February 6, 2023

not my speed: a take-1-for-the-team retro Irish dancing tale

When I was an Irish dancer, I wasn't very good - particularly as I grew into a very tall pre-teen/teenager. I looked like a newborn colt. All legs - legs that were difficult to control. In Irish dancing controlling legs is paramount to success. (cue the WAH-WAH-wah - letdown music).

Almost all competitions were held outdoors. Sometimes the stage was VERY hot and my feet burned through my ghillies (soft traditional Irish dancing shoes).

The horn pipe, a hard shoe dance, in particular proved challenging, for me anyway. I struggled to stay on time to the music. Dancing off time promised major point deductions. 

I was on stage at a competition somewhere in Ohio. I think it was Cleveland. Definitely not Columbus. Oh, maybe it was Dayton. Anyway, I lined up on stage with the other girls. Back then, we danced one at a time. *when my kids danced it was 2 or 3 at a time. 

There was a live musician, in this case it was Jimmy something-or-other playing the accordion. A judge sat at a long table in front of the stage. My sister, Marie - who was the best dancer of the three sisters, stood behind the judge's table with Mom. Mom needed Marie to give her a clue as to whether or not I was on time or properly executing my steps, etc.  

If my sister wasn't dancing on her own stage, that was protocol. Come watch me and provide me with pointers afterward and assess how I did in addition to tipping Mom off regarding whether or not I'd done well. Mom drove us, without my dad, to this feis (Irish dancing competition, but different than a HUGE competition such as the regional championships or worlds. My kids attended a million feis as kids and also the biggies. I qualified once, maybe twice, for a regional - never worlds. Sweet mother, NEVER WORLDS - if you watch this 45 second video from a competition when I was younger you will understand why). 

We often invited our close friends to drive with us in our car. That was by far my favorite part of the weekend. As in GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN - to me, goofing around in the car with my Irish dancing girlfriends WAS the bomb. So, so many stories. That family consisted of 7 girls, many with red hair. Both parents were off the boat from Ireland and spoke with a thick brogue. The identical twins were 10 months older than me, and another sister was 11 months younger than me. It was a perfect friend sandwich. To this day, I don't think I've met another family blessed with such a quick wit and hilarious sense of humor. The twins and I competed in the same competition. There was zero animosity though. Our moms cared more than we did.

(this video demonstrates how Irish dancing is MEANT to be done. Curly '21 - retirement performance, 3rd place in regional Oireachtas)

That day waiting in my heavy, bulky, rose colored costume with navy cape in the sweltering heat with the gift of a little shade on our stage, I waited in line with one of the twins, Kathy. She and I aligned with subpar dancing as opposed to her twin, Karen, who typically danced better than us. We watched the girls ahead of us. As we stood side stage, we ran through our steps in our head - often using our fingers to 'dance' the steps out on our thumb. This might help with timing. Unless you were me, in which case there was no help.

This might have been the exact competition I'm referring to. It was definitely on this stage. I remember it like it was yesterday. One of the twins, Karen, is in the green dress in the background. *Not editing my face out, because I don't think ANYONE would recognize me today.
Each dancer was allowed to listen to one bar of music before starting. During that bar, the dancer could signal the musician to increase or decrease the music with a wave of her hand. From my position on the grass next to the stage, I noticed that the music was speeding up DURING the dance. I looked over at Jimmy (I know his name because we were also involved in the Irish music scene - Pat and Marie played tin whistle and fiddle respectively. I could write a post about how badly I wanted to trade my dancing shoes in for an instrument, but I wasn't allowed. Have I mentioned I'm a middle child and I have issues?). Jimmy was leaning over his accordion, his head bowed. The tempo sped up as he played. 

Would you believe that Jimmy was terribly hung over, or perhaps even still wasted from partying into the wee hours of the morning? As he played, he sort of drifted off to sleep and failed to keep the music at a consistent pace. Once the line of girls finished their one-after-the-other row, they bowed and filed off the stage, walking past me. They were all grumbling to one another. 

"Did you hear the music? I couldn't dance to that speed. He paid no attention to the speed I requested."

They were frustrated. Kathy and I exchanged an 'OH-CRAP' look as we filed on stage. As I waited for my turn, I eyed my mom positioned under the tree. She nodded an encouraging 'COME ON, ERNIE. YOU'VE GOT THIS' - complete with a signal to pull my shoulders back. Nervous energy caused her to squeeze her neck muscles, roll her lips inside of her mouth, protrude her chin, and quickly run her index finger under her nose. 

Keep in mind the stage was 12 feet by 12 feet at most, so this was a far cry from a Broadway production. Several stages dotted the grounds surrounding a building, maybe a school. Throughout the day, we bopped around to various stages depending on where our dances were scheduled to compete.

Standing there, I turned my attention away from my twitchy mom and noted the continued issue with the music. My competitors were rolling their eyes and shaking their heads after their turn as they marched back to the line, facing away from the judge. 

When it was my turn, I stepped forward and listened to my bar of music. I signaled with a wave of my hand to slow the music down. I began to dance. The music sped up gradually, as anticipated. I couldn't keep up while stomping, trebling and clicking through my step. I stood no chance of winning this competition, so I stuck my hand out from behind my dress and AGAIN motioned for drunk Jimmy to slow-the-hell down. My hand motion was aggressive and unprecedented. Dancers weren't allowed to adjust music WHILE dancing. That ship had theoretically sailed. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Marie shake her head and whisper an OH NO - SHE'S BLOWN HER CHANCES to Mom. Mom's posture, like a deflated balloon, reflected her disappointment. I wanted to shout HEY YOU TWO, I'M DANCING HERE. TRYING ANYWAY. CAN YOU NOT BE SO OBVIOUS IN YOUR DISGUST? I was terribly off the music, but even if Jimmy had avoided the pubs the night before - I would've struggled to keep the beat anyway. 

I bowed to the judge, and then to the idiot musician, as is customary. When I turned to walk back to the line, the other dancers' faces were wide-eyed. Before the next dancer danced, the judge held up his hand - freezing the competition. He hopped up and approached Juiced Jimmy. The competition paused while Jimmy got some coffee or something. I don't remember. All I know is that when we filed off the stage the next line of girls waiting to dance patted my arm and thanked me profusely. I'd taken one for the team, so to speak, and they were relieved that I'd in a sense alerted the authorities. 

Mom and Marie weren't so congratulatory, and the world of Irish dancing isn't so forgiving - the judge, in case you are wondering, did NOT grant me sympathy points or give me a participation medal. After the verbal backlash from Mom, it wasn't severe - it was like WHY?, I raced off to change out of my dress and hang out with my red headed besties for the rest of the afternoon before we piled into the red '76 Chevy Impala station wagon, driving 6 or 7 hours straight home. That was part of the method to our family madness:  refuse to pay to stay in the hotel a 2nd night. 

I know some of you miss Irish dancing stories - hope you enjoyed this retro tale. I thought of it, because of a coaching issue that we're dealing with currently. I'm torn about whether or not to wave my hand mid-dance, so to speak, in hopes that the situation improves for the rest of the players. More on that mess later. 

Any former Irish dancers out there - if so, did the horn pipe torment you too? Did you do lessons of some kind that you disliked? Did you have a sibling who ratted you out when you screwed up? Were you involved in something that you weren't good at, but the fun with friends was worth it?


mbmom11 said...

I tried Irish dancing for 2 lessons with a bunch of friends and sisters. It was made clear that I have no skills, no sense of rhythm, and no sense of timing. So my efforts were short lived. But oh, I would have loved to do it! However, your daughter's video shows me that, barring divine intervention, there is no way it would have ever happened. My goodness, your daughter is amazing!

Nance said...

Wow. The seamy underbelly of amateur Irish Dancing. I never knew.

Ally Bean said...

I'd never heard of Irish Dancing until a few years ago. I figured it was something new, but I was wrong. You look adorable, btw. I've been a klutz my whole life who takes pride in being about to walk in a straight line, so I could never dance like that especially in public.

Beth Cotell said...

I love the retro video!!! And I can definitely tell that Curly is a much better dancer. :) We also now know where you got your loathing of spending an extra night at a hotel comes from!

I miss your Irish dance stories so I really appreciated hearing this one! You are an excellent storyteller!

Nicole MacPherson said...

Way to take one for the team, Ernie! That picture is great. It seems so odd to have the stage outside but hey, the eighties was an odd time!
I have never been a dancer, competitive or otherwise, so I can't really relate to that.

Kari said...

River dance would never....😊

Ernie said...

mbmom11 - You made me laugh with your divine intervention remark. I'm sorry that you wanted to do it and it didn't work out. Take it from me, over-rated.
When you tried dancing, where were you geographically? Do you remember the name of the teacher or schoo? Curious minds want to know.

Curly was quite a good dancer. I do get a tiny bit wistful when I look back at videos like this, but mostly I'm glad that chapter has closed.

Ernie said...

Nance - Ha. This was way back, before Riverdance came along and Irish dancing became very commercialized and popular. There are a whole other bunch of difficulties in the Irish dancing world now. Apparently there was a big scandal about bribing judges. It hit the news after Curly retired, so I didn't pay much attention, but it was fairly disgusting. Sexual favors in exchange for a high placement, etc.

Ernie said...

Ally - Coach had never heard of Irish dancing (and his bloodlines are probably more Irish than mine) until he met me. Then the way he was introduced to it was when he saw me get up and Irish dance in a pub while I was visiting him at college. It's a pretty funny story. I am team klutz all the way, so it really did nothing for my self esteem.

Ernie said...

Beth - It took some time to find the video, but not as long as I feared it would. Sometimes I like to prove to myself that I know where things are despite the clutter in the house. I was thrilled to feel so organized. Curly DIES laughing when she watches me dance back then. I will say that Irish dancing was very different back in the day. I was definitely doing a poor job, but the moves have progressed quite substantially over the years. It reminds me of basketball - decades ago, no one flew through the air until Michael Jordan did.

Ha, yes - never pay for a hotel room if you can just drive 7 hours home.

Thanks for the compliment. Much appreciated. I wonder if I'll ever get my Irish dancing tell-all book written. I have SO many stories, retro and recent.

Ernie said...

Nicole - Hey, I sure wasn't feeling that successful in the dancing arena, but I honestly felt like a superstar after shining the spotlight on drunk Jimmy. Can you imagine if that happened today? It does seem odd that the competitions were held outdoors. Cheaper than renting a building? Or a hotel banquet room? My kids are always intrigued by the odd components of Irish dancing from my youth. They went to feis all year long - like they are held every weekend in various cities. When I was a kid, feis were only scheduled during the summer months.

Ernie said...

Kari - Ha, ha. I'm certain there were some issues behind the scenes at Riverdance.

mbmom11 said...

Oh, I tried dancing in New York state - I lived on the east coast as a girl Our friends were very proud of their Irish roots and brought us to the dance class. Although I am of mostly Irish descent, the dance genes skipped me. It's never a good sign when the teacher has to take you over to the side and redo all the intro steps again and again. This was in the mid 80's in NY, so Irish things were somewhat popular but certainly not mainstream.

Ernie said...

mbmom11 - Interesting. Funny, I got that same 'pulled to the side' treatment, but my folks refused to wave the white flag and I suffered through.

Jenny in WV said...

Does everyone dance to the same song? Do you know what song you'll be dancing to before it starts?
Is Reg back to driving?

Colleen said...

I loved this post! My older sisters (and both my parents) all did Irish dancing but then we moved when I was 6 and there was nowhere that taught it. I was always jealous! I put my daughter in it for a year, but then she stopped because she has the body of a volleyball/basketball player and the expense was too much for us. She hadn't even gotten into the wigs or dresses yet!

Ernie said...

Jenny- Good question. There are 4 basic dances for younger/beginner-ish dancers. Light jig. slip jig (only girls) Reel- soft shoe dances. Treble jig. Horn pipe- hard or heavy shoes.

More advanced dancers eventually ditch the Light jig and each year when competing in high level comps they focus on either the horn pipe or the treble jig. Switching off each year. And also they switch off between reel or slip jig. They also add a set dance. Clear as mud?

That means all the competitors line up to do a dance: U12 (under age 12, for ex) Reel- broken down into beginner. Prizewinner. Championship, etc. So they know what specific dance to do at each stage and they all have the same music. Each school has their own steps, so the girls do different steps than each other while on stage. During a feis (pronounced fesh), they compete 4 different times, give or take. Once they get 1st places in all dances, they advance to the next level of competition. Championship is the highest level. Curly made it yo championship when she was really young. 7 or 8, maybe. Mini made it to championship in her LAST competition before retiring.

Reg is driving again. Started on Wed. Over the weekend, I planned my workout time around Curly's bball practice. When Reg offered to drive her, I almost fell over. I forgot how nice that was.

Ernie said...

Colleen- Thank your lucky stars she had not gotten into the wigs and dresses. I have a section of my closet that is all the dresses we were never able to sell. Fads change so fast. Of course they do. I also have a narrow dedicated cabinet in my laundry room that is chock full of old wigs and wig buns and other dancing gear like bloomers and crowns and fake eye lashes. Maybe we will use the wigs at Halloween someday.

Bibliomama said...

What the hell Jimmy, YOU HAD ONE JOB. Sucks that you weren't allowed to play music instead of dancing. Eve tried a bunch of dance schools - ballet, Irish dancing, and then a more airy-fairy freestyle one where she stayed the longest. My friend's daughter who's danced most of her life is in university now - qualified for worlds and is retiring after that. I've never heard of an outdoor feis. I would say it's because we're in Canada, but you're in Chicago, right? Seems equally intemperate.

Ernie said...

Ali - Right? Sign of the times, I guess. It just wasn't as serious a thing as it is now. Parents today would've stormed the stage. As a parent, the YOU CAN'T PLAY MUSIC thing makes zero sense to me. ZERO. Par for the course though. They claimed giving me music lessons didn't align with their budget. They assigned my brother, Pat, to teach me. That was a disaster as he knew he had me over a barrel and he was an ASS. Many tin whistles were bent as we battled it out in the few lessons that I tried to tolerate. Outdoor feis were the one and only way in the midwest back in the late 70s and 80s. Summer only. We're in Chicago but we zig-zagged around Ohio most summer weekends. I remember once it rained and everyone crowded into a home that was on the grounds. What on earth? No idea how more feis weren't rained out. Curly danced in two worlds. The next two were cancelled due to pandemic. Then the one she qualified for last year, she skipped as she said it had become a hassle. I feel a bit bad that she missed worlds when it was finally being held, but I was more than ready to move on.

Bill said...

Nice story about your experience of Irish dancing. A few years ago, my wife and I went to the Donegal Castle and watched a bunch of young kids dance to the Irish music and they were amazing. Your story reminded me of that day. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I assume you are a professional dancer these days. :)

Anonymous said...

I know nothing about Irish dancing but totally enjoyed this story. OMG drunk Jimmy?? Good for you for breaking form and signalling him. So funny and so you!

Ernie said...

Bill- I'm glad you liked it. This might come as a shock to you, but a professional Irish dancer I am not. I was involved with my kids' dancing careers for probably over 15 years. My youngest retired last year (Curly), and I was happy to get my life back. Now I spend more time watching basketball.

Ernie said...

Anonymous - I'm glad you enjoyed it. It was a tad long, but I didn't want to leave out any of the good bits. It is funny sometimes to think back and realize that even though we were not fully formed as kids- we sometimes showed tendencies that would stick around. I can think of a few other 'signals' I would've liked to have shown him. ;)

Busy Bee Suz said...

First, I love that you have a video of your childhood showing you actually existed! (the first video evidence of myself is my bridal shower) I thought your dancing looked great, but I'm not a professional dancer or watcher.

Curly, man, those LONG legs!!

This story is epic. I mean, you were standing up for yourself and others as a kid as you are now! Kudos to you my friend.

I hardly participated in anything, so I have nothing to compare to!!

Ernie said...

Suz - There are home movies of me. There's no sound, but it is pretty fun to watch. When Mini was little, there's a video of me that she used to watch and say I REMEMBER WHEN I DID THAT. Um, that's me - not you. I can see why she'd be confused though. My dancing was HORRID. My feet were not turned out. I was flat on my feet. It gives my girls fits of laughter to watch.

Curly knew how to use her legs. She was all about muscle, strength, and control.

Thanks for noticing. I might use different gestures now vs then. ;)

Our family friends called us the most lesson-taking-est people alive. It was sort of exhausting. There must be a happy medium.