Countdown to BCMFest 2019: Kieran Jordan

[Part of a series of semi-regular posts to acquaint you with the people, events and happenings at BCMFest 2019 (January 17-20). For more information, and to purchase tickets, see the BCMFest website.]

Irish dance performer, teacher and choreographer Kieran Jordan has been an important figure in Boston’s Celtic music and dance community for the better part of two decades — and a welcome presence at BCMFest since the festival’s beginning (here’s a video of Kieran at BCMFest 2016 with Armand Aromin and Benedict Gagliardi). 

Even as she’s worked to preserve dance traditions, especially sean-nós (old style), Kieran has gained acclaim as an innovator whose choreography utilizes Irish dance to express themes and narratives. And perhaps most importantly, Kieran has made Irish dance a focal point of community activity – something that can be shared and appreciated even by non-dancers – through events at her studio.

We talked with Kieran recently about the important influences in her development as a dancer, and why her appearance at BCMFest 2019 will be a meaningful one for her, in the midst of a very challenging period of her life.

Kieran Jordan

Kieran, it’s been about two years since you opened your own studio: How has it worked out?

KIERAN: I love my studio! It’s cozy and private, with a perfect dance floor, and an easy commute (for me). Business-wise, I took a risk by moving to a new area. My programs were based mostly in Central Square in Cambridge for many many years, but at this point in my life, I just needed to move things closer to home. I live in Dorchester, and the studio is in Hyde Park. There are so many dance and music classes, gigs, and activities in the Cambridge/Somerville area, but I believe that all neighborhoods need, and deserve, a gathering place for music, dance, creative work and community. We’ve had some great times at my studio these last two years: open-house parties, intimate performances, talks, guest workshops, and art shows, in addition to my regular classes. I realize that it is not nearby for everyone, but I think it’s unique and worth making the trip.

When you think about the community in which you grew up, and where you took up Irish dance, what stands out? What were the places, activities, resources, etc., that on a day-in/week-out basis, helped you to become a dancer?

KIERAN: I grew up in Philadelphia, and my Irish dancing was a huge part of our family life. When I came to Boston — as a student at Boston College — it was really Seamus Connolly and the Irish Studies and Gaelic Roots programs there that introduced me to the wider community I am still part of today. As a child, I was going to classes and feisanna, céilís and community performances. As a college student, I started going to pub sessions and festivals, and collaborating closely with musicians. I’ve had so many rich experiences — travel, gigs in funny/odd places, multi-generational friendships and collaborations. One of my favorite aspects of my life as a dancer is just to sit with a couple musicians around a kitchen table and map out a set list or brainstorm ideas — try out some tunes, fit some steps together, drink tea, see how it all unfolds. It’s the friendships and the shared love of music that really make the magic happen later on stage.

Who are some of the people who were key to your development as an Irish dancer?

KIERAN: I never really had one mentor for my dancing. I was a shy kid and sort of in the middle of the pack, technically, as competitive step dancer. I starting finding my “voice” as a dancer later on, in my college years and my 20s, when I began to really devote myself to choreography and solo performing. Since then, there have been many many dancers and musicians who have influenced and inspired me: Irish dance master Joe O’Donovan; percussive dancer Sandy Silva; folklorist, musician, and producer Mick Moloney; many teachers I studied with in Ireland at UCC and later at University of Limerick; Aidan Vaughan, of course — one of the biggest influences on my sean-nós dancing. More recently, musician and dancer Michael Tubridy.

We know this past year or so has been a difficult one for you due to health reasons — can you talk about that?

KIERAN: I got sick in July of 2017 with what was diagnosed — nine months later — as Lyme disease and co-infections. Those were a very scary and lonely nine months. Once I got the diagnosis, I started writing and sharing my story very publicly on Facebook and GoFundMe. I am still dealing with symptoms of active infection and still doing many forms of treatment. On a day-to-day basis, this is still scary and lonely, but the support from family, friends, and our wider music and dance community has been incredible. I am eternally grateful and uplifted by that.

I never wanted to be defined by this illness; I much prefer my identity as a dancer than a Lyme patient. But I have learned that Lyme is so often missed and misdiagnosed, and the tests are often inaccurate, and there is no single standard of care for treatment, and most Lyme-literate doctors doctors do not take insurance. So, basically, it’s under-researched, and controversial, and hugely challenging for people who often remain sick for a very long time. Lyme is so prevalent in our area — throughout the Northeast, and in Ireland as well. So, while none of this was my choice or my plan, I am happy to be vocal about what I’m going through, if my story raises awareness for others who might be affected by this.

                           *  *  *  *

“I have learned to live one day at a time,” says Kieran. “For someone who is self-employed, as a producer of events, and a planner, that has been a radical shift for me. I have learned to say ‘no’ more often and to be unapologetic about the time needed for my self-care […] I have learned to ask for help, and to accept kindness and generosity from others.”

                             *  *  *  *

How has it affected you as an artist — not just physically but emotionally and spiritually?

KIERAN: Artistically, well, this has flattened me. I have never been so physically debilitated, or so emotionally challenged. Anxiety and depression and insomnia are common symptoms of Lyme, and all the financial worries, and all the time spent going from one doctor to the next, and all of the research, and all of the sickness – what can I say? This is hard. I have learned to live one day at a time. For someone who is self-employed, as a producer of events, and a planner, that has been a radical shift for me. I have learned to say “no” more often and to be unapologetic about the time needed for my self-care. I have managed to keep a few classes going locally, but I’ve had to give up many other gigs and jobs that I love. I have managed to keep a few (just a few) of my big commitments — like teaching in Ireland last summer at the Willie Clancy Summer School — and I’ve learned to appreciate my strength when I have victories like that. I have learned to ask for help, and to accept kindness and generosity from others.

Having experienced all this, what will your BCMFest performance be like?

KIERAN: When I applied to BCMFest in September, I thought it would be a good, manageable goal for me to work towards. Many people are used to seeing me perform with my group, Kieran Jordan Dance, but I applied this time as a soloist — to make a dance about some of this journey. And it has been good for my physical and mental health to work on this project. I still have lots of work to do! My healing has not been a straight line but a very bumpy path with lots of relapsing and discouraging setbacks. Spiritually, I try to accept my vulnerability, while trying hard to find my inner grace and grit. At BCMFest, I will be attempting to dance all of that.

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