I. The White Heather Club
I am eight years old, and one of my best friends and down-the-street neighbor (Caitlin Dunphy-Daly, an excellent Irish name) decides to start taking Irish step dance classes. It sounds great. My mom thinks it sounds great. I am not Irish at all, but I am registered for the class, and we buy ghillies, the black, soft-leather shoes with long, crossed laces. I take great pride in knowing just how to cross them and wrap them around my ankles. They’re worn with tall white poodle socks. I love this pomp.
The White Heather Club is just a mile or two from the street where Caitlin and I live, a musty clubhouse on the outskirts of Detroit, for recent immigrants from Ireland, and those whose families crossed the ocean generations ago. The lilt and lift of Irish accents floats in the air with the dust motes. Our class takes place in the main room on a wooden dance floor, which is surrounded by a thin carpet, a stage, and a dozen or so tables. There are usually a handful of old Irish people at the tables, dividing their time between conversation, our dance class, and their pints. A small adjoining room holds the bar. The walls are covered in wood paneling.
We dance in a long, straggling line, somewhere between ten and twenty of us. Class starts with warm-ups and progresses to jigs and reels. We are bouncy and enthusiastic. The music is recorded, but it has just as much life and energy as the live bands we see at the White Heather Club’s weekend events. After class, we sit along the edge of the low stage and carefully remove our softshoes. They’re dumped in our dance bags, but the poodle socks stay on, feeling fancy underneath our sneakers.
II. Michael and Elaine O’Hare
At the White Heather Club, my teacher was the young and beautiful Elaine, but she and her husband quickly upgrade, buy their own studio space in wealthy Birmingham, MI, and leave the club behind. Caitlin and I, and most of our classmates, go with them. There are lots of new people. There are more class options, as students level up from Beginner to Advanced Beginner, Advanced Beginner to Novice, Novice to Preliminary and Open Championship Levels. We are dancers at the O’Hare School of Irish Dance. We have new softshoes, and now we have hard shoes as well, with heavy fiberglass toes and heels, and dresses with complicated embroidered knotwork in the school colors, and (finally, after years of sleeping in jabbing curlers) tightly curled wigs that perfectly match the color of our own hair. Caitlin leaves, eventually, but I have other dance friends now, and even my brother joins for a brief stint.
We dance on beautiful hardwood floors in front of long mirrors. Michael and Elaine both teach. They’re earnest and well-liked, even when they make us run our warm-ups extra long, or dance alone across the floor’s diagonal. (“Look at Siobhan’s leaps! See how she tucks that back leg up?”)
Sometimes I imagine strangers coming to observe our dance classes. I think of how impressed they would be – of how we can all immediately find the starting beat in a new song, of how we move through a complicated pattern of points and ups and turn-outs in unison without a word. I am twelve years old, and I’ve already fallen in love with how it feels to stand quietly, ready, with fifteen other separate beings as the fiddle swells until we suddenly leap into action together.
I am accumulating a collection of heavy gold, silver, and bronze medals, but it’s not as many as other girls in my classes, and sometimes I worry about that. Some of the girls (with their long, slender legs and monogrammed duffel bags and perfectly applied eyeliner, even by ninth grade), the girls who take classes two or three times a week and come in for private lessons and have studios in their basements at home, are already in the championship level. Two of them are going to worlds, in Ireland. They are nice, but it’s in a competitive way. Their moms sit in the lobby and discuss the merits of driving to out-of-state feises.
The proper pluralization of “feis” is “feiseanna” in Gaelic, but most people just Anglicize it and say feises. Feis is pronounced fesh and feiseanna is fesh-anna or fesh-enna. A feis is an Irish dance competition.
They’re usually all-day affairs, sometimes all-weekend. They take place in hotel ballrooms, indoor soccer fields, anywhere with a cavernous open space. Numbered plywood stages ring the area, with a judge’s table in front, a bored musician with an accordion alongside, and rows of chairs for the dancers waiting, sometimes in abject terror, for their competition, which is next, and which they feel as if they have suddenly forgotten the steps for. Beyond the stages, there are rows of vendors’ tables (selling everything from dance shoes to wigs to glittering brooches), and blankets spread on the floor, thick with camp chairs and the paraphernalia of the dancer: water bottles, sock glue, granola bars, bobby pins, hair ties, makeup bags, hair spray, extra laces, earbuds and iPods, Advil, highlighters. Most dancers are in four to six competitions, and so they and their moms are there for the long haul. They are there all day, crossing off competitions on their grubby papers in anticipation of the few highlighted numbers. At the end of the day, they’ll drive home in mini-vans with the sound of an accordion playing an even hornpipe still beating in their skulls.
We dance two at a time. Our curls bounce in time to the music. We each have a number pinned to the waist of our beautiful dresses. Some of the girls have spray-tanned legs and stage-worthy makeup. Everyone knows that while your lift, your turn-out, your timing, your point, matter the most – that other stuff matters a little bit too.
Only two minutes, maybe, of dancing, and then we step back, point and bow with a straight back, and smile maniacally while our competitors keep going, two by two, until the end of the line is reached. Still, it’s two minutes in which we’ve pushed everything we’ve got into our muscles, and afterwards our calves and the arches of our feet ache. We check the awards board on the farthest wall repeatedly until the results for that dance are posted. And then there are two possibilities: a giddy stroll to the glittering awards table to present your paper number and receive your medal or trophy, trying to look very down-to-earth, very humble, a dancer of the people; or, alternatively, a quick walk back to the safety of your picnic blanket oasis and your mom, neck and hands unencumbered.
You place, you move up; this is governed by various complex rules, partially dependent on where you dance. As you move up, you shed a simple black skirt for a school dress; your school dress for a one-of-a-kind solo dress. I am fourteen, and I dance in red and black velvet.
At a school fundraiser, I take the stage in my solo dress. My friend Carsten plays the fiddle, and I dance, my hard shoes creating a beat to match. We are met with enormous applause. Over the summer, Carsten and I made extra money by traveling from art fair to art fair, busking. We’d lay out a four foot square piece of plywood for me to dance on under the shade of a big tree, and he’d set out his fiddle case for tips. In an hour we’d have fifty bucks. Sometimes Carsten’s sister, Corinna, and I would make up our own two-hand ceilis and perform them for friends or strangers, spinning under each other’s arms, laughing.
I am seventeen, and I quit at the O’Hare School of Irish Dance. It’s my senior year of high school and I’m busy – but more than that, I realized that all of the things that I love about Irish dancing are nowhere to be found at a feis. My classes became more and more focused on the handful of dancers destined for the Oireachtas; the rest of us lesser beings stood awkwardly by, watching them tap their toes. I’m done dancing in two-minute spurts with too much mascara on.
I still love the moments when I feel airborne. I still love lifting my toe to the sky.
V. Going Rogue
One of the first things I do once I get on campus, my freshman year at the University of Michigan, is look up an Irish dance group. There is one, and they’re small, and they’re excited to have me. I audition in a carpeted room, but it feels like a formality once I tell them I’ve been dancing for nearly ten years. I am eighteen, and I’m something like an official dancer again. Feiseanna are only open to dancers under registered teachers, so university student groups are performing groups only, ineligible to compete. It’s perfect. We practice in the evening in a small dance studio in the basement of one of the dorms. Most of the other members are juniors and seniors, and much more outgoing than me. They write choreography to traditional music, as well as AC/DC.
After a few months and a couple of small shows on campus, I gradually become aware of something like a mutiny. There are some differences of opinion. Half of the group wants to become more open, and accept new members with zero previous Irish dance experience. The other half likes our audition policy and admitting only students who competed in high school. These are the girls who had spray-tanned legs protruding from their poodle skirts during feises. On their leaps, they look like they’re flying, and in hard shoe, their beats are immaculate. Their leader sends me a sneaky email telling me that four of them are splitting off to form a rebel student group – Rogue Irish Dance. They want me to join them.
Rogue Irish Dance doesn’t last long. They disappear my sophomore year, for lack of new blood, but I never talk to those girls anymore anyway. The group that remained decided to call itself Léim Irish Dance, which we will later slightly regret (Léim sounds a lot like “lame”), but it means “leap” or “jump up” in Gaelic.
We keep practicing in the basement studio for awhile, but eventually move to larger classrooms – our open-door policy means that the size of the group keeps growing. We even get boys to join – handsome, goofy boys – which is exciting. We have couples numbers and they lift us high into their air and spin us around. My brother comes back to Irish dance too. We perform to crowds of hundreds at the Michigan Theater, and also at shows around campus with other student groups (a cappella and hip hop groups, mostly) and at local elementary schools, festivals, and weddings.
There is an Irish dance house called Little Ireland. We have legendary St. Patrick’s Day parties. We go skiing up north. We do reel steps spontaneously sometimes. We dance on the campus diag for tips. We dance in the library. I fall hard, for one of my Little Ireland housemates and fellow dancers. And also I’ve fallen for all of these people, who I spend so much time with. We practice for hours each week on the third floor of one of the classroom buildings (sometimes people come slightly drunk to practice; sometimes we go have a beer at Ashley’s heavy wooden tables after practice.) Before shows, we practice at the STAC, where the ceilings are dizzyingly high and the mirrors are flawless. It’s snowy outside, but we’re sweating – cheering and laughing and dancing our hearts out, fitting the kicks and leaps and bangs of Irish dance to Irish music and pop and rock and Gangnam Style. I am a dancer, choreographer, and manager.
Our solo shows are an hour-and-a-half long and we go through rehearsal Hell Weeks to prepare for them (spending twenty plus hours a week practicing together, sometimes napping together, or sprawling on the floor to try to fit homework into gaps between dances.)
In the moment of limbo before the curtain opens, we scurry out a heavy metal door backstage into the alley behind the theater, our hard shoes clicking on the concrete. Standing in a circle, shoulder to shoulder, we shake our our arms, hands, legs, and feet while counting to a crescendoing echo.
I am twenty-one, and I love these people.
VII. Grown-Up, Still Dancing
I am twenty-eight, and I dance with the Mactir School of Irish Dance in Minneapolis. It’s a new school – the founder and director is Emily, who is my age, who runs a school focused both on competition and performances, writes creative choreography, and makes it a point to impress kindness, respect, and healthy behaviors onto her many young pupils. We’re not all there just thirsting after gold medals; we are a school of people who love Irish dancing. I’m in a small class of other young women my age. We’re learning new steps. We chatter with the high school girls in the class before ours as we pull on our softshoes.
This is my twentieth year of Irish dancing. My muscles are familiar with exactly what a cut or a heel click or a kick feel like. I’ve done this longer than I’ve done a lot of things in my life. On Wednesdays, I teach beginner steps to adults in an old gymnasium for Minneapolis Community Ed.
I love the traditional dances – I love the fact that I know the same dances, the same steps, that people danced in Ireland literally hundreds of years ago, and that I could travel to another state or another country, meet an Irish dancer, and be able to dance with him or her immediately. I love the energy and vivacity of Irish music. I love dancing on slanted wooden floors in pubs to live music. I love raising my arms and grabbing the hands of old friends, forming a circle, and spinning wildly, in time to the beat, out-of-control and perfectly measured.
I am 28. I’m an Irish dancer.