When it comes to the often conformist world of Irish dance, Hammerstep makes their own rules.
With ambitions to conquer the world, the alternative dance show – founded by two former Riverdance performers looking to break from the traditional – sees itself as the future of Irish dance.
Set up two years ago, the show integrates traditional Irish step, tap, and hip hop dance forms and presents them through cutting edge choreography, lights, and sound.
Its founders, World Champion Irish step dancer Garrett Coleman and former lead of Riverdance Jason Oremus, say they are reinventing the typical dance show experience for audiences.
“We grew up training for competitive dance, on the dance circuit – we both went to world championships, national championships,” Garrett, a third generation Irish dancer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, said. “So we draw from that tradition but we’re pushing it forward. We’re using the rhythmic perfection that is Irish step and tap dance and combining it with the power of hip hop.”
Co-founder Jason agrees. “I turned professional when I was 15 and toured with Riverdance for almost eight years. And as brilliant as it was, for us and youth culture, Irish dance is not as relevant as it used to be and it’s a little outdated. We wanted to introduce these new parts of popular culture, and use things that were interesting to people like beat box and hip hop, using audio visual displays and technology. There’s no one like us in Irish dancing!” he jokes.
But Hammerstep, who recently performed in London at the Dara O’Briain charity gig in aid of the Hammersmith Irish Cultural Centre, have ambitions that go beyond just dance.
As well as their performances, the group is passionate about giving back to the community through their outreach programmes.
Part of the Hammerstep mission is to bring their unique outlook on life to places such as children’s hospitals and community centres. And they are striving to spark social change in the process.
The Hammerstep crew recently returned from an outreach performance workshop in Soweto,
South Africa, at the Rena Le Lona Creative Centre for Children. The organisation provides
programming for underprivileged youth, many who have been orphaned due to AIDS. Hammerstep’s performance and workshop sessions in Irish, Flamenco and Hip Hop music and dance, provided an artistic and cultural exchange for those involved.
Garrett said: “There’s a place for all the shows that are out there. But what hasn’t been explored is the potential of dance as an agent for social change and something that can be a statement of solidarity in a world that’s so polarised and so divided on certain issues.”
Expect the unexpected is their warning for anyone coming to see the show.
“It’s definitely not what you would expect from a typical dance show because there are some new technologies and new choreography,” Garrett said. “ It’s something that has an element of explosiveness to it. Even just the visual aesthetic of different people from different backgrounds coming together is a statement in itself.”
“The cultural integration is the thing and we like to break the forth wall,” Jason added. “In Irish dancing there’s no recognition of the audience in traditional Irish dance shows. We like a bit of playfulness with the audience.”
But some traditionalists have complained that the show that is breaking all the rules.
“Traditional Irish dancing is still so strong and even in our show we’ve got pockets where it’ll be very traditional,” Jason said. “So it’s not like Hammerstep is destroying that, we’ve just a niche group that’s breaking out. But it has been controversial and a few purists have asked ‘what is this about?’. But that’s only a good thing – a little bit of controversy proves we’re on the right track and that we’re something different.”
And it seems a little bit of controversy isn’t going to stop them achieving their goals.
“We want to conquer the world and tour international! We want to be something along the likes of Blueman Group or Stomp,” the dancer added. ”It’s still developing and we’re still learning ourselves on how to better do this because it hasn’t been done before. There’s no example to follow, which is the beauty of it. It allows us to make our own rules.”
And it seems the world agrees - next year is going to be a big one for Hammerstep. There’s a tour of Singapore, a showcase in New York in January and that’s just the beginning. It seems breaking the rules is paying off.
The dancers behind Hammerstep
Traditionally trained in Irish Step dance as a child, Garrett has consistently found himself drawn to types of dance that are rhythmically innovative and that push the boundaries of athleticism through dance. In addition to Irish step, he has trained in hip hop, tap, and contemporary movement. Following a successful career in the competitive Irish dance realm, in which he won two world titles and numerous other national and international titles, Garrett toured professionally with Riverdance and Trinity Irish Dance Company. Garrett has choreographed performances for cityLive! Productions of Pittsburgh, and he has performed with musical acts like Cherish the Ladies, The Chieftains, and Gaelic Storm. He has twice been named one of the Top 100 Irish Americans by Irish America magazine. He also performed at the Kennedy Centre in 2006 as a Presidential Scholar in the Arts and is a National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts award winner.
Jason has been heavily involved in the dancing industry his entire life. Originally from Sydney, Australia, he won five consecutive State and National Solo Irish dancing titles from 1999-2003. He also performed in the Opening Ceremony for the Sydney Olympics alongside Tap Dogs in 2000 at just 15 years of age. In early 2004, Jason joined the world famous Riverdance. Shortly thereafter, he was asked to train for the lead role, and successfully went on to star as the principle male dancer for over four years. Jason has performed with Riverdance for an eight-year period in over 36 countries, and for notable leaders including The Empress of Japan and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Realising that Irish dance shows were following a routine and somewhat monotonous pattern since the conception of Riverdance in 1994, Jason created and refined a vision for Hammerstep alongside Garrett in 2009- a new approach to Irish dance that attempts to break the traditional restraints on this engaging art form.