Thursday, September 20, 2012

The important work we're doing

People see The Seattle Irish Dancers and are often instantly hooked. Irish dance is rhythmic, upbeat, and FUN. It looks accessible, people tend to feel like it's something they could do, or at least it looks like something they wish they could do. I can't even count the number of people who have come up to me after a show and said "I wish I could do what you're doing, you look like you're having so much fun!" I'm not denying the truth of this. Irish dancing is fun. It's not the ballet (though I would argue it's as hard, if not harder than ballet). It resonates with audiences because its accessible. No one wants to watch ballet dancers (or even contemporary dancers) perform with they relax and have a pint. Irish dancing is truly suitable for all audiences, and it's a great time, every time.

With all this fun involved, I sometimes forget the importance of what the Seattle Irish Dancers are doing (or hope to be doing, now and in the future). Not only are we doing something we absolutely love (who can deny that the world needs more people doing what they love?) but we are real life promoters of the importance of art in our lives. We are cultural ambassadors. We are literally keeping an art form alive every time we dance. Sometimes I think about this and get extremely overwhelmed. Then I think about the fact that I teach dance as well, and at some point hope to take my TCRG (the exam to be a qualified Irish Dance teacher). Every time I teach a dancer how to do a skip 2,3, I'm passing on a traditional movement. Yikes!

Traditional dance is especially important in American culture. American's (as a general rule) don't really know how to dance. I think we used to know (people came to America from all over the world, the rest of the world knows how to dance just because, yada yada) but we've lost it somewhere along the way. People are amazed at dancers; professional dancers have been raised up and hailed as phenomenons. I'm not saying professional dancing is not impressive, I'm just saying it's so impressive because so many of us have no concept of using our bodies to move in an expressive way. We are at a point in our culture where someone has to teach us to move. We feel that we have to go to a studio and pay money to learn how to do something that our bodies naturally want to do anyway. Don't get me wrong--no normal person's body automatically wants to do ballet. The same goes for Irish dancing, and jazz and modern etc. But a certain amount of body awareness is certainly engrained in us, we've just hidden it away under layers of embarrassment.

Because of this, I feel that the pressure's on. I feel like as the only performance based Irish Dance company in Seattle right now, we have some big shoes to fill. So far, we've been up to the challenge, but I never want to forget the real reasons we're doing this, we can't let the fun get in the way.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A brief history of my relationship with Irish Dance

In high school, I abruptly quit Irish dancing after years of dedication. I had spent countless hours practicing, performing, going to class, driving to competitions, flying to competitions. I did ballet 5 times a week to help train my body. It was something I loved. I loved learning new steps, I loved being on stage, when I was younger, I loved competing against other dancers.

I fell out of love with dance when I was 15. I was burned out; I wasn't sure why I was doing it anymore, and I didn't put enough time in it to be good at it. I still went to class, and I still loved to perform, so it stayed a part of my life. I really let go of it after I traveled to South Africa with an HIV/AIDS organization. I got back from this trip and felt like Irish dance was the most ridiculous thing in the world. How could I ethically spend hours practicing, performing and competing when so much of the world had so little? I was frustrated with my teacher for thinking that my lack of motivation for Irish dance was important. I was frustrated with my dance friends for choosing dance over anti poverty rallies or fundraisers. I was frustrated with my family for asking me to keep going to dance class, at least until I graduated high school. I went to college without looking back at my Irish dance life-I cut ties completely, and laughed at myself and my silly little dress and wig and shoes. I mocked the culture of Irish dance to no end, as my college friends giggled at pictures of me in the dance regalia.

The end of university came abruptly. I had long since realized that my trip to South Africa had done very little good for the world, and had mixed feelings about the amount of good I, as an outsider, could do for a culture I knew nothing about. I graduated without a clue of what to do with my life; I had a degree in sociology now, and no desire to use it. A friend brought me to a dance class-an adult ballet class at a studio downtown. I was like the cartoon characters that get hit on the head with a frying pan and then have major realizations. This was all I wanted to do. I hadn't felt happy like this in a long time. I went back to the class, and added about 10 more classes a week. Eventually I started working with a modern dance company, I was dancing at last 4 hours a day again, and knew dance was what I was supposed to be doing. Something was still missing though, and I couldn't kid myself about it any longer.

The first trip back to my old dance school, with my old dance teacher, was terrifying. I was truly nauseated I was so nervous. I was afraid he would feel angry or hurt that I had left in such bad form. I was even more afraid that he wouldn't take me back. I think I was most afraid that I had been gone for too long, and my body wouldn't work the right way anymore. He wasn't angry, and he did take me back. Like a guru from a fantasy novel, he said, "I've seen every kid do this, they always come back. I always knew you loved it." Though my first two fears were instantly irrelevant, my worst fear was equally instantly confirmed, my body didn't know how to Irish dance anymore, and didn't respond the way I had hoped. But I kept coming, and eventually it felt like my favorite thing in the world to be doing again.

I competed at our World Qualifier 6 months after coming back. I wish I could say I made a smashing comeback, but I did not. I tried again a year later, again, no come back. But I'm going again this year, and I'm feeling better about it. I feel fulfilled. I feel that I love what I'm doing. I feel that I'm using my life to do something I love. I sometimes have to remind myself that what I'm doing is important, but I don't take as much convincing anymore.

I have a friend (a ex-competitive Irish dancer herself) who cannot wrap her head around why I want to keep competing well into my 20's. She absolutely thinks I should stop as soon as possible. She thinks I'm too old, I need to move on, I need to take my teachers exam and get on with my life. I have to remember that I'm not doing this to impress her, or the other naysayers in the Irish dance community. I'm competing because I love to dance, it motivates me to get better, it makes my body feel good. Since I've been back at dancing, I've seen at least 4 adults my age come back to competition, within my school alone. One girl says she'll stop when she's 30 (maybe). One girl is already in her 30's. One of them is my sister, who still beats me every single time we compete against each other. This doesn't count the dancers in the Seattle Irish Dance Company, who all thought Irish dance couldn't be a part of their lives either. I don't know how long my body will let me do this, but I do know I will never let Irish dance get out of my life again.