By Margarita Persico
Darrah Carr observes three of her dancers as they practice tap in hard shoes at John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, in Boston, where they expect a crowd of 700 for St. Patrick’s Day celebration. She slightly changes the choreography while four other dancers rehearse with no music to Slip Jig, a ballet like Irish dance.
“All of the group dances have very specific spatial patterns whether they are circles, diagonals, or squares. These interlacing patterns are often replicated in Celtic knotwork, jewelry, and embroidery,” she says about the style she is reinforcing during rehearsal.
Carr is doing something different as a choreographer—mixing the old and the new into traditional Irish dance. Carr fuses Irish music, step dance footwork and spatial patterns with the freedom of modern dance such as hip-hop. Coincidentally, Carr’s life is a fusion of career interwoven into her passion for Irish dance.
Carr has been doing this most of her life—step dancing as a traditional Irish dance professional. At 33, she is an artistic director at her own dance company, Darrah Carr Dance, Brooklyn, NY; teaches at Hofstra University dance history and teaches modern Irish dance to children in New York City and around New England.
“Irish dance provides the choreographic structure and modern dance provides a great sense of freedom,” says Carr, explaining what led her to a career in Irish dance.
“I traveled to Ireland a lot when I was a child,” says Carr who competed yearly for a decade in Irish dance around the country, Canada and Ireland. When she was 6 years old, she already had an idea of what she wanted to do for the next 27 years.
“We had Irish records in the house, and my [three] sisters did the Irish dancing with me,” says Carr.
She along with her three sisters spent most of their younger years in Ohio studying at Tim O’Hare School of Irish Dance. During high school she ran a ballet company doing two annual productions. But by the time she finished high school she needed a break.
“I was sort of burned out from the pressure of competing and the pressure of having to maintain a very low body weight for ballet and I wanted to stop.”
She quit dancing for a while to pursue an English major at Wesleyan University, in Connecticut, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She took literature courses and audited a modern dance class during college years, which put her back on track to dancing.
That’s when she decided to take a double major in dance and English at Wesleyan. With a grant during her senior year, she traveled to Ireland to do field research on the history of Irish dance.
“By the time I finished at Wesleyan, I decided that I wanted to move to New York and pursue a career in modern dance.”
Carr noted that this happened in 1996, when Riverdance, a musical about Celtic mythology and Irish history became internationally famous.
By that time, Carr felt happy she was able to support herself by teaching Irish dance and performing with her step dance partner Niall O’Leary. Irish dancing connects to something bigger than Riverdance and St. Patrick’s Day, she says, as an Irish American it means celebrating and embracing her heritage with pride.
“Irish dance resonates throughout the year and in many contexts, given its deep connection to traditional music, its ability to maintain cultural continuity over time and distance, and its remarkable capacity to engage people,” says Carr.
Thanks to Riverdance, Irish dance became popular, which brought her more opportunities in a difficult career.
“I think Riverdance happening at the same time as Ireland’s economic boom in the whole sense of the Celtic tiger,” Carr says, “became a great source of national pride.”
Carr worked as assistant choreographer to Sean Curran for the Tony award winning Broadway musical James Joyce’s The Dead and on numerous assignments on and off Broadway, throughout the United States. Among the memorable moments of her career, she cites her show with O’Leary in Disney World and at Osaka Festival Hall in Japan. She was also featured recently in a BBC documentary where she performed with BANSHEE, an Irish Women’s arts collective.
But Carr is not only focused on showing her work. She has been increasingly interested in passing her knowledge to the next generations. Since she graduated from Wesleyan University, she became an educator who prides in teaching young children and adults on Irish dance history, step dance and ModERIN, a term she coined for modern Irish dance, which is a unique blend of traditional Irish step and contemporary modern dance.
As a choreographer, she is especially interested in Irish dance based on Irish traditional folk music. To her, it provides so much structure such as the rhythms of the footwork.
In her classes, students learn traditional dancing as well as modern where they move arms and torso, which is not done in traditional Irish dance because, according to one of the legends, it was considered by the Catholic Church “frivolous and provocative.”
Carr is proud of her students and dancers’ work. They, also, feel rewarded.
“It’s my passion, I guess what I always wanted to do,” says Chris Armstrong, 20, Carr’s student and dancer. “I am happy when I am dancing,” he adds, while performing his movements’ minutes before the St. Patrick’s show at the JFK Library.
Now dressed in a green velvet short dress with her loose brunet shoulder length hair adorned with a jeweled barrette, Carr and her company are ready for the show.
When they come on to stage, the crowd cheers and they start dancing Traditional Reel, Jig, and Slip Jig.
Traditional Reel, she says, is a “virtuoso exposition of hard shoe reel steps,” similar to tap dancing, to the tune of Celtic music while “Slip Jig is an unusual dance,” Carr says, “It is counted in 9/8 time. And, only women and girls perform the Slip Jig.”
At the backstage, Carr is more focused than ever, making sure the dancers follow the leads.
Carr’s step dance partner Niall O’Leary dances and later plays the accordion and the spoons.
At the end, ten children from the crowd join them on stage and dance following Carr’s directions. They jump, spin and dance on stage while showing big smiles.
“Jump, knees, step, step, step,” utters Carr; mimicking children keep their pace on stage.