Performing Tradition, part 1


On Crafting an Alternate Dance Career


By Matthew Olwell

“You better pick up your feet! ‘Cause the rent is due on the first of the month. And that don’t change for nobody.”  -- Dianne Walker

I am what some might call a non-traditional dancer. I have performed in front of thousands in packed theaters and at huge festivals in Europe and across the United States, and I have done gigs in coffeehouses for tips. I have been a fire-spinning vampirate, and I have taught five year-olds how to shuffle. I have been lucky enough to work with some of the best musicians in today’s traditional “folk” music world, and I have danced to canned top-40 music blaring from a boom box on a street corner. I don’t think of myself as unusual but even by performer standards, my career may have been a little strange.


“So, what do you do?” Sometimes I find myself dreading the question. It’s inevitable at parties, at least those where you don’t know some portion of the other guests. You know the drill; you are supposed to launch into a concise encapsulation of your life’s work and purpose. If you are particularly successful as a human being, this will be a description of a career that you love, which you have made lucrative. Check. But as a dancer, I am prepared for a certain amount of incredulity. I have a series of answers that I use, depending on my best guess at how interested the person I’m in conversation with actually is. Sometimes I just say, “I’m a musician” and let them ask questions. If I am feeling adventurous, I say, “I’m a dancer.”

This is almost always interesting. They size me up. Apparently deciding I don’t look gay, they seem to discard an immediate assumption that I am a male stripper or ballet dancer. They are intrigued.

“What kind of dance do you
do?”

If I’m in a feisty mood, I say, “Mostly vernacular percussive dances from America and the North Atlantic Diaspora.”

Now they’re confused. And I can’t blame them. I am perhaps being a little obtuse.

“Appalachian flatfooting, body percussion …”

This isn’t helping. They have no frame of reference for any of this. Usually at this point I take pity and say,

“Tap dancing.”

I love watching the moment when their eyes light up because finally I have given them something they understand. I can practically see Fred Astaire and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson being projected across my forehead. Or at least some tap dancing penguins. It might be a tad misleading, but it’s a start.

A Little Backstory

I am a performer and teacher of “traditional” or vernacular music and percussive dance. I use these terms somewhat interchangeably, even though they have different connotations within different communities. My primary field is Appalachian flatfooting and clogging, tap, body percussion, and Irish music played on wooden flute and a small frame drum called a bodhrán. My father and brother make wooden flutes, and I grew up in the traditional Irish music community that has been thriving in the mid-Atlantic region of the East Coast of the United States since the 1970s. When I was in my early teens, my mom started taking me to social dances, mostly contras (a group dance form originally from New England, now danced across the U.S. and beyond). At the Old Songs Festival in New York, when I was probably 12, I saw a dance company called The Fiddle Puppet Dancers. I didn’t know it at the time, but that performance dramatically altered the course of my life. Looking back, it’s safe to say I would not be doing what I am doing now if it weren’t for my involvement with that group.

Around that same time, I started taking Irish step dance lessons with NEA heritage fellow Donny Golden, a beloved figure in the Irish step dance world. This was years before the Riverdance boom, and there was no step dance to be found in Nellysford, Va., my hometown. Luckily, my family had been attending Irish Week at The Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, W.Va., for many years and this gave me access to a level of instruction that, in retrospect, was kind of magical. At 18, I moved to Maryland and joined Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble, the later incarnation of the Fiddle Puppets. The director, Eileen Carson Schatz, was one of only a few choreographers in America to explore the potential in incorporating clogging, tap, Irish Step dance, and other thematically and historically related traditional dance forms into a theatrical production that could play equally well at a folk festival or in a large theater. I spent nine years touring, teaching, and performing with Footworks, which proved to be an invaluable education in a multitude of skills I would need to make my living as an artist: everything from informal theater etiquette, to stagecraft, to how to live out of a suitcase for prolonged periods of time without going insane. To the director Eileen, and to the other company members who taught me, I owe a debt of gratitude that I can never repay.

Fast-forward 17 years, and I find myself as a freelance dancer and musician who, by a combination of diligence and sheer dumb luck, has been able to make a living primarily in dance and music, and has had some incredibly gratifying artistic experiences along the way. Now a student at Davis & Elkins College (where my wife, Emily Oleson is building an American Vernacular Dance program), I am going back to school for the undergraduate degree I skipped in my early 20s, and building up my independent-artist-skill-set.

Granted, the freelance life has not been easy, and is not for everyone. It takes a sometimes-daunting amount of personal organization, tenacity, and sheer bloody-mindedness to make one’s living as a performer, and there are days (as I imagine there are for anyone who is self employed and/or an artist) when I wonder, “Why the heck am I busting my hump for no retirement plan, and zero job security?” To fill the inevitable gaps between gigs, I have waited tables, remodeled kitchens and bathrooms, taught countless music and dance classes, and even made shoes for a time. I see these instances, not as failures, but as an inevitable part of the process of pursuing a career an artist. And there are so many times (like one particularly magical evening I recently had playing music for dancers) when I feel truly connected to something larger than myself, and it all seems worthwhile. There are enough of these “got what I came for” moments that I still feel, after nearly two decades as a teacher and performer, that I am doing what I am called to do.

I feel very grateful that my lifestyle choices have enabled me to combine my pursuits and interests very organically. I am primarily a musician and dancer, but I have been able to weave a pretty broad range of disciplines into the fabric of my artistic life. In 2005, I performed fire poi dressed as a space vampire in Shentai, a “community arts carnival” in Charlottesville, Va. In 2007, I went to a medieval village in France with an Old-Time fiddle player who had taught a French theatre director to make moonshine in the 1970s; we played at the uncorking of his first batch of Hedgehog Whiskey. In 2010, I received a scholarship to attend the first-ever program for tap at The School at Jacob’s Pillow. Under the tutelage of the Program Director Dianne Walker, I began a deeper process of synthesizing tap as it relates to other percussive dance forms. I have had some performance experiences of supremely satisfying artistic collaboration with the likes of tap dancer Baakari Wilder, Irish fiddle player Eileen Ivers, and John Skelton, a multi instrumentalist and wealth of folklore and music. Lately I have been studying photography, and I maintain a blog where I wax poetic about food, art, culture, and dance history. The ability to weave all these seemingly disparate interests together into something resembling a successful career is something I chalk up partly to circumstance, partly to the quality of mentorship I have been lucky enough to receive, and partly to some unique features of the communities of people who support traditional dance and music.

Intro to “Trad”

The word “traditional” sometimes means what is most commonly seen or done: at Davis & Elkins College, I am a “non-traditional” student, because I’m past my early 20s. When I apply the term “traditional” to music and dance here, however, I refer to subcultures that are often overlooked by mainstream music industry infrastructure such as record labels, stadium concerts, or music videos. These forms (often with a specific cultural, regional, or ethnic context and identification such as Appalachian, Irish, French Canadian, or Cajun), exist on a smaller, more underground scale. They are dispersed by the active and social participation of many people who don’t necessarily consider themselves professionals.  

Many use the term “trad scene” as shorthand to refer to an amorphous network of performing and educational venues, festivals, professional artists, and amateur enthusiasts, who gather around communal practices of traditional or vernacular music and dance. I use the term “amateur” enthusiasts with reservation, since many people who play for fun do so at a level that is at least on a par with those who perform and teach as a livelihood. They are often also informed, or at least interested, in the history and social context of what they practice and its intersections with related cultures.

One way that the trad world effectively supports art is to nurture community-based social practice of forms like those just mentioned. A plethora of Irish and old time music and dance events (whose salient feature is participatory social music-making) happen year ‘round, sustaining a community of people who, in turn, support live music, take class, and purchase recordings, helping to make performing and teaching a viable profession for those of us who do earn our livings in this way. This is perhaps one of the most powerful ideas that can be gleaned from an examination of these communities, and one which I think can point the way for other art forms as they seek to create sustainable audiences: foster a committed, enthusiastic base of supporters, who participate in the art both recreationally and in a more traditional consumer sense, and you have a better long-range outlook for the form.

The overlapping and intertwining nature of traditions like Irish and old time, and the fact that the boundaries between genres are permeable and often vague, is part of what makes them such resilient community structures, and helps them to be active places for these art forms to thrive. The overlapping and intertwining nature of traditions like Irish and old time, and the fact that the boundaries between genres are permeable and often vague, is part of what makes them such resilient community structures, and helps them to be active places for these art forms to thrive. The sharing of melodic and choreographic repertoire across different styles operates a bit like a musical free-trade agreement. All this cross cultural connective tissue translates into a fair amount of work for those who perform professionally, since the communities of people who support the music are often devoted to more than one related style. The common thread of community is important to the creation of a cultural paradigm of participatory art-making as a lifelong practice.

For part 2 of "Performing Tradition," click here.


 Matthew Olwell has been performing and teaching as a dancer and musician at festivals and theaters across North America and Europe since 1996. He grew up in a family of instrument-makers, immersed in a world of music, dance, and theater, and toured for nine years with the Maryland-based Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble, with whom he performed in Riverdance. His teachers include Dianne Walker, Baakari Wilder, Donny Golden, Eileen Carson, Benoit Bourque, Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble, and The Fiddle Puppet Dancers. A co-founder of Good Foot Dance Company, and co-coordinator of The Augusta Heritage Center’s American Vernacular Dance Week, Matthew is a multimedia artist who embraces his grandfather’s definition of a dilettante: “One who delights in many things.” Matthew has taught dance and music at numerous camps and festivals, including The Swannanoa Gathering, the Augusta Heritage Center, Berea Christmas Country Dance School, and CDSS at Pinewoods. In the summer of 2014, Matthew performed in Russia on a State Department sponsored, culture-abroad trip with The Meaning of Buck Dance.

Photo: above, Matthew Olwell and Emily Oleson, Good Foot Dance Company, by Isaac Arias
right, courtesy Matthew Olwell

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