One of the best-known and most popular of Galway’s current crop of street entertainers is sean-nós dancer Emma O’Sullivan who regularly beguiles city strollers with her fine and fancy footwork.
The Renvyle native has also starred on stage and screen and performed with many of Irish music’s leading names, as well as having a sizeable following on YouTube. Over an afternoon coffee in the House Hotel, Emma told me about her music-steeped childhood and later discovery and embrace of sean-nós, beginning with the formative influence of her late grandfather, fiddler Johnny Coyne.
“He was really into music, singing, and dancing,” she tells me. “He grew up in a ‘visiting house’ where lots of travelling musicians came to perform so his whole world from childhood on was all singing and music. When he got married and had a house of his own he kept that tradition going and he’d have musicians from all over Connemara and the islands coming there. When I was very small my parents still lived there so my earliest memories are of being in my cot and hearing my granddad tuning the fiddle. There was just music there all the time.”
Despite her early home grounding in music it was not until she was 20 that Emma took up sean-nós dancing, while she was a business and marketing student at NUIG.
“My early memories of sean-nós were all of older people doing it and I always thought it was just for that age group,” she explains. “I used to call my great-uncle’s dance ‘the chicken dance’ because he would turn his coat-tails out so they looked like a hen’s tail. Then when I was 20 I started dating this champion sean-nós dancer and that was when I first saw people my age dancing sean-nós with conviction, and it was cool and casual and loose and free and felt young. I was working my way through college and had hardly any free time but I saw a poster for sean-nós classes in Arus na Gael on the one night I was free so I signed up.
"Padraic Hopkins was the teacher and on my first night there he asked how many years had I been doing it, and when I said I hadn’t done any he said I had an aptitude because I was picking it up so fast and that was probably because I grew up with music. With sean-nós dancing the main thing you have to do is follow the melody as you dance and I already had all the tunes in my head from listening to them since I was small.”
Within four years of starting classes, Emma won the All-Ireland Sean-Nós Dancing title. She recalls her first competition in Derry; “Padraic suggested I go to the Oireachtas competition so I took the bus to Derry, did the first round of the competition, assumed I wouldn’t be picked and took the bus back to Galway. My phone died en route and then when I got home and recharged it there were messages from Padraic that I had got through so I had to get a friend to drive me back to Derry really early the following morning. That experience spurred me on, I realized every minute I put into the dance I got back out of it, so after that I did loads of practice and that is something I emphasise with my own students –practice does make perfect.”
In early 2010 Emma reached the final of RTE’s The All Ireland Talent Show, partnered with box player Johnny O’Halloran. “The scripting is gas and it took me a long time to get used to that,” she recalls. “I’d be chatting casually with the programme makers and they’d suddenly stop and ask me to rephrase what I’d just said and that would be the snippet of footage they would use.
"The hardest thing was having to structure the performances for the camera-operators, going from dancing a tune freely to having to tell a cameraman I’ll turn here at such a step. But it was a good skill to learn because after that I started to work a lot with dance shows, and they were very much like that, so I learned that while it’s your individual artform you are in a job and have to fit in with a big production.”
Emma has also performed with leading acts like Sharon Shannon, Martin O’Connor, Lunasa, Dervish, De Danaan, and Altan. “That all went back to Johnny Connolly, the melodeon player and Marcus Hernon and Paddy Joe King,” she reveals. “They were very encouraging before anyone else took much notice of me and put me in contact with other musicians. Mairtin O’Connor is really encouraging as well – we were in Tig Coili just lately and he said ‘Emma it does my soul good to see you dancing’. I did TV work with The Chieftains and a tour with Altan and their music pushes what you are doing further because their musicianship is just unreal. The improv they can do in a tune encourages you to try and keep up with it.”
I ask Emma when she began dancing on the street? “It was four summers ago,” she replies. “I’d done lots of tours abroad and they were relentless, eight month stints. I’d be basically living on a bus and it was great craic but tough going. I developed a back problem which was exacerbated by having to sit for long periods so I knew the buses, trains and planes couldn’t continue. I had got to the point where I’d just about manage to perform and then be in agony for the rest of the day on a 12 hour bus journey.
"So I handed in my notice and then, I don’t know why, I decided to do a bit of dancing on the street here – even though dancing on stone is supposed to be really bad for a dancer. I was thinking I’m already injured, I’m more or less retired, I can’t do much more harm. I decided I’d do it for one week and I don’t know how or why but once I started dancing up there my back started to heal. I think it might be that when I busk I dance non-stop for two hours whereas in a show I’d dance maybe 10 numbers on and off throughout the two hours. After a week I felt fantastic I decided to do another week and here I am four years later still at it – I must have crazy Connemara goat legs!”
One of the best-known YouTube clips of Emma shows her being joined on the street by a toddler. “That was a special moment,” she smiles. “That little girl is called Georgia, her mum, Alma, is my yoga teacher and her dad Jakob plays guitar. I get a lot of kids who join in spontaneously and the parents are amazed. There are other hilarious moments; one day I was dancing on top of a half barrel outside Tig Cóilí and when I was finished I turned it over so its top was open.
"This drunk lady came out of the pub, and her legs were going all over the place and she tried to do a side step and landed straight into the barrel but got her ass stuck in it and two lads had to come out and prise her off.
"Japanese tourists are funny; they think you are some moving landmark so I’ll be dancing and next thing I will have three Japanese people with their arms around me taking selfies. I like when I see people who are maybe stressed busy workers or whatever and they stop to look at me perform and it lifts them for a minute, those are the people who need the arts.”
And, finally, what are Emma’s plans for the year ahead? “In July I am going to North Carolina to the Appalachian mountains and spend 10 days learning their ‘flatfooting’ style of dance so I’ll be meeting dancers there and trading steps and maybe making connections for Galway and maybe bring those dancers back here. Aside from that I’m concentrating on street performance for now.”
So we can all continue enjoying Emma livening up Shop Street/High Street for some time to come. Hurray!