In the 19th century, amid social unrest, crime, and infectious disease in the lower Manhattan neighborhood of Five Points in New York City, an American dance was brewing. The source of this new creative energy was a combination of cultures colliding and competition. “Black people and Irish people were on the street corner together, in the music halls together, in the pubs together,” notes choreographer Michelle Dorrance. “And Irish were referred to as Blacks, and Black dancing was called jigging.” In the 1840s, a series of contests, or “challenge dances,” spearheaded by Irish dancer John Diamond (sometimes referred to as the “greatest white minstrel dancer”) brought the blackface performer head-to-head with the young man who replaced him in P.T. Barnum’s show, William Henry Lane, known as “Master Juba.” Juba roundly triumphed over the ill-tempered Irishman in all but one contest, staged in cities nationwide. Described by Charles Dickens as “the greatest dancer known,” Juba gained worldwide fame as the only Black dancer in all-white minstrel companies and the first Black performer to be billed above a white performer in minstrel shows.
“Tap dance was born on the southern slave plantations,” says Dorrance. “A lot of slave uprisings were organized by drums, [which were] central to West African culture.” Body percussion, or “patting juba,” arose as drums were outlawed by plantations. “Tap dance was born in that dire need for expression and communication,” she explains. “And those famous contests between African American dancers and Irish dancers in the 1800s pushed tap and American Irish dance forward. It’s sewn into the history of tap dance. Early tap, then called ‘buck dancing’ or ‘buck and wing,’ lives on the balls of the feet, which is where Irish dance lives. Juba was able to imitate the Irish dancers’ approach to buck dance. And he would imitate them imitating him. Who knows what kind of masterful mockery that was? He was described as doing things people had never seen–he was a masterful innovator. Tap dance is rooted in improvisation. That kind of conversation with the feet is part of the development of the form. It lives in those early contests.”
These thoughts of cultural exchange drove the creation of American Traffic, a new work commissioned by the Auditorium Theatre for Chicago’s Trinity Irish Dance Company by Dorrance, a MacArthur Fellow and artistic director of Dorrance Dance, and Dorrance artistic associate Melinda Sullivan. “Trinity Irish Dance Company is a contemporary Irish American company rooted in the traditions of Irish step dance,” explains TIDC associate artistic director Chelsea Hoy. “We push the boundaries of the form through a performing arts lens. One way we do that is by collaborating with movers from different genres. Michelle Dorrance’s work bears similarities to ours in the way that it honors the ancestors.”
“We were interested in breaking down the rigidity and traditional carriage of Irish step dancing,” says Dorrance. “We wanted to explore a pedestrian quality. The execution of Irish dance is so beautiful but often rigid. The arms are held. In tap, we often have a relaxed upper body and an organic approach.” The title of the work began as a joke, she says–simply a way of organizing the negotiation and exploration of space. “The rule was, when they would pass each other, pass on the right–literally ‘American traffic.’ But it became this thing that reflected a culture that has such depth in its ancestry. Tap is one of the oldest–in terms of immigrated Americans–American dance forms. There’s constant exploration in the piece, and exploration of identity. It’s not about some heavy emotional drama, it just lives in the fiber of the work.”
The exploration of technique and identity is central to TIDC’s mission of innovation in Irish American dance. TIDC was founded in 1990 by Yorkshire-born, Rogers Park-raised Mark Howard, who studied at the Dennehy School of Irish Dance–where fellow Irish American Chicagoan Michael Flatley also trained. Whereas Flatley’s Riverdance became a global phenomenon when it premiered in 1995, Howard has refused traditional Irish dance competitions and Broadway-style spectacles. “We’re the only art-driven ensemble repertory Irish dance company in the world,” says Hoy.
“How are you still doing what you love when [Riverdance] turned into this multimillion dollar thing?” Dorrance recalls asking Howard. “He replied, ‘We just want people to connect with what we do.’ And I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I feel about my art form.’ To exchange the roots of our culture, the rhythmic ideas, to learn more about our techniques, where they came from, and why–that’s fascinating.” v