"an audacious, groundbreaking, and brilliantly realized project"
Daniel Neely, The Irish Echo
"From the Floor ... depicts the holistic event of dance – not just the act, but the anticipation of it, the effect and influence of setting, and the chemistry between dancers and musicians"
Sean Smith, Boston Irish Reporter
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The day after Thanksgiving 2015, we spent the afternoon at Rebecca's grandmother’s house, a rambling, historic Victorian that had been their family home since 1956. We were talking about the ephemeral nature of dance, the difficulty in capturing it, and our desire to DO something, to create or record something that could last. Eventually, we looked at each other and said, "Ok, if we're really serious, let's make something right now." We were unprepared, weren't dressed for the occasion, and only had an iPhone camera and a CD player, but we found a spot outside where we liked the sound of our shoes on the slate pathway, turned on the camera, and made a video. After some very amateur editing, we had a modest creation, far from what we were trying to do, but still with some redeeming aesthetic and sound qualities. Almost three years later, after a lot of creating, learning, and trial and error, we found ourselves back at that house, this time with a team of collaborators, filming this first-of-its-kind "visual album."
This work comes from a desire to create something that documents our dancing and our lives at a specific point in time. In the way a musician has the outlet of creating an album, we felt it should be possible to create a "visual album" – a collection of dances caught on film that are connected by being of the same moment in our creative process, rooted in a physical space that means something to us, and representing the style and repertoire that we practice.
On the surface, this is just traditional dancing and music, something we believe does not need to be dressed up or altered to be beautiful and meaningful. We find the beauty in these things in their small dimensions. For the traditional material, we put a lot of thought into the arrangement of the steps as they fit with the tunes, the flow from one step to the next, the balance between the steps and the music, and the spatial relationships between our feet, our bodies, and the music. For our original material, we labored over small choices in the composition of the steps, paying attention to pickup notes in the rhythms, emphasizing certain beats of the tune, and using the physical shape of the movements to build phrasing. These are small details, as they should be, and are perhaps unnoticeable by an outside observer. But we hope that the overall effect is one of cohesion and musicality.
A large part of the inspiration for creating these vignettes was to try to bring the viewer into that small space. In so much of traditional dance – whether step dancing, sean-nós dance, or set dancing – endless intricate, subtle, and incredibly beautiful movements are happening from the knees and ankles down. It's hard to translate this onto a stage. We wanted to use close-up shots to change the scale of what you usually look at when watching a percussive dancer.
This was a much larger undertaking than we imagined. Filming this many pieces, finding a location, trying to find the right balance between sound quality and the aesthetics of the space; there were so many considerations and we’re sure we've made more mistakes than gotten things right. But in the spirit of just DOING something, we're releasing this and sharing it with our community in the hope that this creation will capture what we're doing now, maybe inspire others to create something, and add to an understanding of what traditional dancing is or could be, in one context.
With Thanks To….
We couldn’t have done this without our incredible collaborators. Thanks to Chris for being right there with us in listening to the detail between dance rhythms and tunes; Nathan for his thoughtful ear and willingness to try out so many ideas; Louise for her amazing eye for detail and artistry; Ethan for his calm and capable support during filming; Katie for keeping the recording days moving smoothly; and Matthew for keeping us going all the way through.
Thanks also to....
Danny Noveck, Joey Abarta, Hannah & Bill DeRusha, Richard McGowan, Peg Wright, Winky, Amy, Margot, Pooky, Kevin Doyle, Kieran Jordan, Michael Tubridy, Patrick O'Dea, Bill Winn, Will Woodson, Laura Keeler, Samantha Jones, Adrienne Jacobson, Mairin Ui Chiedi
The Maid on the Green/Paddy Taylor's
Steps: Thady Casey’s, Kevin Doyle’s and three originals
Rebecca & Jackie with Chris & Nathan
We wanted to try structuring a dance a bit like a tune, repeating a step each time the melody came around. Ordinarily a step dancer would never repeat themself! But we loved returning to Thady Casey’s step on the first part of the first tune. Then on the second tune it’s a jig from Kevin Doyle from his jig routine with his sister Maureen. We’ve interspersed a few original steps on the B parts.
Thady Casey (b. 1884) was a dancing master and fiddle player from West Clare. Jackie learned this step from Patrick O’Dea in 2010. We first learned Kevin Doyle’s step from our mentor and friend Kieran Jordan, and we’ve danced it with her many times since.
Chris: An old chestnut of a jig, followed by a wonderful, light tune that bubbled to the surface while playing with Jackie and Rebecca. It’s associated with Limerick flute player Paddy Taylor.
2. Set Dance:
Garden of Daisies
Rebecca & Chris
The Garden of Daisies is a favorite traditional set dance. The dance was composed by the Cork step dancer Freddie Murray, a stonemason living and working in Cork in the 1920s and 30s, though many variations on his version exist. This version Rebecca learned while at the Culkin School in Maryland.
Chris: One of the great traditional set dances, I very much associate this tune with the impassioned box playing of Tony MacMahon.
3. Reels on the Board:
The Curragh Races/Larkin's Beehives
Steps: Original & improvised
Jackie & Rebecca with Chris
Clare-style battering steps and some negotiating to stay on that board, which was ultimately rigged up with ten cinder blocks. We felt secure. The crew wasn’t so convinced.
Chris: The first reel refers not to a boat race, but to a famous horse race in Curragh, Co. Kildare. Larkin’s Beehives was composed by B/C box pioneer Paddy O’Brien, from Tipperary.
The Flowing Tide/The Humours of Tullycrine
Steps: Traditional/Curtin’s Pick/Kennefick’s/Dan Furey’s #4 & step from his Job of Journeywork/Dorothy Hayden's/Variation on traditional step
Rebecca & Jackie with Chris & Nathan
We’ve always loved dancing hornpipes for their twisty ankles, quirky old moves, and great rhythm. This is a set of traditional steps and variations, including Curtin’s Pick, which Jackie learned from Patrick O’Dea; Kennefick’s, which we learned from the dancing of Joe O’Donovan (“Old Style Traditional Irish Step Dancing”); two steps from the Dan Furey repertoire that we learned from Michael Tubridy; a step Jackie learned from an archival video of the Dorothy Hayden Steppers; and a variation on the classic Blackbird step.
Chris: Two tunes I associate with two giants of the concertina from Clare. I learned the first from Chris Droney, and the second from Mary MacNamara.
The Walls of Liscarroll/The New York Jig
Jackie & Chris
In my experience, there seem to be fewer sean-nós jig steps passed around than reels, maybe because a lot of dancers favor reel-time. This seems to lead to each person having to come up with their own approach to jigs, which is one of the reasons I love watching others dance to them. I had a lot of fun working on steps and rhythms that I felt suited these tunes, and then of course seeing what came out with Chris on the day of filming!
Chris: Liscarroll, Co. Cork is the site of a famous medieval castle, with presumably impressive walls. I learned the second tune from Maine fiddle player Kevin McElroy.
6. Hop Jig/Reels/Hop Jig:
Silver Slipper/The Piper's Despair/Trip to Durrow/Silver Slipper
Steps: Original hop jig steps & improvised reels
Jackie & Rebecca with Chris
Solo steps and group dances in hop jig time have almost entirely died out, though in records from the 18th and 19th centuries, there are many references to dancing in this meter. With the strong emphasis on the first beat in the measure, hop jigs have a distinct punch, making them a delight to dance to. We composed these steps to match the melody of the tune, and in a nod to the older practice of including a social “refrain” or “around the house” in step dances, we did this on the B parts.
Chris: Two meaty old reels, book ended by a beautiful, unusual setting of a hop jig that tormented me for months! We heard this version of the Silver Slipper from a live recording of Paul O’Shaughnessy.
Jackie O’Riley - dance
Rebecca McGowan - dance
Chris Stevens - button accordion, concertina
Nathan Gourley - fiddle
Videography & Video Editing: Louise Bichan
Videography Assistance: Ethan Setiawan
Recording & Mixing: Nathan Gourley
Cover Artwork & Design: Anna Colliton
Sketches: Rebecca McGowan
Dance steps traditional and original.
All tunes traditional.
All sound, including the foot percussion, was direct-recorded.
Supported in part by The Boston Foundation's Next Steps for Boston Dance & NEFA.
Recorded in Rebecca’s grandma Peg Wright’s house in September 2018.
© 2019 McGowan & O'Riley
All rights reserved.