I occasionally overhear fascinating conversations – as a bystander, you understand.
And so it was on this occasion when two women were recollecting their experience of set dancing and tut-tutting about other women dancers who dare to dance battering steps.
“In our day, it was never done” they said, with the implicit message was that “it shouldn’t be done”. My face was aflame as I sat there, not sure if this missive was being directed at me or not. I kept quiet.
My initial reaction was to feel a bit indignant. Yes, I’ve been known to batter – quite loudly at times and probably over enthusiastically – but I have always found the sound and subtle rhythms used in sets and sean nós completely addictive, and is how I got really hooked in the first place. I really, really wanted to be able to do THAT.
From the time I started doing classes in 1999 until I left Ireland, I was never discouraged from doing battering steps. I was also, however, not encouraged either- never had any proper lessons or guidance on battering or percussive steps until I started taking sean nós classes in 2004.
The steps that came before that was pure mimicry, following the sound and rhythm as best I could when I was surrounded by it : joining in. Of course, I hadn’t a clue what my feet were really doing and if you’d asked me to show you then, I really wouldn’t have known where to start.
After that initial reaction, I had another look at some of the great YouTube videos from the 1960’s (see below) that I love, and sure enough, the ladies are dancing nicely, on the balls of their feet but definitely leaving the battering steps to the gents.
I have no doubt at all that it was not the done thing for ladies to batter their wee feet off, but sitting here in 2014, I am wondering why not? Was the sound offensive to people? Did it look offensive? Was it perhaps considered too energetic for ladies- unladylike? Was battering considered masculine? That wouldn’t surprise me as I suspect traditionally that Irish sean nós dancing was primarily the domain of men – but I could be wrong about that!
It does seem a bit strange when you compare with other styles of percussive dance – Irish step dancing with hard shoes was all about sound and rhythm, tap dancing and flamenco dancing – all done by women.
It seems that I’m not the only female dancer who indulges in the odd bit of battering. Have a look at some great footwork in this bit of film I shot at Tubbercurry, Sligo some years ago now.
So, fellow dancers, what do you think about the matter of the batter?
Are all styles unisex now or do we need to make some distinctions between male and female styles?