It is no surprise that Emma O’Sullivan found her way to sean nós, one of the most traditional styles of Irish dance.
“Growing up, my family would play jigs and reels for us in my Grandmother’s kitchen, while my cousins and I danced simple steps across the floor,” she tells Celtic Life International via email. “My great grandfather’s home was once the local Rambling House, where village people gathered to sing, dance, play music and tell old stories. The family kept this tradition alive by always encouraging the next generation to perform their ‘party piece.’ I learned steps watching relations and neighbors dance at family gatherings. This is how most people picked up the traditions of the area I grew up, which is Connemara.”
Situated in County Galway, Connemara is a magical, mythical part of the Emerald Isle that O’Sullivan calls “the heartland of Sean Nós dancing.”
“I was lucky to have been exposed to this beautiful and rare tradition over the years. I started listening to Irish music as a baby so I suppose it was only natural that I would become a dancer.”
As she explains, Sean Nós translates to the “old way” in English.
“Generally, you will spot a Sean Nós dancer by their tidy footwork. It is close to the floor, battering movements paired with a loose upper body. We don’t concern ourselves with the aesthetics. A lot of our focus is on sound when we dance. I just let the steps flow out as they come. When I dance, I am thinking about sharing an emotion and beating the notes of the tune.”
Since taking her first steps, O’Sullivan has enjoyed an impressive career. Among her most notable achievements was winning the All-Ireland Sean-Nós Dancing title at Oireachtas na Samhna in Letterkenny at the age of 24.
Now, just over 10 years later, she notes that her reasons for participating in Irish dance have changed.
“I now realize its power. It brings people to another world and helps them forget their problems for a little while.”
“Dance can be very therapeutic, and this is something of great interest to me. It informs my own dance practice and it is something I explore in my performances. Now, my dancing is all about connecting with the audience.”
Although her career has been rich with rewards – travel and teaching being foremost – she admits that the vocation has not been without its challenges.
“You really have to be adaptable and resilient. You put yourself out there so much as a performer and that can make you vulnerable.
“Still, it is simply amazing to see an audience lift when you take the floor. And it is also wonderful to spend time doing what you love and knowing that you are promoting your heritage and culture.”
In 2015, O’Sullivan helped to bring the “old way” back to life by releasing a dance tutorial DVD for beginners titled Step by Step. Set amongst the scenery of her hometown, and accompanied by music from John O’Holleran, the video breaks down 16-reel steps, ranging from beginner to more advanced. It also includes a short tour of western Ireland, highlighting the stunning scenery of Galway and – in particular – Connemara.
“I wanted something that a viewer could sit back and enjoy. Or, if they found the inspiration, something to get up and dance to. In the tour section I stop to perform dances with live music at scenic locations, recount the history of sean nós dance, and share a little of my own story and background as well. I wanted that part to be like a beautiful video postcard of home a chance to showcase the region’s stunning natural landscape. I can imagine all of these people around the world dancing along with the DVD, and that helps me to feel very connected to them.”
O’Sullivan explains that she expects 2020 will to be a particularly busy year.
“Galway is the designated European Capital of Culture for 2020 and we are all so excited! We are expecting many new visitors to the region and I am looking forward to entertaining at events both in the city and across the county. I will be offering dance experiences to international visitors of Galway, while also continuing to provide workshops further abroad.”