As many of the people who read my blog are affiliated with Irish dancing, I would like to take this opportunity to address them directly. While the aim of this missive is to express some of my thoughts on the current state of Irish dancing, I suspect that other readers will be able to expand its scope to include other areas of life.
Dear Parents and Teachers of Irish Dancers,
It has been a great honor and privilege to serve as a feis musician for nearly ten years. Beginning with local feiseanna while in high school, I have had the wonderful opportunity to travel all over the United States and Canada providing music for your dancers. After entering the Society of Jesus in 2004, it was my fear that I'd be unable to continue playing. Fortunately, my religious superiors have encouraged me to share my love of Irish music and have, consequently, allowed me out to play again. This last year in particular has found me playing both at feiseanna run by old friends - a chance to spend time with "feis friends" I have known for many years - as well as at feiseanna in the New York region I had not played when I still lived in Cleveland.
It is from my vantage point as one who sits at the side of the stage that I write you. This stage is both literal and metaphorical; for as I sit for many hours playing the accordion for the dancers, so too do I sit "side stage" as an observer of the innerworkings of Irish dancing play out on a day-to-day basis. What follows are only my observations, a voice speaking from both inside the fray and, in no small sense, outside of the cacophony of music and voices and heavy shoes that seem to fill the air.
It is with great dismay that I have left a number of feiseanna this past year. While a fan of competition as a means to challenge oneself and to strive toward becoming an ever-greater exponent of a medium, I must confess to being most disturbed by the level and intensity of competition. From my seat "side stage" I have heard parents encouraging their children not to speak to other dancers; I have seen dancers aggressively pursue other dancers on stage such that dancers have fallen and been injured; I have watched glitter-laden tears streak the overly-rouged face of a ten year-old girl after a mistake in her slip jig elicted an awful and stinging critique from her mother. I have watched boys and girls as they guzzled Red Bull in the hope that the surge of caffeine and sugar will give them an edge; and edge, sadly, that seems to result in them throwing up after they are done dancing. The anonymity of the message boards exacerbate this problem: people citing their interpretations of NAFC rules, insinuations, and un-charitable treatment of feis organizers, adjudicators, and musicians. It seems that so long as no one knows who you are, it is entirely acceptable to name ADCRG's and musicians and offer one's critique of that person.
From where I sit, I often muse on the message communicated to the female dancers. Is it that in order to win, to be sucessful, they must have "the look"? Are small fortunes are spent on the latest costumes, garrish make-up, wigs, fake tans, in order to achieve this purpose? I fully understand the desire of people to look beautiful, but I do not see anything beautiful or comely in all of this. What I see is a message that says, "If you want to be a success, you must conform to an established norm. You will win only if you cease being you as an individual and step into the figure of a champion." In an era of image-consciousness when anorexia and bulemia are plaguing teens, I just have to pause to wonder whether this is a healthy message to send to children. I muse often, too, on the state of the dresses: with the increase in price there has been a commensurate increase in garrishness such that I see no relationship between the "Irish Dancing Costume" and anything Irish save for the fact that somewhere beneath the sequins, ostrich feathers, and various ornaments there are two feet that are dancing.
To some extent, I do fault the teachers. Have you cultivated an attitude at your school of win-at-all-costs? Has your sense of self become tied to the success or failure of your Irish dancing students? When you took your exam to become a TCRG (teacher) did you ever imagine that the gradual evolution of Irish dancing would take on the character of over-priced dresses and synthetic hair? Did you foresee the great sadness you would experience when dancers you had trained to be champions decided to leave you for the latest and greatest teacher who has just opened a class in your neighborhood? Did you anticipate how parents would fight and vie for your attention, how they would second-guess each decision you make, how they would speculate on your alterior motives for each person you put into a ceili or choreography or dance-out performance?
To both parents and teachers, I must ask: do your dancers know anything of the Dancing Masters of Ireland? Do they know anything of Irish music, or is it just the noise that tells the dancer when to start the dance? Do they know the history of the hornpipe or that there are many variations on each of the Traditional Sets? Do they know the history of dancing in America or how much Irish dancing is indebted to the "Old Guard" of Fidelmia Davis, Una Ellis, Peter Smith, Maureen Hall, Cyril McNiff, and others?
When your dancers leave the feis, what is their memory? Do they recall fondly packing a cooler filled with sandwiches and soda and rising early on a Saturday, driving to the feis, and spending the whole day dancing and playing while the parents set up camp and drank their...sodas? Do they have fond memories of feis days and the Oireachtas? As I read message boards before and after various feiseanna, I often wonder how we got along on a feis day when people seem to want to do the feis, the First Communion, the soccer game, and the baseball tournament all in the same day. I understand what it is to be busy and to have a full schedule, but to demand to know the precise times a round will start seems to me to be a bit excessive. Is your dancer's the memory of an unexpected first or is it that the Such-and-Such Feis refused to post results online or that Judge X is corrupt? Is the drive home filled with a happy-and-tired dancer or a lot of fuming and raging about inaccurate start times and corrupt judging?
What appears to be lacking is a sense of discernment. Teachers, when you decided to teach Irish dancing was it for the money? Or was it because you fell in love with the music and dance of Ireland and you decided that it was your calling to pass it along, to claim your place in the Irish tradition as a steward of her culture? Parents, did you enroll your child in dancing to become the World Champion (not a bad goal at all!) or did you want your dancer to have a sense of his or her roots? When you switch schools and engage in back-biting, is this the type of person you want your child to become? One who has no sense of loyalty to one's teacher? I'm not so blind as to say that there are no good reasons to transfer, but it does seem that the capricious manner with which some hop from school to school raises the issue of whether this is the type of adult you want your dancer to become, one who believes always that the grass is greener on the other side.
The pessimism of this letter is tempered by the good that, from my vantage point, I see each day. I love to play the First Feis competition as the new dancers prances around in a circle, executes an exagerrated bow, and runs to his or her parents with justified excitement. I love to see the hard-working preliminary dancer earn her second first place trophy - delivering her into the championship level - as well as the prizewinner boy who has finally mastered his hornpipe timing. It gladdens me to see parents drinking their "sodas" as they laugh and have a good time. And nothing is so refreshing as talking to one of the teacher's about her school or his own children, catching up and sharing memories over a "soda" at the end of the day.
From the side of the stage, I offer music and caution. Long after the trendiness of Irish dancing has faded (if it has not done so already) your child-become-adult will no longer fit into her dress and will not be able to do toe-walks. When your dancer cleans out her closet and finds her old dancing costume, what will she have then? Will hers be the memory of in-and-out days of competition, of intense practice and animosity with other dancers? When your son finds his hardshoes, will he remember the good times he had running throughout a hotel or practicing for a figure choreography or will he recall being yelled at for not placing first? Upon finding the artifacts of a childhood hobby, will they quickly put down the dress and the hardshoes and try to forget, or will they savor the memory and hold out hopes that they, too, might have a child with whom to share their love of their heritage?
Now in the heart of feis season and as visiting teachers come in for pre-Oireachtas workshops, I would just encourage everyone to take a moment to reflect on how Irish dancing affects the dancer. The bonds that tie the new days to the old, the Old Guard to the Next Generation, are far sturdier than the strings of soft shoes or the pins that hold wigs to a dancer's head. These are bonds formed by memory and love. My hope is that we can all remember what it is that we love about Irish dancing and music and that we are able to pass this along to the next generation that they, too, may know something of the love we have for our Irish culture and heritage.
Please know that I hold the dancers, parents, and teachers of Irish dancing in a very special place in my heart. I commend this to you from my humble place at the side of the stage where I sit playing and praying for each of you.
Ryan Duns, SJ