March 17, 2015
I have my mind set on writing a book. I've joked for years about how my plethora of family stories would fill a tell-all, pager turner. Although friends often encourage me to launch a family themed reality series, I'm not sure the world is ready for the reality of our active, chaotic life. We would most likely need to preface each show with this warning: 'Watching may cause nightmares due to graphic images of parents struggling to manage outnumbering offspring while balancing an overwhelming schedule on a tight budget'. After encountering several Irish dancing nonsensical (yet very real) incidents, I've recently decided that the back burner might be the best place for my 'How We Survived a Big Family' book. Not to worry, this paused book will one day be my main focus once again, because who wouldn't gravitate towards the adventures of raising our nutty, impulse-control-lacking, high energy brood? Chapters would include such gems as 'late onset parental cussing' (due to the unavoidable frustrations of raising a large family- complete with confessions of a guilt ridden mother who never dreamt swearing in front of children would one day serve as her only recourse), constantly evolving tough love strategies (is it love or is it just tough? you be the judge), and of course the once-fashionable, old-school my-way-or the-highway techniques (which have recently been replaced in popular culture with offerings like 'choices'). Believe it or not, the Irish dancing world has offered more dramatic and shocking themes that I plan to utilize to create an interesting non-fiction piece geared towards the general public. FYI: the general public includes the crowds of people entertained by youngsters in wigs, poodle socks, and the most expensive dresses ever fashioned for growth-spurting CHILDREN. The prospect of penning a culturally intriguing book with high readership potential therefore warrants switching gears from my personal crazy family situations to my observations, insights, and first hand experiences in the world of traditional Irish step dancing.
Where to begin to uncover the shit beneath the wigs of Irish dancing? As a dancer for eight years (mediocre at best, but nonetheless a dancer), an assistant dancing teacher for a few years after college (no training - just my big mouth accompanied by my decent grasp of the basics), and now a parent of Irish dancers (where I have experienced some of the biggest frustrations of my adult life), my various perspectives and long term involvement would provide an interesting account of what so many spectators cherish.
Back in the late 70's thru the mid 80's, Irish dancing was just that: Irish dancing. It was more about foot work and less about the expense of looking like a show girl. My botched Dorothy Hamel hair doo styled by my mother with a straight edge razor blade resembled the same cut she 'shaped' on my brothers' heads. Wigs were unheard of back then. Even if fake curls were the latest rage I would not have had enough hair to attach one to my unfortunate, slightly feathered noggin. While a wig would have saved me many gender confused conversations, those 'Are you a boy or a girl' questions were typically raised outside the dancing world where my embroidered dancing dress and laced up soft shoes were not part of my everyday attire. Curls still offered dancers a fancy upgrade to wow the judges. I remember the smell of the curling iron heating up in our crowded hotel room on early mornings at out of town competitions. Attempts were made to shape my hair into a reasonable appearance verses the bedhead, sticking out all over reality I was usually faced with. More often my sisters long, stringy hair was whipped up into spiral curls down her back. With any luck the venue wasn't far from our hotel, because she was instructed to lean forward on the drive over in order to not crush the limp curls that resembled flat waves by the time she danced anyway. Basically back in the day, a dancer's 'look' was not transformed for stage at competitions. Makeup, leg tanning, glitzy headpieces, and wigs were reserved for girls enrolled in 'little miss' beauty competitions. And isn't that the way it should be?
Dresses were an investment back then. I remember because my mom took my two sisters and I to the fabric store to shop for fabric that we purchased and dropped off at the elderly lady's house who made the dresses for our dance school. Affording three dresses at once was a headache for my folks, but it can't be compared with the cost today of purchasing three new dresses. A single solo dress today can cost up to $3,000. These pricey show stoppers come from Ireland. Measurements are not always followed closely. The result is additional alterations at an added expense and sometimes a dress can't be worn as long as anticipated because of growth. There are new rules to follow in certain regions. For example, dresses with bling, animal prints, or plaids, can't be worn by the younger dancers in the Midwest. If you were unlucky enough to own such a dress when the new rule was announced, you most likely ate the expense of not being able to sell it. This new rule impacted a dress that I owned. I purchased it used and never thought I would get much of a return on it, but it still stung.
Why not eliminate the wigs? That would be a welcome update in my book, because those are pricey as well. Of course like all other aspects of Irish dancing, wigs go out of style too. Once a teacher decides to introduce a new curl then you are informed to get rid of your old $80 wig and invest in a new $80 wig. How lucky to have delivered a baby with curly genes! Curly's wig-look-alike doo caused me to do a double take on more than one occasion when she was a toddler at a feis (dancing competition). I dare you to try to keep track of a non-dancing, curly headed child at an Irish dancing competition. It's confusing at best. Curly sports her own locks when she dances solos on stage at competitions. Unfortunately in order to compete on a ceili team, she too has to wear a wig. Teachers are so insistent that dancers on a ceili team look uniform that team members all must wear a wig with the same style curl. I have seen this taken a step further when teachers have created an all blond or brunette team. For these teams, all participants must wear a wig of the same color. Protruding bangs of a brunette, are spray painted to match her assigned blond wig color. Now this brunette's mom is the lucky owner of multiple wigs, and by next year a different shape curl could be all the rage. Then it is time to invest in another new wig, or two. After a while the cost prohibitive nature of dancing begins to feel less traditional and more like an exclusive, wealthy member only club.
Teachers. Not a class went by when I was a kid that I wasn't hollered at for messing up my steps. I cringed regularly while fighting back tears. There were certainly teacher favorites. Unavoidable in my estimation. Although I wasn't a passionate dancer, I considered having my kids dance while avoiding the 'all-in' mentality. After all, what better way to be involved in our Irish heritage? I initially enrolled my son Eddie in dancing at his request. Our family attends many Irish events, so he became interested in dancing and begged to be allowed to learn to jig. I thought this would be a passing fancy. No big deal. That was eight years ago. When Eddie thought he was ready to retire, I sought out a more structured dancing school for Mini. Eddie's teacher wasn't even licensed and therefore competitions weren't part of the picture. I joined a school close enough to home who offered free lessons for boys, and of course competitions. Great marketing, because fewer boys dance despite schools still needing them to participate in ceili competitions. Eddie ditched his retired status and joined Tetonka after witnessing one of the teacher's sons dance. This kid was a world champion. Eddie is a competitor. As Mr. 8-year-old World Champion showed his stuff to the class, 8-yr-old Eddie leaned over to me and whispered, "I'm so doing that." For the next four years, Eddie, Tetonka, and Mini danced at 'Ahern's School of Irish Dance' (not the actual name of the school). Reggie and Curly began dancing at Ahern's a few years before we jumped ship to the 'Lane' School of Irish dance (again - a fudged name).
Changing schools isn't easy. It's made to be an ordeal so families don't jump from school to school. The Ahern's degree of favoritism was gross. Students' whose parents were fortunate enough to have deep pockets attended additional classes, learned more difficult steps that couldn't be shared with the students who couldn't pay almost $400 for a semi annual weekend workshop, and ultimately won awards that the ignored students only dreamed of. Couple that with a rude attitude towards a regular tuition paying parent, and a threat to eliminate my daughter from competition because I purchased a used dress for the right price but that the Ahern's deemed all wrong because it wasn't one of the over-priced, used dresses that they force parents to invest in. All this and I was supplying them with three boy dancers. After pulling out of their school, they tried to charge me for part of a dance session that my kids never participated in. There was no contract signed that stated I would need to pay for an entire session of classes whether they danced or not. They convinced the regional director that we were leaving them high and dry in the tuition department. The regional director informed the Lane School that we couldn't dance until our 'debt' had been paid. The Lane School cared little about this injustice. I was instructed to pay it so my dancers could compete in the upcoming Midwest Championship that they had been practicing for. $400 later, my kids competed, did very well with the new Lane instruction, which isn't quite as skewed as Ahern's, but I have received no response from the regional director trying to sort out the $400 overpayment that was forced on me.
In addition to better instruction, the Lane School offers more teachers. More perspectives. Down to earth families. Ahern is located in an affluent area, where deep pockets and snobby, entitled attitudes go hand in hand. I once heard the mom of one of Mini's competitors from Ahern look at the results board and comment, 'Wow, little Susie is having a great day, because if she beat my daughter you know she is dancing well.' Puke. Unfortunately I have come to realize that all dance teaches live at least in part in an alternate universe where they rule the world and other adults pay them to be treated poorly. Recently Reggie was invited to be on a ceili team traveling to the World Championships in Montreal. I informed the teachers he wasn't available. They ultimately decided that the students they wanted to travel to Montreal and attend many additional classes would do so, or else. I tired to get out of it. The ceili practices were far away and were often on a night when Coach worked late. My email explaining why Reggie couldn't participate was returned with a very harshly worded response. I was told in so many words that we would need to dance at another school, if we refused to make Montreal a reality. Ouch.
While Irish dancing offers entertaining fancy footwork, I think most uninformed onlookers would be shocked to learn about the shit beneath the wigs. My advice to parents considering enrolling kids in Irish dancing: sign on for a minimal stint because if you or your kids get sucked in, it's hard to escape with your wallet, your dignity, and with a well adjusted feeling over the time lost to this one time outstanding art. You can read more about it in my future best seller, and that's no blarney.