Irish Dancing in the Czech Republic
Irish musicians and dancers accepted an invitation to a cultural exchange and performed in Prague and in Slovak Myjava. One of the participants of this tour was the current vice-president of An Coimisiún, Dr. Cullinane. I exchanged a few e-mails with him about this journey and he even included a photograph from one performance in Czechoslovakia in his book, Aspects of the History of Irish Ceilí Dancing. This is his letter from December 2006:
I was very happy and delighted to receive your letter. Sorry about the delay but I was in Spain on holidays and then went to Washington USA to adjudicate Irish Dancing there. I understand that you are the first Irish dancing group in the Czech Rep.
My Irish Dancing involvement goes back a long way. I am now 67 years old and have been dancing since I was about 11 years old (and my mother before me). I collect any memorabilia to do with Irish dancing and keep it in my archive (the “Cullinane Archive Collection” which is housed in the University here at Cork. I have written seven books on the history of Irish dancing.
I am a qualified TCRG and ADCRG and also an examiner for these qualifications. I am Vice Chairman of the Irish Dancing Commission and have been serving this body now for about 40 years or more.
Now to Czechoslovakia ( excuse me but old habits die hard and I still refer to it as same). YES my group, under my leadership was the very first group to visit Czech in 1967. They were very different times in Czech. Hard to imagine!!! About a year before a Czech (or correctly a Slovakian group ) from Ostrava performed in Dublin (as did my group) at a folk dance festival and they issued an invitation for a return group. At that time (“Iron Curtain” conditions etc.) no Irish group was willing to travel to Eastern Europe – but I accepted the invitation. So in 1967 the visit was arranged and enormous publicity in the press in Ireland. An (“Aleutian” ???) Russian built jet was sent from Prague to Dublin to collect my group and so it was (I think) the first flight between Dublin and Prague. Everyone in Ireland feared for our safety going “behind the Iron Curtain”) but IT WAS THE TRIP OF A LIFE TIME AND AT THAT PERIOD IN HISTORY THE CZECH PEOPLE really enjoyed our visit.
We did perform (informal concerts in Wenceslas Square etc) in Prague but then travelled to Slovakia (all the one country then) to Bratislava and to Ostrava where we were guests of the Ostrava folk Dance Group ( at the “Dom Kulturi” ) and performed there and also at a small village “Myjava”. Only three weeks ago I met a person from that village/town and he was here in Ireland to study Irish dancing at Limerick University. I am writing from memory but have all my photograph albums (AND MEMORIES THAT WILL NEVER NEVER LEAVE ME- of such lovely people. SO YOUR LETTER PROVOKES SUCH HAPPY MEMORIES FOR ME and for my sister and her husband (also in the group).
I am so emotional even thinking about it all. Shortly after our visit Czech was invaded and (as I need not remind you) went through a dreadful time and we were not allowed to write to our friends – lest we endanger their lives.
But just recently I was in hospital (very ill at the time but now alright again) when I was able to watch both the Czech and Slovak republics admitted into the EU here in Dublin here by our President. YES I cried and cried with happiness. So now we look forward to only good times ahead. I WILL RETURN SOME DAY but I fear that all my contacts will are missing. This year 2007 marks the 40th anniversary of my visit.
I will stop now to allow you to tell me something about your group and how you came to be involved in Irish dancing.
All the happiness in the world to you and all Czechs and Slovaks in 2007.
Regards John Cullinane
And then nothing again for a long time. In 1993 the Czech republic was formed and then it really started.
Since 1995, Miss Kate Wood worked as an English teacher at the British Council. Although not Irish, (she came from somewhere near Newcastle), she spent her free time here teaching Irish dancing. She caused numerous young people to be attracted by it.
I remember reading in some cultural newsletter that there were Irish Dancing lessons in some cultural or social centre in Dejvice. I was adamant to go and see it. I was then interested in Irish music and I could not imagine it missing at a lesson of Irish Dancing. The cultural centre building had been either in a stage of mid-construction where funding had been trickling down in drops or just before demolition. The development has shown that the latter was very close to reality. We had been dancing in a very dusty gym with only one lightbulb (which had to be connected somewhere else) and there was one socket for the music player which Kate had brought with her. Whoever showed up, put a CZK 10,- coin on the dusty chair and that was given to the building administrator at the end of the lesson. And then we danced. They were dances from some collection, which later turned out to be the “Bible” of all ceilí dances, Ár Rincidhe Foirne, sometimes complemented by some set dances from „Toss the feathers“. This dance session took place every Monday and sometimes there were so many people that we put four sets together. These were mainly young people. After the lesson we always went to water down the dust to some of the local drinking holes.
Kate did not impose any goals. Her teaching was very positive and she did not burden us with any technique or proper execution. She did not try to explain to us that there is a different technique for the ceilí dances and different for the sets. We learned the „geometry“ of individual figures and accompanied the routine with an easy polka-like “step-by-step”. Only much later we found out what “hybrids” we were producing and unfortunately also spreading further. May it serve as our excuse, that it was at a time when Riverdance was only building its performing team, when Lord Of The Dance and other shows were being created there were no materials here which we could draw from. Not even the internet was as accessible then and was not filled by so much Irish Dancing material as it is today.
Kate was gradually preparing for a new placement, she did not teach as often. Just before her departure to Portugal in 1998 her dancers came together and on 20 October 1997 formed a dance group. It was not easy to find a name for it, but Kate helped again and it was her who proposed the title Rinceoirí which means “dancers” in Irish.
I do not want to focus just on the history of Rinceoirí which I described in a quite detailed way and it can be found on the website of this group. Until the year 2000 Rinceoirí have been the only dancing group in the Czech Republic performing Irish Dancing. It has had several performances including a presentation on television and the Beltine Celtic culture festivals. In the course of 2000 a small group of dancers breaks away (Helena Znojemská, Marek Šolc – Baldrick, Věra Kohoutová,…) and although they formally remain members of Rinceoirí, they build up their own Irish Dance group named Gach Le Gach. Just before the summer Irena and Lucie Samcová leave as well and start their own group called Coiscéim. Meanwhile, Katka Otavová starts a new group called Démáirt in Brno under the local YMCA and in Prague, Tereza Bachová starts her lessons of Irish hard shoes with an effort to create choreographies and present them publicly. Almost everyone in Prague who was serious about Irish Dancing was among her pupils at that time. Tereza looks for possibilities of financing costumes, provides hard shoes from Ireland and finds training spaces. Thus she builds the foundation for her new dance group, Kaskáda. It was a heroic time of dance performances where the number of newly formed groups was not in proportion with the number of good dancers. And thus it happened that performances of various groups partially contained the same dancers, i.e. some were members in two or even three dance groups simultaneously. Many people interested in Irish Dancing came from country / western dance groups.
I could continue describing the history even further, without the hope of ever finishing this chapter. So I will just point out that soon there were other dance groups with the ambitions to ’pull Riverdance to pieces’ and new ones still are and will be emerging. I only wanted to cover the beginnings which I know and remember. Further on I will focus on particular issues.
Foreign dance teachers in the Czech Republic
I’d say that it strongly influenced us all and it was all very educational for us all, especially in the beginnings. I think that Rinceoirí were quite lucky that we realized very soon that there would be no bigger progress without foreign teachers with extensive experience. I noticed a dancer at the Willie Clancy Summer School 2001 who, by his dancing and his approach to Irish set dancing, corresponded with my idea of someone I would like to cooperate with. His name was Seán Kilkenny. Since he was not a teacher there but was just visiting, I lost track of him without having a chance to make contact. I thought of him later when planning the 2nd Summer School of Irish Dancing and tried to search for him in Europe. I got some information about him from Germany and soon I found his Dutch address. My search also resulted in another reply from Mary Sweeney who had a school in Munich. I am mentioning their names purposely without their teacher titles because they did not have them yet at that time. Both of them promised their participation at the 2nd Summer School in 2002. The advantage for us was that they knew each other well. Their presence at the Summer School was successful and so we invited Mary to give workshops in Prague a few more times during the year, these were attended by members of various Irish dance groups.
Before the end of 2002 and at the beginning of 2003 the Prague-based Zig-Zag Dance studio (led by Zdeněk Pilecký) organised two Irish dancing seminars. The teacher was Miss Lisa Delaney TCRG from the Delaney Academy in London. Both seminars gathered a large number of dancers from various dance groups from the Czech Republic and Slovakia and among other things, that is where we heard about the so-called „grades“ – dance examinations of various levels of Irish dancing. This was also our first meeting with Lisa.
In 2003 I received several cooperation offers by former dance show performers. Only one has sent a video and some more information about her. Moreover, she was willing to cooperate for a fee which was bearable for us then. That was Anne-Marie Cunningham TCRG from London, an ex-Riverdance dancer. We organised several workshops with Anne-Marie (again open to dancers from all dance groups) and we also agreed on her participation at the 3rd Summer School in 2003 where she would teach together with Mary Sweeney and Sean Kilkenny. After this Summer School we started cooperating with Anne-Marie much more. My effort to broaden the spectrum of dance activities resulted in contacting Joe O’Hara from England, a recognised authority in Irish set dancing. We organised the first Irish set dancing seminar in Prague with him and his wife Janet in September 2003. The second one took place one year later.
The 4th Summer School of Irish Dancing engaged Anne-Marie Cunningham TCRG and also her friend from London, Kelley O´Boyle, who also had her school there. They certainly moved their summer school pupils’ dance level further up a good deal.
In 2005 we invited the well-proved duo to the Summer School and on top of that an Irish teacher who operated in Germany, Shane McAvinchey, a dancer from several dance shows. Again all three were a huge benefit for everyone at the Summer School. Unfortunately we did not agree in some moments and at that time our cooperation with Anne-Marie started to cool off. Another reason was the growing influence of RTME, the An Coimisiún representative in continental Europe, with a strict enforcement of the rules of this organisation, without any understanding for the different development of Irish dancing in Central and Eastern Europe and especially the economical side of things that was connected with it. In autumn 2005 Anne-Marie ends her cooperation with Rinceoirí and to our surprise starts cooperating with Coiscéim. Shane McAvinchey later teaches in the Czech Republic (2007,2008) on the invitation of Irish Sisters who organise workshops in Sedmihorky.
At that time we remembered Lisa Delaney-Galal TCRG, ADCRG, also due to the involvement of Tereza Bernardová and Tereza Bachová at the Delaney Academy in London. She was invited together with her sister Corinne Delaney to attend the 6th Summer School. I also invited another former show dancer, Stephen Scariff, who then became a teacher of the dance groups Démáirt, Gall-Tír and Fiach bán. This Summer School also marks the beginning of set dancing lessons, taught here by the well-established Joe and Janet O’Hara.
Lisa Delaney-Galal TCRG, ADCRG became a teacher of Rinceoirí and through her the dancers of Rinceoirí and RIDA were able to access An Coimisiún feiseanna. And thus it was no wonder that we invited the same teachers to the 7th Summer School .
It is worth mentioning that further foreign dance teachers included the set dancer Brendan Taggart from Dublin on the invitation of Coiscéim, who probably has a strong part in the existence of the adult set dancers group around Helena Janoušová. I also do not want to deny Démáirt their first choice of Stephen Scariff as their teacher who started coming from Budapest and Vienna to hold workshops in Brno even before arriving at our Summer school.
I do not know to what extent one can consider Mišo Köver from Slovakia a foreign teacher. I think that he and his dancers from Petronella certainly played and excellent motivational role due to their advancement and their exemplary dance execution. However, he lost in further development by being a teacher of another organisation, and such one with other schools only in England and Ireland. That would mean that if someone wanted to attend feiseanna, they would have to travel to these countries which is very costly. However, I know that Mišo’s services are often used by the Pardubice-based Ryengle and Brno-based La Quadrilla.
I would like to emphasize that we have always been trying to choose such teachers whose names and “dance CVs” would evoke trust and respect, they would also have pedagogical abilities and their only qualification would not just be that they were foreign and they have danced somewhere for a while. At the same time we also tried to make their workshops accessible to all dancers who were interested at a price which was realistic for normal students. This later resulted in the choice of these teachers by various dance groups for regular workshops and access to feiseanna.
- Rinceoirí (*1997 – Praha)
- La Quadrilla (*1999 – Brno)
- Démáirt (*1999 – Brno)
- Coiscéim (*2000 – Praha)
- Galtish (*2002 – Ostrava)
- Gall-Tír (* 2003 – Praha)
- Irské sestry (*2004 – Liberec)
- Fiach Bán (*2005 – Olomouc)
- Seamróg (* 2007 – Praha)
- HopGoblin (*2007 – Teplice)