Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

Dancing between Decks: Choreographies of Transition during Irish Migrations to America *

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

Dancing between Decks: Choreographies of Transition during Irish Migrations to America *

Article excerpt


NOSTALGIA is the disease of the homesick, a break with a place and a past and an uneasy fit with the new, a wound that has not healed. In his poem "Neither" (1976), Samuel Beckett wrote about the condition of being caught between worlds, of belonging neither to one place nor another.

   As between two lit refuges whose doors once neared gently close, once
   turned away from gently part again beckoned back and forth and turned away


   heedless of the way, intent on one gleam or the other then gently light
   unfading on that unheeded neither unspeakable home. (1)

Beckett knew intimately what it was like to exist between realms, between countries, and one might argue that he made such liminal spaces famous in his writing. Perhaps in this poem he sought to express the movement inherent between two realms: between the known and the unknown; between Ireland and America, Cork and New York City; between the light left on in the Phoenix Park mansion for returned emigrants, and the torch light in the Statue of Liberty that met them in America. Between these "lit refuges" are the movements of many in search of home. For emigrants and exiles, and people on the move, home is unutterable; it is not a name or a place, but something we learn to carry with us. Home is inside us, it is in our bodies and our movements, or as Irish poet Paula Meehan writes, "you must live in your skin, call it home." (2)

During great social movements such as migration, which carried people far from their familiar surroundings and traditions, emigrants depended on the "mobile arts" for cultural expression and remembrance. (3) Portable, yet deeply connected to the landscape of home, song, music, and dance were prominent features of migrant culture. Many of the Irish melodies, lyrics, and ballads that gave voice to the experience of emigration have survived to become popular all over the world. The history of dance in relation to migration is more difficult to trace, but was not a less palpable expression of Irish identity. Dance happens in the moment and leaves no discursive record to mark its occurrence, yet this invisible choreography is registered and remembered through the body. Sociologist Paul Connerton suggests that cultural memories are sedimented or amassed in the body, and as a bodily expression, dance articulates those embedded stories. (4) For Irish emigrants traveling to America, dance was a performance of memory and an expression of belief in the life to come. Dancing through familiar patterns and figures, a choreography that was inflected with intimate remembrances, was a way of embodying a particular past and a local landscape of memory.

To examine dance as part of emigrants' experience we must attend to what Joseph Roach terms the "kinesthetic imagination," which involves movements that are real, remembered, residual, or imaginary. (5) For Roach social memories are transmitted and preserved through bodily performances that accompany forms of travel, departure, and displacement. Roach's concept of circum-Atlantic performance locates sites of memory that have been created through exploration, travel, and racial trauma. In thinking about the dances that were performed en route to America, dances that embodied the past while imagining the future, I want to invoke Roach's concept of the "kinesthetic" in relation to memory in order to consider migration through dance's familiar movements. In reconstructing what might have happened on board those immigrant ships nearly one hundred and fifty years ago, I must attend to the dances described in words as well as those that are retained or imagined in the body. I want to highlight the significance of these movements for Irish emigrants during their journey out of Ireland, and draw attention to the importance of dance throughout the immigration process--from dancing at American wakes, to dancing on board ships, to dancing in America. …

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