An Irish/Montserratian encounter at St. Augustine School

What a great event! The Skype call began promptly at 9:30am with the Irish and Montserratian students greeting each other via video chat. Everyone here was dressed in the appropriate colors for St. Patrick’s Day: lots of green, lots of white, and lots of national dress as well (which is a combination of Montserrat’s colors: green, orange, and white). The assembly area was decorated with shamrocks and other Irish-themed paraphernalia.

There was a lot of exchange back and forth as the students took turns asking and answering questions and talking about what their school is like. Students at Gaelscoile d’ide Primary School in Fermoy, Co. Cork told the students at St. Augustine about some of their favorite hobbies, such as hurling (an uniquely Irish sport), and about what a typical day at school is like. They also sang some songs and said some prayers.

The St. Augustine students talked about their Irish surnames—Rhonda Allen spoke by herself about her Irish surname and her interest in cooking. The students spoke some of the Irish they have learned recently, and they also sang some songs.

The dancers did a wonderful job demonstrating what they’ve learned over the past two months! They were focused and took it seriously and the céili dance looked beautiful. It was hard to know what the Irish students thought, but I’ll bet they were impressed! (See video below.)

Then the masquerade dancers demonstrated what they do, with their elaborate and colorful costumes and rousing drums. The dance is definitely similar to Irish dance, but also extremely unique.

Finally, the steel pan orchestra played a few songs. As a novice panner, I can say that these children are really good. It’s not an easy instrument and it takes a lot of teamwork to make it all work together!

Congratulations to all involved, and thank you to Graham Clifford (of the Irish Independent), Mrs. Claudia Skerritt (St. Augustine’s principal), and all the teachers at both St. Augustine and Gaelscoile d’ide Primary School. Hopefully this connection and friendship will continue!

Here are some visual highlights from the morning:

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St. Augustine students sit quietly as they wait for the Skype call to begin. They are wearing beautiful colors today!

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Graham Clifford of the Irish Independent newspaper sets up the Skype call on his laptop.

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The young students wave hello to their new friends in Fermoy, Co. Cork, Ireland!

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Irish dancers take center stage!

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Space was tight, but this was the most successful “waves” we’ve ever done!

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The masquerade dancers show what Montserratian traditional dance looks like—Teacher Sarah Allen describes it as a combination of Irish and African movements, but emphasizes that it is uniquely Montserratian (distinct also from the masquerade dances of other nearby Caribbean islands).

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Herman “Cupid” Francis explains to the Irish students the history of steel pans.

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The students give an impressive performance on the steel pans!


A whole slew of rhythms at Lookout Primary School

This afternoon was all about rhythm (more so than usual) at Lookout Primary School. The drumming class reviewed every rhythm we’ve learned over the past couple of months, and the students remembered them well! We also had a reprisal of “Dracula” from last week.

The dance class was small this week, but very concentrated. These girls at Lookout are some of our most creative and focused students. They are always adding their own twist to the steps and choreography, and they are always interested in breaking down the footwork so they can learn it properly. Their hard work does not go unnoticed!

We focused this week on sean-nós steps, including the basic step and heel/toe steps. We even put together a simple choreography, using the steps to move around the room and dance together in a circle. I explained where sean-nós comes from (the West of Ireland) and that it’s a older style that is more rhythmic than the céili dancing we’ve been doing lately.

It was an afternoon all about rhythm!

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St. Augustine students not only dance Irish, but they speak it too!

Today we had a special visitor at St. Augustine’s during the younger girls’ (grades K-2) class: Father George from St. Patrick’s Church in Lookout stopped by to watch the class, so we had an audience! The girls did a great job showing him the “Cotton Eyed Joe” dance they’ve been working on for the past few weeks.

I was also thrilled to see that some of the girls are practicing jumps from Irish dance, and jumps that I’ve never even shown them! I’m not sure where they saw “quivers” and “scissors,” but they were doing them! Very impressive.

This week I gave them a short lesson so that they can learn a few Irish phrases, but I was surprised to find that they already know some! They didn’t know how to say “hello” (“dia dhuit”) but they do know how to say “thank you” (go raibh mait agat”) and “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” (“Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhuit”). That last one was new to me, so, you see, I’m learning from them too!

The older (grades 2-6) girls worked on their performance piece since we have a couple opportunities to show off our new skills during the St. Patrick’s Festival…which is fast approaching! We still need to work on our straight lines and working together as a team, but overall things are looking good.

Here are the younger girls practicing their skips and kicks:

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Dancing and drumming blend together at Brades

Yesterday at Brades Primary School was the first time that we had truly “blended rhythms” when the drummers played for the dancers! The dancers started with a warm-up around the room to get used to the new music, and it only took a few minutes for everyone to get a hang of it. The rhythms are essentially exactly the same, but the drums just sound a little different from the Irish fiddle and accordion 🙂

Putting the dancing and drumming together was a great experience. Not only do the rhythms blend surprisingly well, but the students (both dancers and drummers) seemed to focus more, since they knew they were relying on each other for the collaboration to work. And they also seemed to feel a bit more pressure with a new audience!

And the dancers learned, of course, to always bow to (or otherwise acknowledge) their musicians after dancing.

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“Dracula” takes over Lookout’s drumming class

This afternoon at Lookout, the drumming class was invaded by the “Dracula System”! The catchy calypso by this year’s calypso and soca monarch, King Baptiste Wallace, was the tune of choice while the students were playing the assiko rhythm. They were moving and grooving to the beat, and spontaneously burst out in song: “I been working night and day…for the same old salary! Although I get paid…it makes me angry! Dracula…take your money! Dracula…suck your money! It is Dracula System…it makes no sense!” Check out the video to hear the boys’ rendition of this most popular song of the year.

This student in particular was having a blast:

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Dance class was small but focused this week. The girls worked on performance choreography, breaking down some of the steps and working on keeping straight lines and round circles. Stay tuned for news on when and where these students will be performing this self-choreographed céili dance!

More outdoor rhythmic exercises with St. Augustine students

This week we were outside at Little Bay field again with the students from St. Augustine, and once again we lucked out with the rain (which is always unpredictable here in Montserrat).

The drummers worked on the same rhythms they’ve been practicing for the past few weeks, including assiko and kassa breaks. This time a few of the girls who usually do the Irish dance class decided to drum instead, so there was some good cross-over!

The dancers worked more on a possible performance piece, this time incorporating the “waves” from the Waves of Tory céíli dance and their own version of the “body wave,” which is different from the Brades students’ “hand wave.” I guess every school has its own flavor!

We also did skip two threes all the way around the track, which was the crazy suggestion of one of the girls. A quarter mile is much longer than it looks! We were all huffing and puffing by the end.

This week one of our students took a long video of the drumming class, and I’m happy to have his unique perspective on the class. It’s always good to have different videographers to look at things through a fresh eye!

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Budding choreographers create their own céili dance at Lookout

This afternoon at Lookout Primary School had its highs and low. The drumming class started off well, and the students seemed to be enjoying the rhythms, and they even started spontaneously singing along while they played! Unfortunately, their behavior got a little out of hand and we had to end the class early. Discipline and respect are an important part of the class, so they’ll have another chance next week to prove that they can focus and follow instructions.

The dancers, however, were wonderful today! When class started, they asked if they could show me a céili dance that they created themselves over the past week. Can you believe it? Just a few weeks, and they’re already choreographers! They took figures that we’ve done in class before and combined them in their own unique way, even adapting the figures for larger numbers of dancers to fit just four people.

This spark of creativity was so thrilling that I was inspired to add on some more difficult movements. We added some complicated arm movements that are common in “2 hand” or “3 hand” Irish dances. We also incorporated the “do-si-do” from American contra dancing or square dancing, and I gave them the option of spinning while do-si-do-ing, so they were introduced to “spotting” to avoid getting dizzy.

One girl was doing a sort of Charleston step during breaks, so we threw that into the mix as well. We’re getting quite eclectic up in Lookout!

At the end of class, I had to take a minute to thank the girls for their attention and creativity. I don’t take it for granted that they have been showing such initiative and interest, and I am truly appreciative. This is very promising for St. Patrick’s Day coming up in a few weeks!

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Kilkenny, er, Little Bay Races

Today we were outside again with St. Augustine School at Little Bay Field. It was a beautiful sunny day, so the drummers set themselves up in the shade, but the dancers had to deal with the hot sun. Luckily there was a sprinkler nearby so we could cool off every once and a while!

We made use of the the track lines this time and had some races across the field doing “skip 23s” (straighten out those legs!) and “over 23s” (jump high and kick your butt!). The “over 23s” were new this week because we’ve never had enough to space to work on them properly. They’re difficult to get the hang of, but lots of fun to fly through the air.

In Irish dance, there is a dance called “Kilkenny Races,” so I’m calling today’s exercise “Little Bay Races” 🙂

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The dancers also worked on another céili dance, incorporating the bridge from last week, as well as the salsa step. But this time, we first did the “Irish” version of the step (with straight hips), and then we spiced it up to do the “salsa” version (with hips).

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At the end of class, the girls wanted to do “real” bridges, so we worked on some back flexibility. Shay-Reese here has a great bridge, and she was even able to kick over with some help!

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The drummers reviewed the assiko rhythms and other breaks from previous weeks. At this point, we’re trying not to add too much because the performances are coming up soon. St. Patrick’s Day is one month from today, so it’s time to start polishing things up!

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Valentine’s Day Céili Dance (with waves and a clap)

Today was a very pink and red class at Brades School, and the color coordination made the dance look even better! The girls are really dancing beautifully now that they are paying more attention to staying in straight lines and coordinating with one another. Look at those lovely waves! That takes teamwork.

The “waves” also inspired the girls to add their own flair to end of the dance–a hand wave with a clap. Again, their creative input is wonderful!

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Before the drumming class, some of the boys were playing some rhythmon the masquerade drums. It was brilliant! I’ve seen them dance, but haven’t heard many of them on the drums. These young kids are really talented!

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Palms, heels, and a lot of swinging in adult classes

Our hands got a workout on the drums as we reviewed the sounou rhythm from last week and then put together a long string of patterns from the kassa rhythm family. A real test of memory! It requires careful listening to the breaks and attention to the subtleties of the rhythm. I know my palms were burning and my wrists were getting tired, but that can only mean progress, right?

Then we gave our hands a rest and focused on our feet in Irish dance class. We reviewed the basic step from sean-nós and then learned a new step with lots of heels and lots of toes. After a short water break, we introduced a new Irish dance style: set dancing, which is a social dance similar to square dancing or quadrilles. We had five couples instead of four, so we adapted a combination of set dance figures to make the dance work with any number of couples.

This was the first time we really got to swing a lot, and I made sure everyone had a chance to feel the momentum by swinging with each student one at a time. At first it can make you really dizzy, but once you master the control (and remember to breathe!), it’s so much fun! Eventually we’ll incorporate this sense of speed and momentum into the “Christmas” figure, when we get into a tight circle and spin around as fast as possible.

After class yesterday, one of our students told us that she always feels happy after drumming and dancing, and that the feeling lasts her the rest of the week. We love that kind of feedback! We’re so happy that people are enjoying the workshops as much as we are 🙂

Dominique provides individual hands-on help on the drums to help with technique, and Kate dances with each student individually so they can experience the thrill of a fast set dance swing:




correction: the video says “assiko,” but we were actually playing kassa breaks