Lisa McGee's Derry Girls and the young women of Milkman aren't just showing a different side of life during the Troubles. They're claiming space in a world where even dancing is a political statementby Caroline Magennis / March 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
The last scene of the first series of Derry Girls caused a strong reaction. As the young protagonists danced at a school talent show, their families watched news of a paramilitary act—a bomb explosion—at home. There was something about their unselfconscious, spontaneous movement that made the tragedy of the ongoing violence even more shocking. It reminded us that against the narrative of the Troubles, people danced, sang, “acted the maggot.”
In placing music, laughter and dancing at the core of her drama, writer Lisa McGee deftly avoided many of the clichés of Troubles television, which often focuses on the experiences of male paramilitary members. She has also reinserted moments of joy and absurdity into this history—ones that chime with many people’s experiences of life in Northern Ireland. Not all of us have had an argument while perfectly performing Whigfield’s Saturday night, but music and dancing have always been part of Northern Irish people’s lives, whether in public or private.
I am roughly contemporary with the girls of the show and my experiences of Northern Ireland in the 1990s were similarly marked with Take That concerts and the inexplicable ‘Rock the Boat’ dance craze. The world I grew up in was one of Armagh and Tyrone hotels being turned into weekend discos where bouncers would turn a blind eye as long as you didn’t knock into anyone while honing the shapes that would eventually find a home in the Limelight. Going to Queen’s University, Belfast, in 2000 seemed like a wonderland of dancing venues: the metal barriers had come off roads into the city centre and it seemed like a new club night popped up every week. Older friends spoke in hushed tones about Vico’s and the Art College. We couldn’t stop giggling after seeing David Holmes in the local Chinese takeaway. Now, Belfast is an international live music venue, home to festivals and gigs every night.
Derry Girls Michelle, Clare and Erin argue at a House Party before dancing together to “Saturday Night.”
But, as McGee shows us, music and dancing have always been part of Northern Ireland’s beating heart. The film Good Vibrations is a particular joy in this regard. In this film, punk music is a kinetic force that seems to cause involuntary dancing. Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster” begins with a hunt to find a decent nightclub: “There’s nothin’ for us in Belfast/ The Pound’s old, and that’s a pity/ OK, so there’s the Trident in Bangor/ And then you walk back to the city.” I asked Twitter for examples of Northern Irish dancing, and got many examples from literature and popular culture, from the poetry of Paul Muldoon and Medbh McGuckian to Irish dancing and the plays of Brian Friel.
Dancing also features heavily in Anna Burns’ 2018 Booker Prize Winning novel, Milkman. Like Derry Girls, Burns takes seriously the concerns of Northern Irish teenage girls. While the main character, “Middle Sister,” prefers the solo pursuits of running, her Wee Sisters are more interested in the glitzy ballroom careers of Mr and Mrs International. Dressed in a flurry of sequins, feathers and high heels stolen from their big sisters, they copy the moves they have seen on screen.
Rather than opposite sex partnerships, however, they all want to be Mrs International: “‘But the thing is,’ reiterated wee sisters, ‘and you don’t seem overjoyed by this, middle sister, you get to be her every time!’” This almost drag spectacle of femininity is a refusal to be silent and know your place. While the Derry Girls prefer the aerobic stylings of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” something similar is happening here. Girls are dancing, not for the imagined gaze of boys or even for the talent show audience, but for their own enjoyment with each other.
The final scene of the first series of Derry Girls.
When you begin to look, you see that Northern Irish people never stopped dancing—despite Ian Paisley’s exhortation that “[t]he dancing of the world, hugging the other sex, set to music, is sensual and clearly caters to the lust of the flesh. Line dancing is as sinful as any other type of dancing, with its sexual gestures and touchings. It is sensual, not a crucifying of lust, but an excitement of lust. It is a war against the soul.”
To dance is inherently political, particularly during a conflict that sought to confine the spaces that bodies were able to inhabit. Northern Irish bodies were constrained through the limits of sectarian geography and no-go areas, from specific streets to pubs. As Burns puts it in Milkman: “Where you went to work. And of course there were bus-stops. There was the fact that you created a political statement everywhere you went, and with everything you did, even if you didn’t want to.”
Citing Emma Goldman’s famous phrase “I won’t join your revolution if I cannot dance,” scholar Sara Ahmed calls dancing “a rebellion against the demand to give your body over to a cause or to make your body a cause.” Dancing is pleasurable and collective. It can follow a set pattern like the ballroom dancers of Milkman or, like the Derry Girls, it can be wild and disinhibited. The dancing body refuses, even for a short while, to participate in violent conflict.
Against the backdrop of the Troubles, those moments are worth holding close. I look forward to having an embarrassingly middle-aged jig in the kitchen to the 1990s soundtrack of Series 2 of Derry Girls and remembering that, amongst the uncertainty of the Ceasefires era, there was laughter and dancing.