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Riverdance as Gaeilge is Uisce Beatha, which is also the term for whiskey. PA Archive/PA Images

The Irish For How did Irish céilí dancing end up with a waltz but no tango?

Dances and words travel between cultures in a similar way, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

THIS IS THE latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy. 

November has arrived, a month with little to offer aside from Halloween hangovers, Scorpio birthdays, debates over poppy-wearing and widespread grousing about early Christmas advertising.

For word nerds, November is interesting in that it is the only month in the phonetic alphabet representing the letter N. The NATO phonetic alphabet (the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie one), widely used in call centres, dates back to 1956.

In keeping with NATO’s multilateral aspirations, certain existing entries like King for K, Queen for Q and London for L, were replaced with less specifically British terms such as Kilo, Quebec, Lima.

That alphabet includes two dances: T for tango and F for foxtrot.

If you’re a fan of Strictly Come Dancing and/or have spent summers at Irish colleges in the Gaeltacht, you may have watched the foxtrots and tangos and waltzes and wondered: who decided that ballroom didn’t include Irish set dances? And how did Irish céilí dancing end up with a waltz but no tango?

The second question is especially thought-provoking when you consider that Argentina had a substantial Irish population in the decades when the tango style of dance and music was forming.

In fact, the tango’s Riverdance moment was in a scene in the 1921 film directed by Dublin-born Rex Ingram called Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, when Rudolph Valentino danced it in the role that made him a star. 

Dances and words travel from one culture to another through a similar process, but dance has an ability to spread more quickly because two or more people can do it even if they are unable to speak to each other.

Dance can also be watched passively while the transfer of loanwords requires a certain amount of engagement. Having said that, neither the movements of people nor of ideas tend to be two-way streets.

Despite occasional exceptions, like Evelyn’s mysterious suitor in Dubliners who wanted her to return with him to Buenos Aires, Irish migrants to Argentina rarely came back to bring ideas and fashions and loanwords with them.

When the tango did arrive in Ireland, it did so as an established ballroom dancing favourite rather than being started at some céilí by a returned migrant who everyone decided to imitate.

More’s the pity, the tango’s scandalous reputation had preceded it and there was a moral panic about the dance until it had been made respectable by a performance at a London ball before the Duke of Marlborough.

The more respectable waltz arrived in Ireland much earlier and was widely requested of the travelling dance masters who went from village to village in the 18th century. It therefore had become a fixture in Ireland before ballroom dancing and Irish dancing rules were formalised.

Even so, Father Dinneen did not include a translation for waltz (válsa) in his 1904 Irish-English dictionary.

This decision may have been an oversight, or it may have been informed by a controversy at the 1901 Oireachtas when a dance performance by the London Gaels was criticised for not being Irish enough because of their inclusion of such foreign elements.

However, Dinneen did offer his views on the difference between two words for dancing in Irish, noting that in Munster, rince is used for human dancing while damhsa is “used of the sportive leaping of cattle”.

A quarter of a century has now passed since Riverdance changed global perceptions of Irish dancing. However, this is its English name and does not feature in the lyrics of the accompanying music.

Its Irish name, Uisce Beatha, the water of life, is also the name for whiskey – the W in the NATO phonetic alphabet. So, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that this alphabet actually contains three dances. 


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