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27 June 2020updated 05 Oct 2023 8:14am

How traditional Irish dancing found new life on TikTok

Irish dancers are finding viral fame online by juxtaposing traditional poses and intricate footwork with contemporary pop hits.

By Anna Cafolla

The video-sharing app TikTok is best known as the home of dance routines to viral songs – be it fluid body rolls to Doja Cat’s “Say So” or the “Renegade” routine created by a 14-year-old in Atlanta – taken on by everyone from Lizzo to the Kardashians. They use exaggerated, slapstick movements and are usually made popular by a peppy Californian teenager. But in a sea of dance crazes, Irish dancing is the surprising traditional form exploding across the app.

In a viral TikTok that made international news, was reposted by Beyonce’s mother and earned the creator an official invite to dance with the touring Riverdance troupe, 20-year-old Morgan Bullock from Richmond, Virginia treble jigs to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage”. Atlanta-based teenagers Cian and Jack Porter – known to their 94,000 followers as the Porter Brothers – hit 3.7 million on their slick dance duet to Saint Jhn’s “Roses”, showing their impressive double clicks and one-footed jumps to the chart-topping track.

Owen Luebbers, 21, from Pennsylvania, has almost a quarter of a million people following his attempts to bag the record for fastest moving feet, as well as more “relatable” memes, which speak to the intensity of training for World championships or telling people for the hundredth time that, no, he isn’t a tap dancer. On Instagram and YouTube, there are candid “what’s in my feis bag” and “get ready with me” videos where Irish dancers showcase traditional outfits and wigs. But it’s on TikTok where their spectacular, intricate footwork excels.

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“When an outsider thinks of Irish dance, they think of fiddles and accordions,” says Jack Porter. “We’ve always pushed the music boundaries to increase Irish dance’s audience. We show the hidden rhythm in the songs through our feet that they might not have noticed before.”

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The Porters’ father is a former Riverdance lead (he took an infant Cain on the road) and he co-runs their dance school. Both regional and international champions, the brothers first TikTok incorporated Irish dance into the “Plank Challenge“, clocking 100,000 views overnight.

Cian & Jack on TikTok

Cian & Jack (@porterbrothers) has created a short video on TikTok with music Roses – Imanbek Remix. Isolation done right #irishdance #fyp #foryou #foryoupage #dancevid #boysdancetoo #viral #lads #roses #iswearttogodiwillikeandfollow

“We love sharing our Irish culture and showing the love of a sport that sometimes doesn’t receive as much credit as it should,” says Cain. “For us, there’s no boundaries, but it isn’t an overnight talent.”

Across centuries, Irish dancing has travelled and evolved – from the Celts and Druids of pre-Christian Ireland, to the 1893 founding of the Gaelic league, and the first Riverdance in 1995 – now in its 25th year. Riverdance, the theatrical Irish dance show which first debuted in the Dublin Eurovision interval, has been performed over 11,000 times and seen by over 25 million people. Today, the Irish dancing hashtag on TikTok has over 150 million views, where a transnational dancing community experiments and flourishes.

“I love the idea of being someone that people who may not fit the mould of a ‘typical’ Irish dancer can look up to,” Morgan Bullock says. “Being in the position to inspire others as a Black woman in Irish dance is just amazing to me.”

The 20-year-old from Richmond, Virginia, has danced internationally across an 11-year career, and does traditional hard shoe steps to Koffee, Janet Jackson, Drake and Doja Cat for her enraptured Instagram and TikTok following. After going viral with her “Savage” dance, Riverdance composer Bill Whelan and lead dancer Jean Butler both praised her talent.

Before Bullock’s TikTok was brought to her attention, Jean Butler had never been on the app. Butler, who originated the Riverdance female principle role and co-choreographed the show, is “personal icon” for Bullock and now teaches as a professor of Irish studies at New York University. “I got a strong sense of her as a dancer and a person,” Butler says.

Morgan Bullock on TikTok

Morgan Bullock (@yourangleyuordevil) has created a short video on TikTok with music Savage Remix. #irishdance #fyp #keepingactive #spacethings #foryou

One mother, who contacted Bullock after seeing her videos, told her she was hesitant to sign her young black daughter up for classes, “because she was afraid that her daughter might be discriminated against or not accepted in the Irish dance community”.

“She said that after watching my videos, she registered her daughter for classes at the closest studio,” Bullock says. “That alone has been the highlight of all of this, because I feel like I can be someone for that little girl to look up to as someone who looks like her, and that’s not something I had as a young Irish dancer.”

After her video went viral, Bullock wrote a note on Twitter addressing the racist abuse and accusations of “cultural appropriation” it garnered. The Irish American Embassy and thousands of dancers and non-dancers rallied in support. She’s since been invited to dance with the Riverdance touring show, and received an invite to Ireland from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for St Patrick’s Day 2021.

“Irish dance has given me friends all over the world, and my dance school is like a second family to me,” she adds. “I think it’s so special how we all have this common passion. It’s so widespread, yet so tight knit.”

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David Geaney from Dingle, Ireland, was one of the earliest dancers to go digital, with popular Facebook and Instagram pages, but is newer to TikTok. The 26-year-old began dancing at the age of six and won the first of five world titles at age 10. He was on Britain’s Got Talent “for the craic” and debuted a Broadway show in 2018. When home, he performs in his parent’s pub, and pre-lockdown, he was touring with a Celtic music group.

“It’s definitely kept lockdown fatigue away,” he says. “The list of collaborators I’m gonna be dancing with just keeps growing. It’s really challenging me. I’m approaching my dance a lot differently. We’re trading ideas, and I’ve broadened my step vocabulary.”

One video duet with another dancer from Birmingham sees David attempting moves traditionally for female dancers: “She made me work with toes up on the block!”

Upcoming online group dances will feature dancers from China, South Africa and New Geaney’s. “It’s one big family, Irish or not,” he says. One video collaboration has 1.4 million views, the majority from south-east Asia. “It’s gone mad! I’m clicking ‘see translation’ on comments for hours. I get messages from people who say it’s inspired them to get their shoes on again. I’ve been teaching online and it’s skyrocketed.”

Laura Davidson on TikTok

Laura Davidson(@laur4davidson1) has created a short video on TikTok with music Think About Things. #irishdance #dancer

Visibility is important to any tradition’s evolution, and disseminating Irish dance across the world could result in style changes in years to come. Jean Butler emphasises that, though setting traditional dance to contemporary chart hits may seem novel, it’s not a new phenomenon.

“Growing up, I would regularly Irish dance to pop tunes, rock and classical,” she says. “It is a way to expand your understanding of rhythmic structures and tempos that are different to traditional music.”

Butler sees TikTok’s dance community as just “one representation of Irish dance in 2020 in the same way that Riverdance was in 1994”. But it could change the direction of the genre.

“Irish dance innovation in competition and in shows works on a top-down system,” Butler explains. New trends are usually introduced by dancers at world championships and major stage shows, then absorbed into the canon through imitation and repetition. “Dance shows promote a ‘one size fits all’ attitude, and very little has developed creatively over the last 25 years due to the demands of branding and the commercial arena,” Butler explains.

On TikTok, those conventions can be discarded. “There are no rules and regulations around dancing on social media as there is in every other form of Irish dancing,” she says “This gives them agency to experiment.”

The Irish dancing world is largely dominated by the white middle classes, but prominent black dancers like Dundalk-based Irish teen champion Elliot Kwelele and Morgan Bullock showcase growing diversity. The number of male online figures like Kwelele, the Porters and Geaney also dispel wider gender norms attached to dancing.

Dr Aileen Dillane is an ethnomusicologist at the University of Limerick – her work focuses on ethnicity and identity in Irish music and dance. As a social media phenomenon, Dillane believes that Irish traditional dance is especially suited to TikTok. “It’s athletic, visually compelling, technically challenging, and with a percussive dimension that lends itself to experimentation with other musical forms,” she explains.

Music and dance, Dillane says, can reflect cultural and societal shifts. “What we’re seeing in TikTok videos in particular is actually quite a traditional form of dance that was established in the late 19th century. With rising nationalism, culture became an important site for ideological expressions of ‘Gaelicness’, as opposed to Englishness or Britishness, and dance was at the coalface of building a coherent nation in opposition to the coloniser.”

Dillane observes that a lot of the TikTok Irish dances are “quite conservative” thanks to their use of “relative standard steps and traditionally upright, restrained upper body dancing”. Juxtapositioning different traditions, eras and cultures in one performance, she says, “can be a hugely political act”.

As for Bullock’s experience of racism in the dance community, Dillane notes that “her very disciplined and schooled” performances are only contentious to “those who believe that a young black woman doing this is somehow a threat to their sense of self and a hermetically sealed, white tradition”.

“Diversity gets written out of music tradition,” she adds. “But Ireland is changing, and so too are the audiences across the world that want to engage with the tradition.”

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