For more than 30 years, The Golden School of Irish Dancing in Brooklyn has been synonymous with the gold standard in Irish dance. Donny Golden has trained more than 1,000 students, including Jean Butler, the original star of Riverdance. He learned his art from Jerry Mulvilhill in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. His parents had emigrated from Ireland and enrolled all eight of their children in Irish music and dance lessons. Golden’s students now perform in commercial Irish dance shows throughout the world, and many have gone on to open their own schools. In 1995 he received the National Heritage Award from President Clinton. Golden and his dancers perform regularly with top Irish musical groups including The Chieftains and Cherish the Ladies. Darrah Carr, who teaches and performs Irish dance, talked with Golden after observing his championship-level class at the Irish-American Center in Mineola, Long Island.
What is the hardest thing for students to learn in Irish dancing?
As in any dance form, the very first step, or the first few steps, are the most difficult because you have to get the gist of the style. In Irish dance, there are several traditional movements—the rock [with legs together and one foot in front of the other, shift from side to side, bending at the ankles], the cross key [start with one foot in front of the other, cross your toes, drop to your heels, turn your feet out, and place the front foot in back], and the box [on both heels, close the toes together to make a sound, and open them back up]—that are the most difficult. Even championship dancers have trouble with these three steps. Dancers are supposed to try to include an example of all three in their material at some point. Not all do, however, because those steps are so difficult to do well.
Do you instruct students to keep their arms down at their sides?
Yes. And to keep their elbows tucked into their sides. To keep your arms from flailing around, it helps to hold on to the side of your shorts or skirt. You can also hold pennies or hair clips in your hands to keep your fingers closed.
There are so many different and controversial theories about why the arms are kept at the sides. Some say it is because of the powerful influence of the church and the ban they put on dancing and socializing. Years ago in Ireland, neighbors would meet at the crossroads and dance very low key, with just their feet. That way, they couldn’t be said to be dancing if the bishop drove out looking for them. Some say that the dances would take place inside the house, and that it was so crowded that there was no room for the arms. Whatever the reason, it is a tradition.
What movement quality does an Irish dancer strive for?
Irish dance demands two different styles—light shoe and hard shoe. It’s hard to complete all of the different movements with grace. In light shoe, dancers strive for a quality that is very similar to ballet. They must be very light, graceful, and airy. They must dance high on their toes and have good extension. In hard shoe, they must have a good beat and a good feel for the music.
Unlike ballet, Irish dance has no codified language. Are there terms unique to your school?
I use my own language. I’ve made it up as I’ve gone along, always pertaining to what I’m teaching. Irish dance teachers have lots of different languages. “123s,” “rally,” and “batter,” all describe the same movement. Our school calls one movement “over the bridges,” whereas other teachers say “leap-overs” or “hurdles.” Some teachers are trying to get a standardized way of saying things. I don’t feel it’s all that important. If you are reading steps from a book, it would be. But, with all of the video equipment and teaching DVDs that are available, it is less so.
How do you teach students who use different terminology?
I demonstrate the step a few times first, so the students know exactly how it looks and what my words mean. They stand behind me as I demonstrate in order to get a picture of how I’m making the sounds. If the students are young, I might hold hands with one on either side of me and do the step with them. They get a better feel for it that way. It helps give them the right sense of lift and a nice flow.
How do you encourage your students to keep healthy?
They all want to try to do whatever is winning competitions. A lot of things come in and out of fashion which are not always good for a dancer’s body. Some dancers are so turned out that it looks unnatural—one foot facing east, one foot facing west. Exaggerated turnout is torture on the knees. Also, dancers are really overcrossing today. That hurts your hips.
Toe-stands are another move that can be harmful. Today, there is so much walking around on the tops of one’s toes in hard shoes. Toe-stands have been banned in competitions for the under-12s, because so many were hurting themselves and spraining their ankles. The shoes were never designed for that purpose.
Your touring work with The Chieftains was at the forefront of pushing Irish dance out of the feis [competition] circuit and onto the concert stage. What kind of performance opportunities exist for Irish dancers?
Years ago, there was not much for a dancer to do except to compete. The only time you danced it out was on Saint Patrick’s Day, at a family christening, or maybe at a bar. There were a few bands—The Chieftains and Greenfields of America—who took dancers along with them. People understood the music much better by watching people dance to it. That concert work was the forerunner of the large commercial shows.
Unfortunately, some students are going into the shows way too soon. They are not finishing school or college. I always advise them to finish their education first, or try to defer college admission for a year, do the show experience, and then return to college. There is always time to join a dance show.