Irish Step Dance As Passionate Prayer

This evening, my husband and I attended a dance celebrating the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians. This, after all, this the month that honors the Irish. We saw some very talented young Irish step dancers perform and I was struck by the beauty achieved in the disciplined restraint of their motions. Irish step dancers do not move their arms. Yet with this supposed restriction, their legs leap and their feet pound the floor with precision and passion. It reminded me of my poems about the marionette, “The Marionette’s Manifesto” in which the speaker asserts, “It’s dancing through restraint that is the test.”

What a fitting dance for Ireland, a country that has such a long history of being oppressed and yet a thriving legacy of great literature and music. Nothing kept the Irish from riveting music, from epic poetry, or from dance. Though their arms have been bound through the centuries, their legs have thrashed with beauty. Truly this dance is metaphor for the powerful beauty that can be forged through restraint, as in poetry written in form for example. Some writers, myself included, love the artistic Houdini act, the art of freeing oneself through the seeming shackles of rhyme and meter. Irish step dancing, like a sonnet or any other art achieved through certain rules and restrictions can be likened to the art of living through challenges. “Grace under pressure,” my father used to advise. That is its own prayer, isn’t it?

Maire Brennan, the great Irish singer, sings passionately of finding beauty in spite of obstacles in, “Against the Wind.”

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The Marionette’s Manifesto


I’d like to shake your hand. Come, pull my string.
It’s nice to meet you. Call me Marion.
I’ve dropped the “ette.” I’m never one to cling
to lame conventions. Libertarian—
that’s me. I always choose the things I can.
My smile never fades; my eyes don’t blink.
I’m like a painted Bodhisattva—scan
each audience for worship, laughter—think:
what brought them here to gaze? Watch how I twirl.
The wooden dance is beautiful, absurd.
I move for the Manipulator, whirl—
within a cage of strings. I am the bird
whose flight depends upon a coop of strands—
dangling from the Manipulator’s hands.


Dangling from the Manipulator’s hands,
I’m born. The other puppets think he’s God.
He made me. But this caught doll understands
that even though he makes me bow and nod,
chose auburn for my hair, blue for my eyes—
he didn’t make himself. Someone made him.
He wasn’t always there. I’ve been called wise
by some; faithless by others—but this hymn
of skepticism is my silent song.
God might be in the trees; trees gave the wood
that gave me life. I don’t think it is wrong,
without a sacred image to find good
and holiness in roots and leaves and trunks.
But maybe they’re not gods—just swaying monks.


But maybe they’re not gods—just swaying monks.
Does wind manipulate them, make them thrash?
Whoever made the air that makes trees dunk
their leaves into the lake; each shifting crash
of pressure—high to low, I think that one
designed freedom in order—just the way
the sunset colors vary but the sun
sets every night. Just so, my strings, each day,
allowing me to move. Oh, ordered flight.
Passion can soar within constraints. And who
on earth can be completely free? Each night
she’ll tire, need to rest. My point of view:
Free will is choosing what you can. The rest?
It’s dancing through restraint—that is the test.

—Annabelle Moseley
From A Ship to Hold the World and The Marionette’s Ascent