Irish dancing? It’s all about one-upmanship, says Jean Butler

TV review: ‘Steps Of Freedom: The Story Of Irish Dance’ chronicles the Riverdance effect

In 1994, Michael Flatley, Jean Butler and Riverdance swept Irish dance off its feet and, though time has not been kind to Flatley's mullet, the tradition has been stomping on all cylinders ever since.

It has gone international, too, as we are reminded in Steps Of Freedom: The Story Of Irish Dance (RTÉ One, 10.15pm), an enjoyably pacy survey of the past, present and future of Irish dance. It is narrated by Morgan Bullock, a New Yorker who fell in love with the discipline, and the story she tells frolics back and forth across the continents.

Traditional dance, we learn, may have come to Ireland from Spain and western Africa, where local dance shares an emphasis on rhythm. And it wasn't always a celebration. Sometimes, it was deployed as a way of striking fear into enemies. "These old Gaelic songs have rhythms," says musician Steve Cooney. "The old Irish clan march : they were jigs. [Armies] would march to the sound of the pipes."

During the Cromwellian wars and the hardships that followed, dance became a sort of strongbox for Irishness. It was a thread connecting us to our Gaelic past and a way to preserve an identity the invaders were trying to scrub away: it expressed our sadness and joy, and the dream of a better tomorrow.

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Steps Of Freedom is a co-production with the BBC and American Public Television and it investigates at length how traditional dancing intersected with American culture when the Irish went to the United States. In particular, it engages with the theme of cultural erasure in inquiring as to whether the Irish contribution to the evolution of tap dancing has been allowed overshadow its African-American roots. "The Irish and the Africans they weren't friends," says champion tap dancer DeWitt Fleming Jr. "It wasn't a friendly relationship."

Equally interesting, from an Irish perspective, is the exploration of how migration to Ireland today has breathed fresh life into the discipline. In a pub in Kerry, we see North Carolina-born, Limerick-based musician Rhiannon Giddens strike up a tune while a dancer from Limerick and from Africa vibe off one another.

There are also contributions from the Queen of Riverdance herself Jean Butler, who observes that, “at the heart of Irish dancing is a one-upmanship. It is about distinguishing yourself from others”.

Prominently absent, though is the high king of the shiny alpha-male blouse, Michael Flatley, which is a bit like staging a nativity play without inviting Baby Jesus. That omission aside, Steps Of Freedom jigs its way to the top of the class.