The Percussive Subversive: Nic Gareiss

Nic Gareiss (Photo: Con Kelliher)

Challenging hierarchies in traditional music

Traditional music and dance is integral to Nic Gareiss’ life. “It is a mode of being in the world,” he says. Because the culture is so crucial to him, he is driven to question its more arbitrary conventions. This critical approach underpins his essential philosophy of music and dance – which in turn informs many of the choices he makes for the creative projects he undertakes as a soloist and as a member of larger ensembles.

It is also evident in his activism around issues of gender and sexuality in traditional music – which have given rise to the FairPlé campaign in Ireland and the Bogha-Frois movement in Scotland where Nic Gareiss currently resides.


Although much of traditional music in Ireland was originally composed to accompany various dance forms, much of it today is experienced by both performers and audiences without the dance element. Concert audiences may tap feet or rock heads – but anything more energetic does not generally go down very well.

Similarly, among musicians, understatement is so prized that excessive body movement has been seen as discomforting – although a younger generation of players is now beginning to challenge that notion. This tendency to disconnect the music from the dance is one of the conventions Nic Gareiss feels compelled to challenge. He contends that movement is an essential part of making music – just as sound is integral to dance. He believes this reality should be embraced.

“Our bodies are always contributing in our music,” he says. “By the same token, dancers always make sound, even if we are told not to listen to it. Point shoes, for instance, are quite a noisy instrument on the floor, even though you are taught to soften your landing. So I think it’s important that dancers do not relinquish the sounds they make.”

The current disconnect between music and dance may have its origins in the historical collection and recording of folk culture, Gareiss suggests. Technological limitations meant that the first organised attempt to record the culture – through written staff notation by collectors like Edward Bunting – captured only the music but not the dance. The same was true when live sound recording began in the first half of the twentieth century, influenced by figures like Séamus Ennis and Alan Lomax. Although the recent improvements in access to video technology may redress the deficit, Gareiss recognises that the historical bias towards music is still engrained in the culture.

While the international success of shows like Riverdance (and the various spin-offs) has given traditional dance much needed validation among home audiences, Nic’s ambition for his chosen artform will not be satisfied by merely increasing the popularity of dance. He aims to go further: to re-assert the key role of dance within the creative process. Given his natural antipathy towards hierarchies, he rejects any suggestion that the music is meant to serve the dance. Instead he prefers to see the creative process as an interaction between sound and movement in which neither is automatically dominant or subservient in relation to the other. 

FOUR IN MOTION: This is How We Fly: (from left) Seán Mac Erlaine, Nic Gareiss, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Petter Berndalen.


This basic philosophy informs his preferred dance styles and the settings in which he performs. Generally Nic is attracted to percussive dance styles – the heavy dances – where the action of the foot striking the floor adds to the soundscape. While many percussive styles emphasise a clean sharp strike, Nic also likes subverting that convention by sprinkling sand underfoot so that he can slide his foot through it to create a softer sound – like a drummer using brushes on a snare drum. His conviction that dancers should be heard as well as seen, has led Gareiss to participate in two musical projects where dance is an integral part of the creative process. Rather than responding to the music after the instrumentalists have finalised the composition or the arrangement, Gareiss is involved as a co-creator of the work of two quartets, This Is How We Fly (TIHWF) – with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Seán Mac Erlaine and Petter Berndalen – and DuoDuo – with Maeve Gilchrist, Yann Falquet and Natalie Haas.

“There has been this division between music that is somehow thought of as good for listening and music that is somehow thought of as good for dancing. Ultimately music for listening is generally seen as of higher value in the hierarchical ladder of prestige. That is a scary thing, too, because it perpetuates this Cartesian notion of the separation of mind and body. I think that what This is How We Fly and DuoDuo are trying to do is not only to have percussive dance be integral to the soundscape of the band but also to have movement be part of that. Somehow if there is a moving body on the stage, then fiddle players or cellists with their arm movements or harpists with their fingers on the strings, all become a little more aware of their own moving bodies.”

TWO BY TWO: DuoDuo (from left) Nic Gareiss, Maeve Gilchrist, Natalie Haas and Yann Falquet (Photo: Krysta Brayer).

In both ensembles, Nic not only uses the sounds made by his feet to contribute to the overall texture of the music, he often takes the ‘lead’ within the composition, as indeed does percussionist, Petter, in TIHWF. So this focus again subverts a long-standing convention within traditional music that the percussionist’s main role is as an accompanist punctuating the rhythm (except, perhaps, for the token bodhrán solo which is often included in a set to give other instrumentalists a break!)

Indeed the line-up of the newer ensemble, DuoDuo, also challenges conventional wisdom further by bringing together three instruments which would not normally be considered as ‘leaders’ in traditional ensembles – the Celtic harp, guitar and cello – along with Nic’s percussive dance. The quartet has just completed a North American tour with further gigs likely in the autumn. As the name indicates, DuoDuo consists of two pre-existing partnerships with backgrounds in traditional and folk music on both sides of the Atlantic. Nic has been a regular collaborator with Edinburgh-born harpist, Maeve Gilchrist, since they met while teaching at the Shasta Fiddle Summit in Northern California. Indeed they are due to work together again in Ireland soon at the Cairde na Cruite International Harp Festival at An Grianán in Termonfeckin on July 4 – along with the with the RTÉ Con Tempo Quartet.

Meanwhile, This Is How We Fly are about to record a third album – to follow their eponymous debut album in 2013 and Foreign Fields in 2017. The gestation of the new album has been facilitated by the band’s status as artists-in-residence at the Solstice Arts Centre in Navan – which as well as two concert performances also included a variety of multi-disciplinary projects involving the four musicians collectively and individually.

Seán Mac Erlaine has been commissioned to produce a new piece of music – inspired by the River Boyne – as part of a multi-media project.

Petter Berndalen has supervised the creation of a set of drums by a local artist using local materials. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh is working on a new solo album while Nic Gareiss delivered a collaboration with American dancer, Caleb Teicher – making music only with sounds created by the human body (pictured right).

“It was a fun challenge. At first I was worried whether the audience’s ears would be OK listening mainly to percussive footsteps for an hour or so. But we found other ways of making sounds – whether by humming, whistling, clapping or singing to create some other textures that we could move to. It was hugely enjoyable.”

Apart from his extensive roster of collaborations with other performers, Gareiss has won critical acclaim for his thrilling solo performances – as he hovers in the air like a humming bird with flying feet instead of wings to punctuate the rhythm.

Stepping out

Confounding the naysayers – confronting the ‘nae-gayers’

When Nic Gareiss first moved to Scotland ten years ago, he was told by a very prominent Scottish traditional musician at a session near Ben Nevis that in Scottish music, they were ‘nae-gayers.’ “Those were the words he used: ‘nae-gayers!’ This was – and is – absurd to me,” he notes. “Not only because historically we know that gender diversity and sexual diversity has always existed: but also personally in terms of first-hand evidence as I had met many ‘gayers’ – in more ways than one – in the Scottish traditional music scene.”


As an openly gay man working within traditional music, Nic is a firm supporter of Bogha-frois: LGBT+ Voices in Folk. Taking its name from the Scots Gaelic word for rainbow, Bogha-frois is a project that tries to provide support LGBTQIA+ traditional musicians and dancers. It was the brainchild of Pedro Cameron, a traditional musician who performs under the name Man of the Minch.

Pedro Cameron,
aka The Man of the Minch.

“Initially it was just a workshop,” explains Nic Gareiss. “But then it transformed into a large concert during Celtic Connections in Glasgow. As I watched the gig, I was thinking to myself that the conversations we were having were so rich and really valuable that it was really disproving the statement about the ‘nae-gayers.’

“Not only were they not ‘nae’ about it: but there were lots of us well regarded people who would be considered to be at the forefront of thinking about traditional music and dancing in different ways. I wanted to curate a series of these conversations where people would have time and space to voice their thoughts about the intersections of their identities and their music and dance.

“So I created a blog series that I run once a month where one of the voices – an LGBTQ+ identified Scottish musician or dancer – is featured. I have been running the series on the blog that I keep for my residency at the University of Edinburgh. It is great that this rich community has emerged out of this concert.”

“I think it’s really crucial that queer folks, people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and women are all in solidarity along with all marginal communities. The conversations about equality have to be intersectional. Otherwise we will end up fighting with each other for power which will put us all back in the same position we were in in the first place.”


Nic has followed the emergence of FairPlé with interest – which is also challenging many of the conventions around gender within traditional music. “ I have shown solidarity with FairPlé by supporting the events taking place when I am in Ireland. Karan Casey is incredible. She is a crusader. You can quote me on that. She is also the first traditional musician I ever met from Ireland who has spoken about same-gender love onstage, in her song, Down in the Glen.

Karan Casey of FairPlé.

The treeple chaser

Long lost Scottish dance form inspires new Gareiss show for fleadh in Drogheda

The common perception of Scottish traditional dance has been of as tradition firmly rooted in the light dances. The ‘heavier’ dances – which have long been a feature of the Irish traditional repertoire – seemed to have been rarely performed in Scotland. But that it is changing – driven mainly by the infectious enthusiasm and persistence of dance teacher, researcher and performer, Nic Gareiss.

Known as a guest performer with Irish traditional heavyweights, the Chieftains and the Gloaming, and as a member of two ground-breaking quartets, DuoDuo and This Is How We Fly, Gareiss has a particular interest in “hard shoe” or percussive dancing which is part of the folk dance traditions of Ireland, Canada, Spain and the US.

Based in Scotland for about ten years, Nic is just completing a residency at the University of Edinburgh involving teaching and research. His studies led him to a new dance form – treepling – which was described in Joan and Tom Flett’s 1964 book, Traditional Dancing in Scotland, as “beating out the rhythm of the music with the feet.” It was one of the lesser-known features of Scottish dancing that had virtually disappeared. The word “treepling” is the Lowland Scots word for trebling to indicate the striking action of the foot on the floor.

The dominant style within Scottish traditional dance which was formalised in the seventeenth and eighteenth century shows some influences of European ballet of that period.

Both male and female dancers perform, if not actually on point, then at least with toes pointed – wearing soft slippers – to execute movements which seem designed to minimise their contact with the ground.

Treepling, on the other hand, is very much grounded in trying to produce sounds to match the rhythm of the music. Gareiss’s exploration of treepling has revived interest in the lost art among Scottish traditional dancers. Early in June, he curated a mini-festival in Edinburgh dedicated to the art of treepling with support from his former dance tutors, Sandy Silva from Canada and Colin Dunne from Ireland.

Nic has also developed a new show, The Art of Treepling, which connects the Scottish dance style to other percussive dancing traditions in Ireland, Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, the Appalachian region of the US and to some elements of Spanish folk dancing. Nic is looking forward to bringing the show to the Fleadh Cheoil in Drogheda in August. Irish dance fans are certainly looking forward to seeing it.

Stepping up

Exploring the liberating power of traditional music and dance

Before his latest show, The Art of Treepling, Nic Gareiss’ most recent solo work was Solo Square Dance – which embodies a number of ideas about the history and role of public dancing in society, about the relationships between the community and the individual and about the role of gender within the conventions of traditional dance. Making use of traditional and original step dance movements from Ireland, Canada, and the Appalachian region of the US, the conceptual trigger for the creation of the hour-long show was the 1935 Dance Halls Act in the Irish Republic, which banned citizens from dancing in homes.

“As a result of pressure from the clergy, the Government passed this law that meant that people would have to rent a parish hall in order to dance because they were banned from having a house dance,” says Gareiss. While the primary motive of the clergy appears to have been to exert social control, there was also a secondary benefit in terms of commercial revenues.

SPRING IN HIS STEP: Nic Gareiss at the Wheatfield Music Festival in 2016 (Photo: Peggy Brisbane & Keith Reed)

“The parish halls were well lit and were supervised. So here was a way of controlling what otherwise might have been unwieldy sensuous bodies rubbing up against each other,” suggests Gareiss. “I think it reveals something so powerful about what dance can do when we interact together with music.”

His historical research into dance bans uncovered similar measures in Canada and the US – including one in Elmore City, Oklahoma (which inspired the film, Footloose) and in Pound, Virginia – which until as late as 1999 refused dancing permits to anyone “who is not a proper person, nor to a person who is not a person of good moral character.”

Gareiss was intrigued by what these institutions “were afraid of when bodies are in motion together.” Visually the show was inspired by a piece of archival footage called Clog Dancing on the Porch featuring dancer. Bascom Lamar Lunsford from North Carolina, who tries to show a film crew what it would be like to be in a square dance.

“So he’s swinging himself around and calling out the cues,” says Gareiss. “I saw that and thought it was very lonely and very beautiful. I connected with it because I’m usually moving as a singular dancing body usually alongside people holding instruments. But it also reminded me of the ways individual soloistic dance practices can bring entire communities together.”

So in Solo Square Dance not only does one dancer incorporate elements of a dance formthat usually involves at least eight people: the same singular dancer also performs movements that would be typically executed by participants of different genders. In this way the piece also raises issues about other kinds of prohibitions in traditional dance based on conventions (or perhaps more accurately stereotypes) about how gender determines how dancers are expected to move. Ultimately the many layers of the performance crystallise into one unifying question: to what extent can dance act as a vehicle for social transformation?

DUO: Nic Gareiss (left) and Maeve Gilchrist.

Nic Gareiss: a life in music and dance

Michigan-born dancer, teacher, musician and researcher, Nic Gareiss, was originally sent to dance class because his parents were concerned he was reading too much. Bitten by the bug, Nic was soon being driven to West Virginia to see Appalachian clogging, or bussed to up to Québec to explore French Canadian dance traditions before coming to Ireland to study sean-nós dancing with Seosamh Ó Neachtáin. This led to an MA in Ethnochoreology from the Irish World Music Centre at the University of Limerick – to add to degrees in anthropology and music from Central Michigan University

His thesis for his MA at Limerick was the first piece of scholarship to query the experience of sexual minorities within Irish dance. It was based on a number of structured interviews with LGTBQ+ competitive step dancers.

“Studying ethnochoreology at Limerick has not only been about working for a degree: but it has also been about discovering a way of interacting with the world as a mover – using the study of what is human through dance. That fascinates me.”

Though based in Scotland now for a decade, Gareiss has been a frequent contributor to traditional music and dance in Ireland. He was commissioned by the Cork Opera House in 2011 to create and perform two new solo percussive dance pieces to celebrate the 75th birthday of composer, Steve Reich. He received a Traditional Arts commission from the Arts Council to create a fiddle and dance duo show with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh. The resulting piece, Mice Will Play, had a sell-out run at the Project Arts Centre during the 2013 Dublin Fringe Festival. His collaboration with Caoimhín has continued in the band, This Is How We Fly. 

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