Performing Tradition, part 2

On Crafting an Alternate Dance Career

By Matthew Olwell

Editor’s note: To read Part 1 of “Performing Tradition,” please click here.

Questioning “Authenticity”

If there is a single question that bedevils nearly all the dance communities I have encountered, it is the quest for authenticity. So many of the artists I have worked with talk about “balancing tradition with innovation” that it feels a little bit trite even to put those words in that particular order. Countless bios (including my own) contain some variation on that phrase. And the thing that strikes me as weird about it is that there is often an implicit assumption that “tradition” (a very slippery word, but we will get into that later) and innovation are somehow at odds, or that they are not, to quote an old favorite line from a show I watched growing up, “two horns on the same goat.” Tradition is innovation, and it is impossible to have one without the other. Without a recognized and understood lineage, how do we measure innovation? Without some acceptance of change, how can a tradition survive long enough to be a tradition?

It seems obvious, and yet when you get down to talking details, many artists have some pretty rigid notions about what constitutes tradition or what kind of process is necessary for “art.” Confused? That’s okay, me too. Here’s what I mean …

Performing TraditionWithin the communities of people who practice what is commonly called Appalachian old time music and flatfooting socially (we are going to take them as a case study, but we could just as easily say the same about Irish music, or tango, or swing) many people place a high premium on an intangible street cred that is very hard to pin down, and yet when it is solid and irreproachable, everyone knows it’s there. And if it’s not there, that fact is pretty recognizable to anyone who is familiar with the tradition in question. Newbies who come into a world like Irish music can set themselves up for a fair amount of derision within their musical community if they fail to take the time and care necessary to really learn the ropes before putting themselves out there.

But what is this authenticity really? How much of it is transferred onto someone, not by intrinsic ability or experience, but by the response of the audience based on that audience’s perception of the merit of the individual? And how is that perception created? What makes us look at someone and think “poser,” instead of “wow, she’s good.” The criteria by which these communities self-evaluate their members has a lot to do with the perceived meanings that are being written into the code of the tradition as it is being periodically revived. This is a constant process of choice, as each generation makes decisions about what the aesthetic priorities of the form will be. It’s a bit like open-source software code, where the users have the power to rewrite the program.

The Evolution of Revival

It is worth noting that most or all of these communities go through cycles of decline and regeneration over time. Tap, which had its heyday on the stage and in film in the early part of the 20th century, nearly died out as an art form, until the 1970s and ’80s, during which time it enjoyed a renaissance as a new community of dancers coalesced around the older master hoofers. This new community revived tap and started a thriving festival scene, where even today the next generation of dancers perform, teach, and pass on the tradition. This same process was at work in the folk festival scene, both in the United States and abroad during, perhaps not coincidently, the same time period. The ’70s and ’80s were a boom time for “folk,” as music and dance from Ireland and Britain, the Appalachian mountains, French-speaking Canada, the American South, and many other regions gained new exposure and dedicated followings of enthusiast-practitioners.

There are some oddly reoccurring paradigms that show up in most of these communities, which relate back to these questions about authenticity, continuity of form, and what some call “invented traditions.” It is possible to point to numerous instances of new communities of people taking up a particular form of music or dance, (perhaps one from outside their own cultural experience or geography) and assimilating it into their lifestyles and self-identity. When this happens, sometimes tensions are felt between these new converts and the bearers of the living tradition as it is expressed in a continuous through-line of communal practice. In Irish music communities in North America, for instance, there are musicians of widely varying skill levels who play side by side socially, and coexist peacefully, but there is also the potential for resentment if those with a deeper understanding of the music perceive the new recruits to be running too roughshod over the form. This is doubly true if one introduces money into the equation. It is possible to point to numerous instances of successful artists with only a surface-level knowledge of the form; and this can cause resentment among those with more experience who may be less commercially successful. But as is so often true elsewhere, raw skill or ability doth not a career make, and it is often the more driven and ambitious who achieve success.

Then too, a fair amount of romanticism often accompanies the practice of a tradition like Irish dance or Appalachian flatfooting. Hazy ideas of a grander, simpler time, when we lived in closer harmony with the land and our fellow men, are part of the stock in trade of many expressions of these forms. Often, new arrivals to a community will be caught up in the excitement of learning a new kind of music, and not realize the degree to which they are imagining the nature of the tradition, even as they reinvent it. In Appalachian Music: Examining Popular Assumptions, Ted Olson and Ajay Kalra write,

“… presentations of Appalachian musicians to specific non-native audiences have veered to one of two extremes: the exalted ‘folk’ musician depicted as the keeper of a disappearing heritage, or the unrefined ‘hillbilly” musician stuck in another time and place.”

This process of ascribing inherent virtue to something because we perceive it as being old and having more depth than our own (modern) culture can produce a subtle altering of a tradition as it is refracted through the lens of a new parent culture. I know more than a few American Irish musicians who are avid consumers of many Irish cultural exports. They drink Barry’s Irish tea, and extoll the virtues of soda bread. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and I do not hold myself above this kind of cultural “borrowing.” Guinness is a fine beer, and I myself have been known to wax poetic about the Irish comedy show Father Ted. However I do think it is important to be aware of the ways in which traditions can become diluted if carried too far from the source, if new converts do not respect a deeper connection to the parent culture.

In addition to the imagining of traditions, there is a tendency among some people within the trad scene to define traditions fairly narrowly. The joke goes like this:

Q: “How many old time musicians does it take to change a light bulb?”


This unwillingness to accept that vernacular dance traditions are not static unmoving entities, manifests itself in everything from the kinds of steps that are danced, to the tunes that are played, to the instruments that are acceptable within a certain community. This unwillingness to accept that these traditions are, by their very
nature, not static unmoving entities, manifests itself in everything
from the kinds of steps that are danced, to the tunes that are played,
to the instruments that are acceptable within a certain community. For example, the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (an international organization “involved in the preservation and promotion of Irish traditional music”) has strict rules about the types of instruments that may be used for competition in the Fleadh Cheoil (Irish music competitions). A specific prohibition is made against any and all electrified instruments with the exception of the piano – electric keyboards are allowed. This strikes me as a perfect example of the anomalies that arise when one tries to delineate the boundaries of a tradition with so much specificity. On the one hand the piano exception makes practical sense. Pianos are big and unwieldy to carry around. On the other, is it perhaps somewhat arbitrary to decide what instruments will represent an official version of a tradition based on such criteria? While it makes some sense from a branding perspective for Irish music to situate itself in a preindustrial age, what are the pitfalls of placing a tradition into too narrow a box? I would offer that any form that defines its boundaries too narrowly is cutting itself off from the vital, recursive nature of art. In order to maintain vibrant community participation, we must give successive generations the freedom not just to preserve traditions, but to reinterpret them.

Kicking and Screaming into the Future

The oft-noted changes that the Internet age has wrought upon the wider performing arts world have left their marks on the trad/folk circuit as well. Perhaps surprising, given that these genres often market themselves with a certain down-home folksy charm, and trade at least in part on the idea of being more authentic by virtue of being untouched by the modern world. There’s been a gradual increase, especially in the past 10 years, in the media-savvy of the working artist. I have musician friends who once railed against the “fad of Facebook,” whose websites now boast sidebars with Twitter feeds. This ability to  make the most of the free tools the internet has to offer is increasingly important in a market that is thickly populated with skilled, smart, ambitious artists.

The past decade has seen the emergence of interesting hybrids between old and new technologies and aesthetics. A great example of this is the evolving phenomenon of house concerts. These are small, acoustic music and dance performances held in private homes. With no sound-system or amplification and pedestrian lighting, the ambiance is informal. Usually the audience is limited; anywhere from 10-20 people, who contribute a comparatively small fee for the privilege of hearing music up-close and personal. These events are, in a way, rekindling what music must have been like in a time when it was enjoyed socially in people’s homes, and yet they thrive in the era of social media, and are marketed via Facebook, and captured and shared using Instagram, Vine and other media outlets that are born and evolve with sometimes dizzying speed. Whether the audience finds its way there by word of mouth, or smartphone app, the house concert is a pretty excellent way for artists who are touring to round out their schedules, as the timing is usually flexible and can be worked around larger bookings. An informal “circuit” has sprung up in recent years, and many artists, myself included, find a lot of satisfaction and a bit of extra income by performing in these settings.

Curtain Call

Ultimately this is my work as an artist: to think creatively and constantly about new ways to connect communities. To teach and be taught. To find mentors and to mentor others. It hasn’t really changed that much across generations. I am a teacher/performer/scholar building a triangle of skills suited to navigating a sometimes confusing, daunting, and ever-evolving marketplace for art. Perhaps there was a time when one could just dance, not worry about business, networking, making opportunities out of nothing. But if so, those days are gone. Now, most of us wear many hats out of necessity. We direct, choreograph, teach, stage-manage, rig lights… And far from being depressed by this, I see it as a golden opportunity to scratch all of those artistic itches, and plumb the depths of my own interests and creativity.

My hope for the future is that enough artists put their attention into building and maintaining healthy communities of people who participate in live, interactive performance, that in another 20 years, another 50, or 100, jobs still exist in dance. Work for those who want to give their lives to a craft, to hone their bodies, creativity, skill, and vision. And in return, they give us the sympathetic tingle that indicates a heightened sense of human possibility. They make us believe, however fleetingly, that we can be more than we are.

I go through phases like any artist: periods of fertile creativity and stages of slump and artistic doldrums. But I have never lost the sheer excitement that comes with communicating the joy of what I do to others, of having a conversation using no words. The world in which I work has changed dramatically since I got my start, but I am still in love with the peculiar, ephemeral, magic that is dance. It has been very, very good to me. And for that I am grateful.

Matthew OlwelMatthew 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.

Photos: Top, Emily Oleson and Matthew Olwell of Good Foot Dance Company; center, Good Foot Dance Company; bottom, Matthew Olwell. All courtesy of Matthew Olwell.


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