Dance is an ever-evolving art form. Style draws on inspiration — building upon what’s already been done. But it’s the context and creativity that help to create movement or performance we haven’t exactly seen before. We acknowledge this fusion of dance in styles like contemporary ballet, lyrical hip hop and jazz funk. But another blend of percussive dance styles can be seen in The StepCrew, a dance company fusing Irish stepdance, Ottawa Valley stepdance and tap.
Based in Canada, The StepCrew has toured around North America and the world — bringing the beauty of classic Irish dance, the jaunty jigs of Ottawa Valley and rhythmic tap dance together with Canadian fiddlers, a Scottish vocalist and the Irish band, The Chieftains. The StepCrew dancers include Cara Butler (Irish stepdance), Nathan and Jon Pilatzke (Ottowa Valley stepdance), and Christine Carr and Julie Fitzgerald (tap). Dance Informa was lucky to connect with Butler, who was in New York City for a StepCrew performance this past May. Read on to learn more about Butler’s dance journey, The StepCrew and this unique synthesis of percussive dance and cultural music stylings.
Have you been Irish dancing all your life? What other dance styles did you study growing up?
“Yes, I have been dancing my whole life. I began lessons with the world-renowned Irish dance teacher Donny Golden when I was six and never looked back. It is the only style I formally took classes in.”
Tell us about your performing career. What led you to eventually begin choreographing and experimenting?
“Irish dancing is a very competitive art form. We traveled all over the country and to Ireland many times for regional, national and world competitions. To keep us culturally connected, our teacher involved us in non-competitive performances from a very young age. We danced at shows all over the New York area and had the opportunity to work with Irish dancers from other schools as well. My first tour was with the band Cherish the Ladies, and I eventually became the lead Irish dancer with The Chieftains. I loved the freedom of a live performance and traveling. Opportunities opened up for me to tour with different bands from different genres. I thrived in this ever-changing environment and knew it was what I was born do. What was my passion became my career.”
When did you found The StepCrew, and what inspired you to create the company?
“The StepCrew was created nearly 10 years ago with Jon and Nathan Pilatzke. The three of us met touring with six-time Grammy winners, The Chieftains, and we started working on combining our two styles of dance, Irish and Ottawa Valley stepdancing. The combination worked so well, and audiences loved it, so we decided to expand and create our own show.”
What is Ottawa Valley percussive dance?
“Ottawa Valley stepdancing is one of many forms of Canadian stepdance. It comes from a region northeast of Ottawa but now is taught all across Canada. It is best described as a cross between Irish and tap dancing and is said to have its origins in the lumber camps of the Ottawa Valley. After work, people would unwind and end the day playing fiddle tunes. They would use their feet as percussion to accompany the Irish jigs and reels.”
How do you work to fuse Irish stepdance with other percussive styles without compromising the integrity of the movement?
“Very carefully! It is a creative process of breaking down the steps and then building them up again in your individual form.”
What inspires you to choreograph and create?
“Hands down, music is what moves me. For me, music and dance go hand in hand, and one does not exist without the other. Even if there is no physical movement, the heart dances to the beat of music that inspires you.”
Is your goal to make Irish step dancing more mainstream? Do you have different audience/critical reception depending on where in the world you’re performing?
“Irish dancing is extremely popular since the worldwide success of Riverdance. It would be wonderful to see more percussive styles featured in Broadway shows and connect with audiences around the world. We have been to Japan, and the response there was incredible. The beauty of Irish music combined with this raw kind of percussive dance makes perfect sense — both organic and full of history. It is so important to preserve these art forms but also be open to how to present them.”
It seems like most professional stepdancers began studying at a very young age. Can older dancers still learn the technique? How does stepdance relate to tap or ‘stepping’?
“Older dancers can certainly learn the technique. It can be physically challenging, but if you’re in good shape or strive to be, then there is no better way to do so than to dance!”
Visit www.stepcrew.com for company bios, future tour dates and tickets, and contact information.
By Mary Callahan of Dance Informa.