Salsa at the crossroads.

In the law of unintended consequences one of the more beguiling effects of Tiger full employment was to bring people into Ireland who have unwittingly re-introduced something that we, as a people, probably lost a long time ago.

Celebrating the difference.
Celebrating the difference.

Recently I was in my father’s town of Westport County Mayo I had a great couple of nights to myself as I touched a part of the Irish soul that I thought was extinguished for all time.

To the sound of Salsa music a fine Mayo woman tried to get my shuffling size ten feet to move in time to Latin music.

Salsa dancing gloriously rejects the PC world.

The man always leads.

The woman is in no way subjugated as her movements in the dance are more expressive of what dance was meant to precede than Disco or Rave generation could ever produce.

The Latin world, largely uncontaminated by gringo feminism, never lost sight of the importance of that essential wonderful difference between men and women.

Salsa celebrates that difference.

At the class I attended on Westport the women outnumbered the men. My teenage introduction to the world of dance was in the noisy dark nightclubs in Glasgow in the 1970s.  There is something atomised and narcissistic about the Anglo-Saxon confection that is Disco.  Despite its French name the dance culture of the 1970s was self absorbed, part of a hedonistic drugs culture, which, in its turn, spawned Rave.

One could write a reasonably comprehensive history of the battle for the essence of the Irish as a people by looking at the culture wars that have been fought out in dance.

The native Irish have always been a huge dancing culture. As with most invaders Ireland was able to absorb and Hibernicise the outsider. The English country dancing that was brought to Ireland by garrison troops was turned into Irish Set dancing.

It was a caste of Irish natives who were the biggest cultural threat to the essence of Irish dance.

The Catholic Church in post independence Ireland was equipped with quasi-state power. The Mullahs of Maynooth did their misogynist worst to strangle the sexual content out of damhsa gaelach.

The spirit of Irish dancing was smothered by mother church a long time ago.

The cleric’s fear and loathing of the human body’s sexual power had to police Irish dancing. They did this by, in the main, controlling the venues.

Their godly duty was to excise the sexual from the dance.

They largely succeeded in this task until that night at the Point in 1994 when Jean Butler skipped onto the stage to lock eyes with Michael Flately.

In that moment we were allowed a glimpse of what Irish dancing should be like.

As these two thoroughbreds sizzled on stage everyone knew that this was the Celtic Tiger on heat.

It was this type of choreographed chemistry that outraged catholic churchman Giraldis Cambrensis in the 12 the century when he reported back to the Pope on the loose unchristian ways of the licentious Irish.

When I was in Mayo I spoke with local people who had been Salsa dancing religiously for years including the curate of the local parish! An absolute stalwart of the salsa club and very fine dancer he is as far removed from the John Charles McQuade’s vision as is possible to imagine.

Divested of their medieval robes and now without any temporal powers over civil society priests in contemporary Ireland can actually be nice guys.

No, really.

In the county of the Ballroom of Romance there was a real heartbeat to the Salsa.

At the height of the Tiger boom Mary Harney (who probably shouldn’t take up Salsa) said that Ireland should work out if it wanted to be closer to Boston or Berlin.

She was talking about economic and social policy of course, but it was also about how we viewed ourselves as a people and our place in a globalised world.

My two days of listening to the Salsa beat convinced me that we should think more about whether or not we are closer to London or Havana.

On the Friday after the Wednesday class I found myself having an entirely new experience in an old Mayo pub that I thought I knew well.

Owned by a good friend from my days in Irish mountain rescue I thought I knew the “Shebeen” in Rosbeg.

Every Friday night at the Shebeen a mixture of locals, Brazilian lads and anyone else who fancies it dance Salsa, meringue and the beguiling bachata.

This isn’t the tacky meat market of city nightclubs nor is it the home of the elderly feel that some ceilis have around the country.

Everyone who is there wants to dance.

There was an agreeable absence of drunken young men looking for the fight, which they inevitably find around closing time. As our town centres become increasingly infested with chemically altered lads and ladettes Salsa seems a perfect antidote to Essex culture.

The Thames estuary model of beguiling womanhood (helplessly drunk, in a ludicrously short skirt and tottering on impossibly high heels while wailing and swearing into a mobile phone or at a pub bouncer) does not do it for this man.

By contrast the rhythmic movements of Salsa and the other Latin dances transform the female form into something utterly hypnotic and totally ladylike.

That is an elegant achievement for any culture.

At the Shebeen that Friday night the pick of the bunch, by an Irish mile, was a Spanish angel who has, of course, this dancing in her blood.

However the Irish ladies there seemed fully naturalised into the Latin way of celebrating their femininity to music.

It was just wonderful to watch.

De Valera’s “comely maidens” were never meant to be like this!

His vision for Ireland, despite his Cuban blood and his fondness for the Latin mass, was about as Un-Latin as you could get.

Maybe if De Valera had danced Salsa we wouldn’t have ended up with the grey nightmare that was HIS Ireland.

The past is De Valera’s country.

Tomorrow can be better.

When I got back to Donegal my youngest daughter was enthused about another day of learning Hip Hop.

She loves it and she is given every encouragement, but what I’ve seen of this cultural offering from America’s black ghettoes with its disjointed, jerky body movements seem to have more to do with Crack than Craic.

I wonder if she would be better learning from South America than North America?

I would certainly love my two daughters to Salsa dance at their weddings.

If you’re reading this and you can move and count then you can dance.

Get to a Salsa club and feel just that little bit more alive.

I know I do………………..

http://www.salsa.ie/