Recreational dance in Ireland 1940-1960: politics and pleasures
Shanagher, Sean (2014) Recreational dance in Ireland 1940-1960: politics and pleasures. PhD thesis, Dublin City University.
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This investigation can be seen as an 'ethnohistory of dance' that has examined Irish society in the 1940s and 1950s through the 'embodied cultural knowledge' of recreational dance. There has been a particular focus on 'small farmers' and their culture in north Co. Roscommon. It has been established that in the dance halls around Elphin, 'modern dances' such as quicksteps and foxtrots were embraced by the majority of young people during these years. Such moves ran contrary to the thrust of hegemonic 'national-popular' culture, associated with 'Irish dances' such as céilí, and promoted by powerful groups in the young Irish state. On this basis, and challenging perceptions of cultural life at the time as sterile, insular and conservative, it can be said that Irish youths constructed a generational dance culture that was vibrant, outward-looking and pluralist. A type of counter-hegemonic subculture was activated on the basis of dance, music, space and 'deviance'. The discourses of moral panic during the period act as a marker for these tensions. At the same time, another perspective on this dance culture would see it in more conservative terms as related to the rise of the transnational culture industry, as well as to more exclusive processes around 'distinction'. Finally, other findings clearly present the pleasures of attending dances, those related to the moving body, to collective emotions and to 'being together' on the dance floor. Significantly, it has been found that both men and women were immersed in these dancing pleasures, a finding that challenges views of males as reluctant dancers.
Two main theoretical frames have been used to conceptualise dance moves, meanings and events within the research setting. The first, Gramsci's notion of 'cultural hegemony', has allowed recreational dance to be viewed as both undermining and reproducing power. The second has operated at a more microcosmic level, drawing on a critical challenge to the gramscian paradigm in the form of a 'post-hegemony' influenced by radical anthropology and anarchist cultural studies. In particular, Turner's 'communitas' and Malbon's 'playful vitality' have been critically combined to posit a more phenomenological understanding of dance.
Methodologically, the research has centred on forty-five depth interviews carried out over a period of five years of 'yo-yo ethnography'. This data has been complemented by an analysis of census returns from 1946 and 1956, as well as by an examination of the local newspaper, The Roscommon Herald. These methodological considerations have been located within a reflexive approach that has drawn in a deliberate fashion on the researcher's experiences in three ways - first, as a recreational dancer with an embodied understanding of the complexities of dancing; second, as the son of a man who grew up in the research setting; and, third in my role as a male researcher. Together, they have allowed me to see my role as that of 'halfie' ethnohistorian.
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