Being a five percent thin Irishman, heritage was almost certainly irrelevant. The remaining culprit was the prancing Celtic music her family always listened to, as well as, of course, the fact that she was in the right place at the right time. Whether by fate or coincidence, however, part of the story remains clear: when Ida Mihok, then seven years old, saw her first performance of Irish dancing at a local theatre, she knew she had to try it herself. Eleven years later, with as many years of dance experience in her back pocket, Mihok is a freshman at Skidmore, working to revive the school’s Irish dance club as its new president.
First of all, it’s important to note that Skidmore Irish Dance is open to students of all experience levels – established Irish dancing magicians, those with two left feet or even those who simply enjoyed this scene of Titanic where Jack and Rose dance in the third class part of the boat and drink canned beer.
“Irish dancing, when someone looks at it from the outside… can seem very alienating and scary, especially because there’s this whole idea of having perfection, looking good, doing things right. “, recognized Mihok. However, she was keen to reassure the students: “That’s not what it’s all about…as a club, we…open our doors to everyone, regardless of their past dance experience.” .
Similarly, Mihok also pointed out that it’s the origins, not the dancers, that put the “Irish” in “Skidmore Irish Dance” – in other words, the club and the practice in general are far from exclusive to the Irish Diaspora.
“While many people who are Irish are more at risk of [Irish dance] than others, there are a lot of great Irish dancers – quite a few in my classes at home – who don’t have Irish heritage,” Mihok explained, then reiterating that his own heritage only has the faintest traces of Irish lineage.
A third notable aspect of the club comes from the critical distinction between traditional Irish dancing – that in which Mihok and Skidmore Irish Dance participate – and the more prominent modern Irish dancing, which was popularized in large part by the Broadway show Riverdance.
“There’s a lot of crossover between modern Irish dancing…and traditional Irish dancing,” Mihok said. “But still, stylistically… if you see a modern Irish dancer dancing and a traditional dancer, sometimes they won’t even look the same.”
Indeed, while there are overall similarities, such as the paradigmatic emphasis on producing percussive sounds with the feet, there are also key visual differences between the two styles. While modern Irish step dancers generally use a stiffer posture and hold their arms firmly at their sides, traditional Irish dancing allows for a relatively relaxed and looser stance. Also, according to Mihok, there are often discrepancies between the general atmosphere associated with each style.
“Modern Irish dancing, as I learned it…is generally more competitive, whereas traditional Irish dancing is more collaborative,” Mihok explained. “I realize there’s still a lot of collaboration in modern styles…but when I’m doing traditional dance, I’ve never had to worry about being ‘better’ than my classmates. . It was just a matter of self-expression and teamwork.
Even within traditional Irish dancing there are distinct sub-categories with their own characteristics. Among these is sean nos-pronounced SHAN-ohss-or “old-fashioned” dancing, an entirely distinct regional style originating in the west of Ireland. Along with his lower-to-the-ground (though still very punchy) footwork, sean-nos is characterized by its non-formal, even improvisational nature, which Mihok embraces.
“[Sean-nós] it’s a lot about…the fact that you don’t have to look the same or perform the steps the same way,” she smiles. “There’s a lot of room for personal flair.”
There’s also an important social element at play. “In an Irish dancing community, you can walk into a pub where there’s Irish music playing and… you can just start dancing,” Mihok beamed. “And it’s so great to have that connection. There’s a lot of emphasis on community building, which is a big part of what I love so much about [Irish dance].”
That sense of community, along with the aforementioned themes of non-competitiveness and self-expression, are precisely what Mihok hopes to bring to Skidmore. For ten of her eleven years of dancing, however, she has built such a community at O’Riley Irish Dance, a local dance studio near her home in Belmont, Massachusetts. While O’Riley instills in its students a necessary dedication to technique, the studio is somewhat unique in its emphasis on musicality above all else. Likewise, the studio’s founder, director and teacher – the highly talented Jackie O’Riley, who has performed with acclaimed dance groups and taught in the United States, Canada and Ireland – believes “above all” to “maintaining the joy that drew her to [traditional Irish dance] in the first place. His joy lies in transmitting not only the steps, but the “vitality of carrying on this tradition”.
However, the importance of music and tradition does not diminish the remarkable character of the marches themselves – in general, or as they wind their way through the Skidmore campus.
“Many steps that [the club is] are going to learn come straight from Ireland,” revealed Mihok. “These steps have been passed down from generation to generation…and many of these steps have not been taught to anyone in our generation before.”
This generational character of traditional Irish dancing is charming; for many, the notion of a practice preserved only pedagogically may suggest a simpler, enviable time of our current maze-like reality. However, Mihok noted that this same element may contribute to the decline of the practice.
“It’s really…going away a bit,” she lamented, “because fewer and fewer young people are learning it.”
Perhaps, then, the time has come for Mihok to energize the next generation of budding Irish traditional dancers, at least those in the small corner of the world contained by the walls of Skidmore. So for students who, like a young Mihok, find themselves fascinated by the lively world of Irish dancing – for students who want to be part of a tight-knit community, especially in these times of isolation – for students who want simply try something new – and for all students out and in between: Skidmore Irish Dance offers a seamless first step towards realizing all the emerald dreams you know (or didn’t know) you always have had.
Skidmore Irish Dance meets weekly on Wednesdays from 4-5:30 p.m. Currently, meetings are online via Zoom, but are expected to take place in person from March 24 (COVID regulations permitting). Additional information, including the Zoom link, can be found at SkidSync; more information, such as FAQs, can be found on the club’s Instagram page @skidmoreirishdance. Any outstanding questions can be emailed directly to President Ida Mihok at [email protected].