Michael Harding: My courageous farmer friend fights his loneliness by dancing

Old dancers used to be lionised for their steps, because their exuberance contrasted with their seniority, evoking both awe and pity in the tragic ritual

I had lunch with a friend last week who farms the land his grandparents were born on. Now a widower, with his family scattered, he spends January feeding calves, cleaning ivy from trees and ensuring that outside pipes are well insulated.

In his house there is a long kitchen with an oak table at one end and a range at the other though he doesn’t cut turf any more.

“There’s enough in the shed,” he says, “to do me a lifetime.”

We were tucking into plates of roast beef in the hotel.


“Are you lonely?” I wondered.

“Not at all,” he replied, “I dance twice a week.”

I almost spluttered out a mouthful of masticated carrots with the shock.

“Dancing! At your age?”

“Yes,” he said. “For exercise. There are classes in the local hall.”

He’s 10 years older than me but he doesn’t worry about being overweight. He doesn’t bother with the gym, the bicycle or a treadmill.

That evening I Googled “Dancing Classes in Leitrim” out of curiosity.

The first website that surfaced displayed images of little girls in tutus, and details about beginner classes. The next one displayed a man as old as myself in a suit jiving with a young woman. That looked promising until I realised it was €75 per hour for one-to-one lessons. I’d need a fortune just to master the waltz.

And then I discovered Edwina Guckian and her sean-nós dancing website.

I saw her show at Christmas in Donegal. Four musicians and a singer joined her on stage as she led the audience through the history of sean-nós giving illustrations of various dances and styles.

For Edwina, sean-nós is a vital part of Irish culture and a way of dancing that is creative and expressive of a person’s inner self. And it’s fair to say that her profile has transformed the image of sean-nós dancing in Ireland.

There are multiple videos of her on YouTube dancing on top of tables, hills, walls, wooden barrels and on various stages. Her reimagining of sean-nós dance rings true and authentic.

The sean-nós I remember was a bit more unruly. It was exemplified by elderly men in the lounge of the Glan Bar in west Cavan 50 years ago. Musicians played wilder with each round of drinks while young couples huddled in clouds of cheap aftershave and perfume, readying themselves for the potential intimacies of waltzing in the parish hall later on.

Eventually some old man in the corner would put down his pipe of tobacco and leap into the centre of the lounge, rattling his boots on the floor, in the hope of rising sparks. The boots never quite brought sparks up because the linoleum softened the impact of the feet and the barman who disapproved of men leaping up and down in his bar would traverse the dancer’s pathway with empty glasses to hinder the shamanic trance, muttering phrases like, “Jimmy, it’s about time you went home” and “Mind the f**king glasses!”

And it was shamanic; the dancer was releasing an exuberance that the rest of the room felt but could not express. He was dancing for them, as the young couples huddled over their drinks, frozen in a kind of erotic paralysis that not even a lake of alcohol could thaw.

Old men were lionised for their steps, because their exuberance contrasted with their seniority, evoking both awe and pity in the tragic ritual.

Guckian’s dances are more coherent, graceful and aesthetic. But they still embody a great tradition; a vocabulary and grammar of dance masters and poor people who had no place but their own bodies in which to find joy. It’s no wonder that she received the Outstanding Contribution Award to Irish music, dance and culture last year.

All I needed to do was click the pay button on her website and download 10 hours of detailed instruction, whereby I might have discovered my inner dancing master, and improved my health.

But I couldn’t do it. At my age it felt like crossing a threshold, and I didn’t have the courage for that final step. I went for a walk instead thinking about my friend the farmer who goes twice a week to practice the foxtrot. I think he is lonely, but there’s something courageous and remarkably elegant about fighting back. And something inspiring about crossing the threshold of a dance hall to dance the night away for the good of your health, at 80 years of age.