It is a chilly November evening in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but in Kieran Jordan’s newly-opened Boston Percussive Dance studio, jackets and boots have been cast aside and are now lining the side wall, rejected in favor of Irish hard sole dance shoes. Jordan leads her large group of dancers in a step to add to one of their routines; together, they jump up and click their heels to the left and then do the same on the right. As Jordan performs the step, she lifts her slender arms into the air, bent at the elbow like a Greek Zeibekiko dancer, and makes a silly face in the mirror. It’s not what most people expect when they think of Advanced Irish Dance, but that happens to be the exact title of Jordan’s dance class.
With all the dance experience Jordan has had so far in her life, it is no surprise that her classes take influence from many different dance styles. The particular dance involving heel clicks was an example of a waltz clog, but Jordan has also learned French-Canadian step dance, Cape Breton step dance, tap, jazz and modern, to name a few. While Jordan does not specifically teach all of these styles in her classes, she says, “Some of the steps and rhythms certainly creep into my choreography.”
Dance is Kieran Jordan’s life. Ever since she began Irish dance at the age of five, she has been performing and competing around the country. She particularly loved her performances, which took place anywhere from nursing homes to Radio City Music Hall.
“The competition scene didn’t seem to fit my personality,” Jordan says. “I loved the feeling of ‘gigging’ from place to place around St. Patrick’s day ... Performing motivated me in a way that competition didn’t.”
Many of Jordan’s dance students share her philosophy. Calin Buia, a dancer in Jordan’s Advanced Irish Dance class, says he used to dance with a traditional, competing school, but never truly had an interest in competition.
“I don’t want to get grades for dancing,” says Buia. “[In this class], I am having the time of my life.”
Jordan’s style of teaching is a rare find in the Irish dance community, which can seem to revolve around competition.
“I want my classes to be a positive, nurturing part of people’s life, not one more stressor or one more place of judgment or competition,” says Jordan. She adds, “Teaching non-competitive classes allows me to focus on performance-based, traditional dancing – steps and choreography danced to live Irish music as it is played in traditional settings.”
Jordan includes sean-nóss in this category of dancing, a style which she says translates to “old style.” Sean nós (pronounced like “shan-noce”) is an improvised, traditional Irish dance that involves a lot of shuffling and stomping, as well as whatever movements come naturally to the dancer.
“There is a playfulness and informality to it,” says Jordan, who teaches a weekly sean nós class to dancers ranging in age from their twenties to their sixties. “The arms can move and hips can sway.” She adds that “the very rigid arms-at-the-sides element of step dancing” are not present in sean nós, nor are the emphasis on turnout or high kicking.
Still, it’s not easy. As Jordan talks her sean nós students through a lengthy series of steps they are about to try, one woman anxiously sighs and says, “Oh, boy!” But the studio is an environment of support; another woman down the line looks at the first woman and says, “You can do it!”, and they give each other a thumbs up.
Perhaps this attitude has rubbed off on the dancers from Jordan’s own encouraging demeanor. At one point in the sean nós class, the dancers are practicing a step over and over again as Jordan paces in front of them, brown eyes fixed intently on their shuffling feet. She stops in front of one older gentleman who appears to be struggling; when he gets the step right, Jordan smiles warmly and gives him a thumbs up. A grin spreads across his face, and doesn’t leave for a few minutes.
Jordan’s other students appear to take just as much joy in the class. Taking turns improvising steps in a circle, their stomps become louder and louder and their arms rise higher into the air as they become more immersed in the dance. Observing dancers whoop and whistle as the steps grow in complexity.
“It’s great fun!” says dancer Nancy McTyre. “The thing that caught me is when Kieran told me it’s a dance that 90-year-old women can do around their kitchen. I’m headed for 90, so now I know I can stay active!”
For Breda O’Connor, a native of Killarney, Ireland, participating in the dance has an even deeper meaning.
“My dad used to love the sean nós. It’s kind of nóstalgic,” she says. As a child in Ireland, “the arts were kind of pushed out the door, but my dad always really kept them around,” she says, adding, “I’d really like my dad to be alive to see this.”
Though many of Jordan’s other sean nós students had never heard of the style before signing up for the class, she says that they “like-being part of an old tradition, but one that is very much alive-and-well in Massachusetts.”
The Cambridge location of Jordan’s studio is perfect for Jordan’s dancers, many of whom are students at nearby universities.
“Being able to dance with Kieran was the tipping point in my [school] decision,” says Cristina Post, a graduate student in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Harvard itself wasn’t enough!”
Those who are nowhere near the Boston area can still get a sample of Jordan’s dancing style with her DVD, “Secrets of the Sole,” which is available at www.kieranjordan.com.
Even so, distance may not be an issue when it comes to Jordan’s unique classes.
“I commute three hours from Portland [Maine],” says Post. “And it’s totally worth it.”
This article appeared in Feis America, Jan/Feb 2010.