A Reel of Primary Colors

Irish dancer Kate Spanos has colored movement

Posted Mar 08, 2012

Kate Spanos

Irish dancer Kate Spanos associates color with dance styles.

Kate Spanos started Irish dancing when she was eight years old. Her mom knew the basics and shared them with her and she took to it readily. When they went to their first céili, which is a social event with Irish dance and music, she loved it and started taking lessons immediately.

Perhaps it was the way each of the five main rhythms of dance appeared to the lighter-than-air dancer. A reel was primary colors of red, blue or yellow; a hornpipe deep earthy brown. A slip jig bounced in pastels of pink or lilac, a regular jig in light greens and a treble jig bright blue and green.

In addition to this very rare form of motion to color synesthesia, Ms. Spanos also has colored letters, numbers, days of the week and spatial sequence synesthesia with a calendar shaped in space where each month has a different color.

"In my synesthesia, I don't see colors ‘projected' in front of me, but the colors just exist in my mind's eye. Also, my synesthesia is relatively mild and does not interfere at all with my life; it only slightly enhances it. It seems to help mostly with memorization and time organization. In dance, it helps me perform a dance the way it is supposed to be performed—for example, thinking of pretty pastel colors helps me make a slip jig light and graceful, while earthy tones in the hornpipe help me stay grounded in the dance."

Ms. Spanos is completing her PhD in Performance Studies at the University of Maryland and is planning to write her thesis on Irish dance. She earned her master of arts in Ireland. She is now an expert in the dance form that so delighted her as an 8-year-old.

"Irish dance is unique from other dances because of the intricate footwork, and the fact that the upper body is not used at all. Arms are kept at the sides and the upper body is held still. Meanwhile, the legs are kicking and leaping and battering away," she explains, giving a clue to her fascination with the form.

She loves Ireland as she does the dance and says the time pursuing her MA in Limerick was a rich and special one. "I loved being surrounded by so many talented musicians and dancers. There was literally Irish music all the time where I was; people would practice in elevators and break out into spontaneous music at any time and in any place. In general, I was impressed with how the Irish really encourage and support artists; music and dance are obviously sources of cultural pride. And Ireland itself is a beautifully inspiring country, in terms of landscape. And it's really neat to see how the dance and that landscape sort of mirror each other in certain ways, in terms of rhythm and colors; I suppose that could be a sort of (geographical?) synesthesia, in a way."

Though her thesis dance in Limerick was probably the biggest dance in her experience, Ms. Spanos says she has had just as remarkable a time spontaneously at really small, informal gatherings. "Sometimes an impromptu performance at a pub session can be the most exhilarating feeling in the world. Usually wherever there's good music, there will be a good opportunity to dance."

I ask Ms. Spanos about the seeming high representation of artists like herself among synesthetes. "It is certainly interesting that synesthetes are so frequently found in the arts, but I wonder if it just appears that way because artists are more likely to express themselves. For example, there are plenty of mathematicians and scientists who have synesthesia (Richard Feynman was one) but perhaps we don't hear about them as much because they don't know how to (or don't feel the need to) express it. I see synesthesia as an ability to connect things in the world that others can't connect, and that sort of intelligence is good for both the arts and sciences."

Kate Spanos

Kate Spanos is earning her PhD in Performance Studies.

Ms. Spanos says to her, synesthesia is neither a condition nor a gift. "It is simply my reality. Part of this may be the fact that I grew up knowing that I was a synesthete (her mother is as well), so it was no great discovery for me, as it is for many synesthetes who find out only as adults that they experience the world differently. I was a cognitive science major in undergrad, and I did some research on synesthesia during my time at UVA, testing consistency and reliability of synesthetic subjects with color-grapheme synesthesia. It was interesting, but ultimately I decided to pursue other paths."

She will spend St. Patrick's Day, she says, at a céili, with reels and jigs of moving colors around her.

This is a video of Ms. Spanos performing in Ireland: