the girls how to hold their skirts lightly at the side with thumb and index finger of both hands, and slightly and gracefully keep them out from the sides.”
In a 1904 photograph of an Irish dancer, “Cassie” in Victorian attire at the Feis na Gleann, the dancer has both hands on her hips.
Miss Patricia Mulholland, a Belfast dance mistress, who began teaching in the 1930s, was also an exponent of the use of arms. “As far as I was concerned, arms poker-rigid beneath an expressionless face had little attraction. I wanted to inject more feeling, and, in the process, let Irish dancing come into contact with the widest possible audience.”
Arms were, however, discouraged by some dance teachers in the nineteenth century. Mr Trench, a dance master operating in the south of Ireland in the early 1800s instructed that arms should hang gracefully to the side. He actively discouraged the flinging of these limbs about, or flourishing them on the level with the head; an indication that the dancers either had a tendency to naturally liberate their limbs in ethereal motion, or that in some previous time, the arms had moved freely. Another reflection on pre-dance master times is this: “During the rapid exercise, Nancy occasionally clapped one hand on her well-developed hip.”
The white collar scholars of the Gaelic League and the country dancers went head to head in a great national and nationalistic debate about what exactly Irish dancing was, and the Gaelic League turned to the south-west for inspiration, applying the Munster style found in areas of counties Kerry, Cork and Limerick to step dancing in the rest of the country. Dances were to be controlled, hip slapping and flings thereby excluded.
Removing arms from Larne
One town that stands out in those early days of the folk dancing revival is the east Antrim port of Larne. As a leading tourist destination of its day and a mover and shaker in the world of dancing, Larne had Irish dancing added to the syllabus in 1927 in preparation for the 1928 musical festival. Peadar O’Rafferty was one of the founder members of the Larne Irish folk dancing association and he tutored an Irish dancing class at the Gardenmore Hall in preparation for the big event. Many of the dancers at Larne’s first festival had less than one year’s training before turning their feet to what had become known as “Irish dancing”, but dancing was prevalent in the town and in its surrounding villages, and it is likely that many would have benefited from either formal or informal training in some form of dancing prior to joining Mr O’Rafferty’s class.
As Irish dancing classes became popular, Mr O’Rafferty turned to one of his best Belfast pupils to help with the growing demand. Twenty-one year-old Stella Mulholland started to run classes on Thursday afternoons in Larne in 1931. Miss Mulholland, like Mr O’Rafferty, taught in the British Legion and charged 12s 6d. Stella was accompanied on violin by her younger sister, Patricia. In 1932, she and sixteen year-old Patricia, combined their Belfast and Larne pupils in a children’s display of dance and song in the Victoria Orange Hall, a foreshadowing of the theatrical repertoire that was to be a feature of Patricia Mulholland’s life.
The first festival in Larne was adjudicated by Mr Heggarty of Belfast, who was both surprised and entertained by what he found in Larne. He remarked that a third of the competitors failed to realise that Irish folk dancing was from the shoulders downwards, the Larne dancers having been accustomed to deploying arms. He refuted that it was injurious to keep the arms straight, a hint that some sort of debate about arms in motion had taken place, and he defended the straight-armed dances as a “splendid exercise for the young.”
As the festival progressed, the costumes soon came under some scrutiny. The girls were well turned out in the “dress of the Irish colleen,” but one of the boys from Glenarm had an accident with a kilt that had “slipped its moorings.” The Northern Whig summed up the events surrounding the first festival: “He was quickly surrounded, but adjustment being unable to be effected on the platform, the team trooped off in order that the fastenings of the refractory kilts could be completely overhauled.”
Grace versus Steps
Irish dancing was an instant success in Larne. On 23 March 1929, Mr Richard Gowan of Dublin favorably compared the dances in Larne with those in the south. However, the arms issue had yet to be completely put to bed. “Some people,” he observed, “thought it was not Irish folk dancing unless the hands were kept on the hips.” Mr Gowan advised that “more freedom of movement and better balance” would result if the hands were kept to the side.
Mr Gowan awarded first place in the solo under seventeen class to Monica Convery from Belfast and second place to Lily Lutton from Belfast. In the jig and reel senior calls, Neillie Fluke from Belfast took first place and Veronica Convery second. Veronica, however, won the under seventeen hornpipe and was praised for “excellent execution” and “excellent rhythm.” She was said to dance “most gracefully.” Lily Lutton, Mr Gowan explained, had sacrificed her grace and carriage in favour of complex steps.
The Gaelic League was determined to stamp out any unorthodox stepping in favour of grace and carriage, and their adherence to such principles gave Irish dancing a unique place in the international folk dancing world. Elsewhere a more rustic style survived.
Angeline King is the author of:
Irish Dancing: The festival story
A history of dancing in Ulster with a focus on the festival tradition of Irish Dancing.
"An enjoyable coming-of-age tale with a Belfast twist" (The Irish Times)
Click here to start reading.
A Belfast Tale:
“Uniquely, authentically and enjoyably Belfast" (Tony Macaulay, author of Paperboy.)
Click here to start reading
Children of Latharna:
Lyrical and nostalgic; wistful and humorous, Ian Andrew, author.
Click here to read for free
Angeline.. congratulations for a excellent history of Irish Dancing in Northern Ireland. My Mother was Stella Mulholland ,my Aunt Patrica also my Godmother..Founder Teachers of Irish dancing. in the Province ..I have a BBC Tape ( not for distribution. ) .also .wonderful information of the Dancing & Irish Ballet Schools..in Belfast, My Mother Stella was also was a piano Teacher. …...well done!
Frank, I’m incredibly grateful for your feedback. I completely missed this comment so apologies for the delay in responding to you! I would love to have more information on Stella. In particular, I would have liked a photograph of her for the book. Please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m still gathering inflation just in case I update the book in ten years time. Best wishes, Angeline
Larry Norman once quipped at a Belfast concert that the reason the Riverdance dancers keep their arms by their side was an Irish thing, that they've had their arms decommissioned . . .
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Arms in Irish Dancing
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