Ellie O'Byrne chats to Morgan Bullock, the American dancer who has faced down the racists with her take on a viral dance meme, and has been rewarded with an invitation to Ireland from the Taoiseach.
It’s been a strange 72 hours for Morgan Bullock. The 20-year-old student from Richmond, Virginia was keeping entertained during lockdown last weekend when she decided to film a TikTok of her take on the latest dance craze. Now, she’s being tweeted messages of support by Leo Varadkar and Riverdance creator Bill Whelan, amongst thousands of other Irish people.
Texan rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s 'Savage' remix featuring Beyoncé is the soundtrack to a new dance challenge on TikTok, mostly in the US. Thousands of dancers have been filming themselves performing the dance’s raunchy, hip hop choreography. For Bullock, there was only one choice: she was going replace the street moves with Irish step dancing.
this remix has no business being this hard 😩😤 pic.twitter.com/JZQh0jvtg5— m (@Morrghan) May 2, 2020
“I wanted to make a video but Irish dance is the only dance I can do: I’ve tried other dance, but I can’t move my upper body that well,” Bullock says with a laugh.
“I really like the song; I love Beyoncé and I really like the remix. So I was like, if I’m going to participate in this, it’s got to be Irish. I messed around with the rhythms and choreographed something to it.”
So far, so innocuous. But Bullock’s video, with classic Irish steps set ingeniously to the Savage chorus, drew a surprising backlash when it went viral on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter. There were undercurrents of racism to some of this comment; Bullock is a black Irish dancer. And it seems some people think she’s appropriating Irish culture by performing Irish dance.
“I posted the video on TikTok first, but a lot of the negative comments were on Twitter,” says Bullock. “They’re all pretty similar, just accusing me of appropriating a culture that’s not my own, that Irish people look a certain way, that I can’t be Irish and that I wouldn’t be embraced in Ireland, which I know not to be true. It’s the same thing, over and over: arguing back and forth over what it is to be Irish and what’s allowed.”
A student of Virginia’s Baffa Academy of Irish Dance, Bullock has competed in four Irish dance World Championships, ending up placed 43rd in the world the last time she competed, as well as placing 4th at her regional qualifiers, known as the Oireachtas. She has travelled extensively to compete, including in Ireland. She says a lot of the negative comments she’s received come from outside the dance world.
“I do understand the concern with Irish dance moving away from the tradition, but I think it’s really beautiful the way Irish dance has spread all over the world,” says Bullock, who is vaguely aware of a distant Irish connection on her mum's side. “It’s in Mexico, China, Africa: a lot of people don’t even really know how global it is, I think. They feel that you have to be Irish to do Irish dance.”
Apparently, though, a lot of Irish people don’t feel this way, Bullock points out: “Most of the negative comments are coming from people who claim to be Irish-American. That doesn’t represent what I know to be Irish people, from my own first-hand experience. Any time I’ve been to Ireland, it’s been amazing, and I’ve been welcomed and had so much love and support from Irish people.”
To many dancers, dance is a universal human pursuit, an aeons-old unending series of cultural appropriations and fluid interactions. For Bullock, fusing Irish dance to modern music is an homage, not a desecration. “People are getting cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation confused,” she says. “They see someone doing something that’s a little outside the box, that doesn’t fit the typical mould, and they get confused and slap that cultural appropriation term on it. I think that’s really unfortunate.
“I think a lot of people, for one reason or another, can’t open their minds to seeing past race, but I don’t think there should be any race element when it comes to dance at all.”
Bullock was bitten by the Irish dancing bug at the age of ten, she explains. This is considered late for a competitive dancer, but she had been doing ballet, tap and jazz since the age of three.
“I fell in love,” she says. “I dropped every other dance and sport for it. In my first competition I did better than I thought I would; I went into it knowing nothing and quickly learned I could be good at it. Irish dance just took over my life.”
At competitions as a child, she was conscious of being in the extreme minority as a black dancer, but never felt there were any negative repercussions to this, in fact, she says, quite the reverse.
“I was aware of the fact that I had a built-in stand-out factor and honestly, I just used it to my advantage in competitions,” she says. “With Irish dance, it’s all about catching the judge’s eye in the beginning and it wasn’t hard for me to do that, so I just kind of embraced it. I was always met with love and never had any issues with racism for the ten years I’ve been in Irish dance. Everyone who participates in the sport just recognises talent and nothing else.”
For her family, her choice of passion might have been unusual, but it was supported: “My family, like aunts and uncles, did go, ‘this is kind of weird that you’re doing this, but go for it.’ It wasn’t expected in my family, but they’ve all been so supportive.”
On the competition circuit, where spray tan and curled wigs for children are common, and where costumes cost thousands of dollars, Bullock credits her mother, Yolanda, with having been the “best dance mom, because she let me do what I want; I’ve taken breaks from dance and come back and she’s always supported me. I’ve very grateful because I’ve seen it go the other way, where the mom is more into it than the child.
“In Irish dance, the dresses are $3,000. I’ve seen my mom pay out more for dance dresses than she paid for her own wedding dress.”
Her mom is now “ecstatic” with the response to Bullock’s viral dance video. “She’s sharing it all over Facebook with her friends,” Bullock says with a laugh. “My dad doesn’t have social media and so he didn’t know what was going on: he went somewhere to pick up something and someone said to him, ‘look at this black Irish dancer, doesn’t your daughter do that?’ and he looked at it, and went, ‘that is my daughter.’”
Bullock is in third year of an Elementary Education degree at Virginia Commonwealth University. Having competed in the World Championships in 2019, she was taking a break from competitive dance this year. She says “the dream” would be to become a professional dancer.
With a growing fanbase in Ireland, an invite from the Taoiseach to dance at St Patrick’s Day 2021, and a fan in none other than Riverdance creator Bill Whelan, Bullock says she plans to “continue to make videos” and see what emerges: “I definitely plan to get back into competing, but if another opportunity comes up soon, I think I’d have to think about it.”