Tuesday, June 26, 2007

More Fun at the Fair

As some of you know, if a person makes a complaint about something or someone at a feis, he or she is able to file a formal complaint with the feis.
Normally one writes out the infraction and then includes
some nominal fee say, for instance, $10.00.


Now in addition to the irate parent I highlighted in my last post, it has come to my attention that another complaint was filed. Apparently one of the dancers didn't care too particularly well for one of the tunes I played for him. His formal complaint is that I played a reel tainted with Scottish influence. As this is a competition for traditional Irish dancers, he has charged that I impeded his ability to execute his dainty steps by not playing fully traditional Irish music. You can see my accuser pictured here.
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As I said, at a normal feis one would just submit a check and a written complaint and the complainer would feel like he/she had been listened to and the feis would be satisfied with an extra $10.00. Well, this feis is just a smidge different. I had to leave the feis early on Sunday in order to catch my flight back to Chicago. Since the charges were not leveled until after I left, this feis's mechanism of justice began to turn in my absence. In short, they hold a trial. We're talking an epic affair, a Scopes Monkey, Inherit the Wind, hey there get me Atticus Finch sort of affair. Adding enormous gravity to the event is that it is presided over by the queen of the feis. A former World Champion Irish dancer, the feis queen oversees the proper order and running of feiseanna. At our right you can see the Feis Queen as she prepares for the trial, arranging her rare Faux Pearls (Sadly, she thinks Faux is a region of France known for its fine pearl-producing oysters) as her loyal subjects cower before her refulgent splendor.

I digress.

Since I was not able to make it, the chairwoman of the feis was kind enough to assemble a crack legal team who would work at exonerating me. Sadly, Clarence Darrow and Johnny Cochran they are not:

So to make a long story short, the trial resulted in a guilty verdict. Now, if there is an upside to this verdict, it is that I have a choice in my sentence. I am either to enter into a six-year term of service on a spice trading ship OR I may accept one year of exile from the feis. I have duly accepted this latter option, accepting my exile to the Isle of Chicago where I will study German before returning to New York where I will resume the study of philosophy. Perhaps a year will give me time enough to consider the errors of my ways, a year before I will (hopefully, if asked back) play at the Feis at the Fair.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Oh The Places You'll Go!

The title of the Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You'll Go certainly seems to capture well the life of a Jesuit. Two summers ago we took a road trip to Denver where we studied Jesuit history for a month. One year ago at this time I was in Lima, Peru studying Spanish and learning to see the presence of God in a third-world milieu. This summer, I'm studying German in Chicago. While this summer may seem far less glamorous than my previous two, I now have pictorial evidence to the contrary.

As many of you know, I play the accordion for Irish dancers. Last Monday I received a desperate phone call asking me to come out to Irvine, California to play at an Irish dancing competition. Never one to turn down a trip across the country, I accepted the invitation and I played both Saturday and Sunday at the Feis at the Fair. So what made this event extraordinary?

THE PEOPLE!!

I spend much of my day in the same position:

You can tell by the look of studied concentration on my face that I am thinking very hard about the piece of music that I'm playing. Taken on Saturday afternoon, this picture doesn't quite do justice to the sunburn I have sustained on my bald head.


Now, I must confess that sometimes I get lonely while playing. Irish dancing teachers and judges seem to want to talk only of Irish dancing. The Irish dancers themselves pretty much ignore me (I am, after all, only a musician so what difference do I make to them and their dancing??). So I'm forced to go off to find new friends with whom to share my feelings. Friends like these


I spent quite a long time with my two new friends, talking about our feelings and discussing the spice trade and bartering for magic beans.









But a feis requires a lot of work and, as it was an outdoor event, I ended up playing for HOURS under the blazing hot sun. Truth be told, I was under a tent for much of the day, but the heat does takes its toll after a spell. So wouldn't you know that I totally messed up during while a dancer was performing? I was contrite and apologetic but this guy wouldn't let the matter rest. Talk about a terrible stage parent!

It's one thing to want to be defensive on behalf of your child, but this fellow took it to a whole new level. So, to make a long story short, I used the broad sword I purchased from the local blacksmith (I was deciding between a sun hat and a sword. I'm glad I risked sunstroke for safety). I didn't get a picture of me with my trusty blade, but I did manage one of Ye Olde Blacksmith who forged it for me. I think his name is Lothar


As you can see below, this mildly overbearing recoiled in fear as I brandished before him my blade. He put down his weapon and surrendered. He even offered me his pelt. A friend of PETA, I respectfully declined.















And so, my feis day began to wind down. After many hours of reels and jigs and a few brushes with irate parents, I relaxed with a stein of grog. While sipping my frothy ale, I managed to capture a photo of the chair of the event as he relaxed after a hard day at the feis.




In the wake of my letter to the parents and teachers of Irish dancers, I received a number of questions as to whether I would continue playing at feiseanna. My answer is simply and resoundingly: YES. I love to play for Irish dancers. I love the fun and quirkiness of each feis day. These pictures and my (inane) story illustrate, I hope, something of the fun I find as a participant in this great art form. A joy that I hope many participants in our Irish culture avail themselves of often!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Mired in Verbs

My "German for Reading Knowledge" course began yesterday and I've already spent many hours cramming German verbs and grammatical structures into my brain. It'll be a challenging course of studies, I reckon, but I am pretty confident that my ability to read German will increase exponentially over these next few weeks.

I haven't any idea as to how often I'll be able to update this blog. I'm going to go to California this weekend to play at a feis, so I need to be very diligent with my German so that I can lose two days of studying in order to travel/play. I hadn't planned on attending this feis but the organizer is down a musician and can't find anyone else to play. So, I'm going to sacrifice myself by going to LA for a weekend. It's a rough life, I know.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Another Weekend Away

This weekend I'll be playing at the Chicago Feis (held at Gaelic Park) and then I'll move into the Jesuit Community located in Hyde Park, IL. As many of you know, on Monday I will begin an intensive 5-week course in "German for Reading" so that, when all is said and done, I'll be able to read Karl Rahner, SJ in his native tongue.

Since I don't have a public site-counter running on this site, I thought I might mention that we've had nearly 1,000 visitors each day since I posted my (now infamous?) letter. I'd just like to share a few brief thoughts:

First, thank you to all who have commented here. I am glad that my observations and sentiments are striking a chord with many of you. I tried to be as fair and as balanced as possible while still trying to say something. I'm glad, then, to know that what I said has resonated with the experience of many.

Second, I am aware of the (inconsequential) discussion that has taken place on The Irish Dancing Message Board (www.voy.com/60473/). Again, it is obvious that most of the readers/commentors are supportive of my observations. The few critical voices are entitled to have an opinion, although I find them to be both woefully misinformed and wholly uncharitable. I don't mind engaging in a point-for-point discussion, but I do resent the ad hominim attacks leveled by some. Then again, they can attack me because I sign my name, but they choose to post anonymously. I reckon that such a choice is just an indication of the depth and quality of their character which, from what I have read from some of them, is more of a problem for them than it is for me.

In totally non-Irish dancing related news:

DoubleDay Books has invited me to write reviews on some of there Catholic books. Stay tuned for a full review of John Allen's Opus Dei and Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Letter to the Irish Dancing Community

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.

Blessings,

Ryan Duns, SJ
Musician

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Enormous Apologies

I'm leaving in 30 minutes for Province Days, so I have to be very brief.

It seems that many readers have emailed me using an Aol.com address. THe only trouble is that I didn't realize that I had such an address. I have dunsryan "at" yahoo.com that I use for this blog, but I suspect many people figured I used both.

If you have written me over the last year and didn't receive a response, I am very very sorry. On a lark I opened the mailbox to my account only to discover that many had written me. I will do my best to respond to the many emails sent.

Karen, I know understand why you thought I was ignorning you! For all future reference and to ensure that you get a reply, I invite anyone who needs to do so to write me EITHER at the Yahoo address or RyanDuns "AT" gmail.com


Many Apologies!

Ryan

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Shame on Me

Well, I'll admit that I'm a glutton for punishment. As you can see from the post below, I had an awful experience two weeks ago when I went the the school mass at my local parish. In light of my comments below, it'll probably come as a shock to many of you that I returned there this morning. In truth, I'd not have gone there had it not been my sister's graduation mass.

I sat in a new location - toward the rear of the church, providing me with a fine vantage point from whence to take the whole affair in. I'd quibble with the selection and pacing of the music (funeral dirges) but my real bugbear is with the vocalists. Instead of recognizing and embracing human (and vocal) finitude, the organist and cantor imagined themselves to be Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram as they crooned out the Gloria. It was brilliantly comical as I they tried to weave back and forth. The result of the weaving, however, was a tangle of melody and words that left me wondering whether to continue praying or to start the WAVE to make sure the congregation had survived this liturgical train wreck.

Interestingly, I have already had my coffee and bagel this morning, so this is a mild post compared to what it would have been were I to have neglected my morning sustenance!


In other news:

I am home for the next ten days. We will be celebrating the ordination to the priesthood of Michael Simone, SJ on Saturday at John Carroll University. In addition, I'll be at JCU for our Province Days on Thursday and Friday. Next week I hope to reconnect with some friends, finish an abstract for an article I wrote, and pack for my move to Chicago where I will study German this summer.

I have a post in mind concerning discernment, but it will have to wait a few more days. I'm busily reading two books - a new guide to Karl Rahner's theology and Pope Benedict's "Jesus of Nazareth." In regard to the latter, it is really a masterpiece: beautifully written and deeply considered, it's the kind of book that incites a person to pray. I'm reading it slowly, trying to take in all of its insights as it guides me to know and love Christ more deeply. If you've the notion, I'd strongly suggest obtaining a copy.

I'm off to Border's and then I'm meeting a friend for coffee. Best to all!