Today is one of the stranger St. Patrick’s Days in memory, with venues closed and social gatherings banned due to the coronavirus pandemic. In Saratoga Springs, Caffè Lena, while closed to the public, is opening its doors to musicians.
Musicians – put on your stage outfits, plug into your amps, and get ready to play to… no one. At least, no one in-person. Caffè Lena executive director Sarah Craig is livestreaming concerts daily so that local musicians can still have a source of revenue, without putting people at risk.
“We’re bringing in bands from around the region to play shows on our stage but nobody’s going to be in the seats; we’re just going to be live-streaming them,” Craig said. “We actually have three professional quality cameras and professionally trained operators that have been doing this at the venue for about three years so we’re well-equipped for broadcasting.”
There is a button on Caffè Lena’s livestream YouTube channel where people watching at home can donate to the bands.
“And it’s a way that people are feeling really good about holding together musicians and venues that are closing right now as they close up,” Craig said.
Craig says the livestream is surprisingly interactive.
“There’s a chat stream while the show is going on and so people are saying, ‘Oh I’m watching from Boise, I’m watching from Albany, I’m watching from Dublin,’” Craig said. “People are watching really from all over the world and it makes you feel like you’re doing something together and it’s less isolating. And music – there’s just really nothing like it for making people feel better. And calmer. And more centered. And just bringing their best selves to this crisis right now.”
Craig says the responsible thing to do is encourage people to stay home – lending an apt name to the concerts:
“The stay home sessions,” Craig laughs. “And just this afternoon on very short notice we did a live stream of a local Celtic music trio and dance group called Steptune and it was a family concert and we had 131 families tune in for that.”
Steptune’s concerts have been cancelled due to the pandemic, but they gave a private performance for WAMC on Saturday.
Danielle Enblom is the group’s Irish step dancer. She has been studying Irish dance for over 20 years. Enblom is also a dance historian and researcher. She says the history of Irish dance is really the history of all dance, from all over Europe.
“I think we could say that it all probably begins in Ireland with the Celts,” Enblom said.
“Which is again a fully European tradition because the Celts were all over Europe at one point. But then we jump over to Italy where the dancing master began. So from Italy to France where it became the Baroque dancing that we know to be ballet today. And then it landed in England where you have English dancing masters. And the English dancing masters landed in Ireland when English occupation took place and they were being brought over by the landed gentry in Ireland to teach the children of these landlords - English landlords.”
But why do Irish step dancers hold their arms at their sides?
“The real answer is that we can’t tell you exactly why we hold our arms at our sides,” Enblom said. “The older styles of Irish dance – you get regional styles where arms are up. In tap dancing – which is an offshoot of dancing from Ireland – arms aren’t at the sides.”
A common explanation that has been passed down in Irish families, like mine, is that the English did not allow the Irish to dance, so they would dance from the waist down to hide it. Enblom doesn’t think this is accurate.
“Because if you imagine you’re in Ireland,” Enblom said, “And there’s these one-room houses all over the place and a British soldier is walking past and there’s music coming out of the house and he’s looking in the window and someone is bouncing around – I don’t think not moving your arms is going to cut it.”
In the 1700s, the Irish Dance Master came to be.
“Irish Dancing Masters – they were itinerant,” Enblom said. “They didn’t have a home. They traveled around their region on a donkey or a horse, often along with a fiddler or a piper, and they just traveled from place to place. People would invite them into their homes, feed them, give them a big barn to teach their lessons in for the week, hold a benefit for them at the end of the week where there’d be dancing and music and they’d raise money. The dancing master and musician would take those funds and continue on their way.”
Each region in Ireland developed different styles, but they had one thing in common – the céilí.
“An Irish céilí is a social gathering where there’s dancing,” Enblom said. “Céilí dancing is one form of social dancing in Ireland set dancing is another form. Céilís are danced in long lines and circle dances and when you get to a good céilí there’s live music and a whole lot of just people having fun and dancing together.”
With the coronavirus keeping musicians isolated, the céilís will have to be live streamed.
“It’s a scary thing right now,” Enblom said. “A lot of people are seeing their livelihoods just completely pulled out from under them. I think a lot of artists – we kind of scrap things together – we live paycheck to paycheck a lot of times just because we’re doing stuff for the sake of the art. We’re really lucky that we get to do it and make a living doing it but not many of us are making millions. So right now people are really coming together as a community and supporting each other.”
Enblom and her bandmates in Steptune will continue to perform – but in a way that is safe for everyone.
“I think it’s our responsibility actually to not hold these social gatherings,” Enblom said. “But I think the important thing that we did was we didn’t just contact the venues and say let’s cancel. We contacted Lena knowing that they had this infrastructure and said, ‘Hey would you be willing to switch to just a livestream,’ which they were already in the process of doing - and phenomenally they are now holding concerts, possibly nightly, to continue to support artists.”
Caffè Lena’s Craig says the livestreaming services are free for the bands.
“The whole idea is to generate money for them, not to take money from them,” Craig said. “They have been there for the venues and for causes any time they’re asked forever. And they’ve helped out Caffè Lena so many times so our goal right now is to help them. Our board donated a bunch of money so that we can actually pay them some small guaranteed stipends and then people who are watching online are donating tips and we are dividing the tips half and half. The musicians get half and the venue gets half.”
Bands have made anywhere from $100 to $1,100 on a single livestream so far.
Craig has a message for musicians in the Capital Region:
“The world needs your songs more than ever,” Craig said. “And your work is valuable and important. Stick together. We’ll get through this. And write some new stuff while you have extra time on your hands.”
To enjoy these livestreams and support bands from the Capital Region, you can go to YouTube.com/caffeLena.