When we got word that a tiny town called Fergus in Ontario, Canada, was hosting a weekend of Irish music and sean nós dance workshops, we didn’t even have to think about it—we knew we needed to be there. The event was called the Spring Rain Féis Weekend, and we were instantly intrigued by the idea of spending an entire weekend learning all the things that speak directly to our nerdy Irish hearts. Workshops devoted specifically to Irish language, fiddle, bodhran, sean nós dance, and Canadian step dance? Taught by respected musicians and dancers from Canada and Ireland? It was a no-brainer.
Along with our good friend Catherine, we decided to pack up Kiernan’s trusty Honda Accord and hit the road—all the way to Canada. It was a long journey (thanks be to Jaysus for multiple drivers!), and involved more than a few mishaps. Here’s what happened during our adventure to Canada.
Kansas City to Detroit to Canada
Now, folks, if any of you have ever made the drive to the Great White North, you know that doing the drive in one day is rough. Luckily, we had some lovely friends in Detroit who were willing to put us up for a night (Thanks, Yesbin and T.J. !). And since we knew we were going to be in Detroit and we’re all big fans of Motown, we naturally had to make a stop at the Motown Museum.
It was in the original studios that were in the home of the one-and-only Berry Gordy. AND they have a killer gift shop. Basically, people, this place is totally worth the stop if you’re in the part of the country.
After hitting up the original headquarters of Motown, we were bound for the border. Now, folks, this is where things got a bit hairy for us. Who here knows what Nexus is? Well, after a small fiasco, we DEFINITELY know what Nexus is – silly us.
DON’T GO THROUGH THE NEXUS LINE WHEN YOU’RE CROSSING THE BORDER. THEY WILL DETAIN YOU.
Anyhoo, we made it into Canada and quickly learned how to convert miles to kilometers as well as where all the nearest Tim Horton’s are. This was a priority.
After driving about four hours from the border, we made it to Fergus just in time for our first round of workshops. Halleluja! Just in time. Here’s how we each experienced our workshops throughout the weekend.
The most difficult thing about falling in love with sean nós dance is that very few people in Kansas City actually know what it is, much less how to actually dance it. Fortunately, my friend Catherine (who is another founding member of Céilí at the Crossroads) has as keen an interest as myself, and over the years we’ve both taken to teaching ourselves and each other steps and putting together routines for the girls in our group.
The fact that the Spring Rain Feís Weekend featured workshops led by Liam Scanlon, an incredibly talented and highly respected sean nòs dancer from County Mayo, made this an opportunity we simply couldn’t pass up. And Liam did not disappoint.
One of the first things that Liam mentioned about sean nós, “old style” dance is that it is not considered “learned” dancing. That is to say, back in the day, no one actually taught sean nós (which is itself a relatively new, catch-all term). It’s a form of dance you learn by:
- watching other dancers and picking up steps
- taking those steps and interpreting them in your own way
- improvising to the music as you go along
In fact, Liam said throughout his workshops that we could do the steps the way he taught them…or not. It was entirely up to us as individuals what we wanted to do with the rhythms and the music. What a liberating notion! As a trained dancer in “learned” competitive Irish step dancing, however, this proved to be uniquely challenging. After fumbling awkwardly through some on-the-spot dancing, I asked Liam about this.
“Do you know what you’re going to do every time you come out and dance?” I asked. Liam told me:
“I have some idea, yes. Most dancers have their favorite steps that they know they’re going to use. They also have ‘their’ tunes that they like to dance to. Having a musician that you really like to work with is also really helpful.”
For the record, Liam has a distinct “bounce” to his steps that belongs uniquely to him. The guy can batter out these lovely rhythms on the spot and seamlessly change them up at will. It’s pretty remarkable. Case in point:
By the 2nd workshop, I found myself loosening up—I felt the music as opposed to simply listening to it. I let my feet move accordingly, beating out steps and rhythms that popped into my head as they came to me. Some worked, others didn’t. But it was freeing all the same.
By the 3rd workshop—a barrel/brush dance workshop—I was a hopping maniac. Improvising on the broom as well as a first foray dancing on a barrel made the entire Spring Rain Feís Weekend for me. See below:
Being able to watch Liam dance in person, to pick his brain about dancing, and to learn a few of the steps that he himself uses, was immensely encouraging and just a hell of a lot of fun. It’s an experience I’ll carry with me forever.
I DID also take a couple of Canadian Step Dance workshops, but that will be a post all on its own!
Music, Dancing, and Language
Due to my intense love of all things Irish as well as a certain inability to make up my mind, I took workshops in sean nós dance, fiddling, and Irish language.
My weekend began with the beginner sean nós dance workshop. Although Kiernan has been kind enough to teach some of the basics over the years, I absolutely do not qualify for anything remotely beyond beginner. Liam Scanlon taught this workshop which was a blast – I certainly feel more qualified than I did previously to bust out a couple basic steps. He also is a graduate of my upcoming alma mater, University of Limerick. Who knew you could make such connections in a small charming town in Canada?
Fiddling was my main music workshop. I also went through a slight breakdown when I left my fiddle on the roof of the car and drove off. Silly me. It was in that moment that I knew investing in a good instrument case is totally worth it. Oh, the relief! But I digress. The fiddling workshop was grand (website puns! yay us!). I did go into it knowing some of the basics, but because my training is almost entirely classical, I was able to pick up some very useful tips that I look forward to trying out at the next KC trad session.
Above: an impromptu trad jam that we happened upon during the féis.
Then onto language. Now folks, I have always loved the sound of Irish but, because of its phonetic system, I’ve never had any hope that I’d be able to speak it properly. Granted, I’m certainly not fluent after one workshop, but I now know some of the basics. The teacher was lovely and taught the class over a cup of tea – wonderful!
The best takeaway from the weekend is that it helped renew some of the inspiration I’d felt waning in the couple weeks leading up to the trip. Needless to say, almost every free moment I’ve had since returning to KC has been spent with Irish music.
The Spring Rain Féis Weekend was fantastic. Many thanks to the wonderful Marilyn Abraham for reaching out and inviting us! If you have an interest in spending a weekend soaking up all the Irish music and dance you can handle, then a Canadian adventure of your own might be in your future. And for the record, we made it safely back over the border with no issues. No Nexus mishaps for us! Til next time, folks!