Has Irish Dancing Lost its Luster?

Nearly a decade ago, when I was a grad student at John Carroll University, I supplemented my meager graduate stipend by playing the accordion at Irish dancing competitions all over the country. Indeed, I made a rather comfortable living off of Irish music - I was able to travel the nation, eat in great restaurants, hang out with people who shared a common interest, play the music I loved, and support the music and culture that was so dear to my heart.

One morning, a person from a feis called my parents' home, looking for me. I had left the house and my mother gave the caller my work number. The administrative assistant answered the call and took the message, promising that I would return the call when I arrived at the office.

Not long after the message was taken, I stepped in and began to check my mail. Out of the blue, I heard, "You know, Ryan, you've got a lot of nerve." Puzzled, I looked up from the mail and said, "Pardon me?" She continued, "I know you do some strange things, but someone from your fetish just called looking for you." It was amidst great laughter that I had to correct her, stressing that it was someone from the feis, or Irish dancing competition, and not some clandestine fetish.

Over the last decade, I have played at countless numbers of feiseanna. As a teacher, it is often difficult to give away an entire weekend for playing, so I have played far fewer than I might have liked. I miss being "on the circuit" and spending time with people I care about doing something I still enjoy. At least, something I think I enjoy.

In recent years, the atmosphere of Irish dancing has changed a lot. When I was a kid - and I know nostalgia plays a role in this interpretation - Irish dancing seemed to be a lot more fun. People from different dance schools got together and had fun with one another. Kids competed, to be sure, but they also enjoyed each other. As a young musician, I was always struck with how much fun the judges and musicians were - they seemed really to love what they were doing.

In the post-Riverdance years, Irish dancing became more and more professionalized. This, certainly increased the caliber of dancing. Yet it also has changed the culture of dancing. Teachers, many who depend on their dancing schools as the main source of income, work very hard to ensure good results for their dancers. Parents, who expect a lot for their investments, are only too willing to transfer dancers multiple times from school-to-school in search of the teacher who will make the child a star. The kids, for their part, get so caught up in doing their three dances for a competition that they totally fail to see the cultural and historical background of what they are doing.

Yesterday, I watched two young teachers spend the day glowering at people associated with other schools. People from other schools then proceeded to speak ill of those teachers. On public message boards, dancers who had transferred are poked fun at.

This animosity sets up an impossible situation. If the kids do well, then the reason has to be politics, or back-room dealings, or the fact that these kids were good beforehand. If the kids do poorly, other adults actually are glad that they didn't do well. The culture of Irish dancing, which once encouraged the best of people, seems more apt to bring out the worst in an increasing number of people.

My good friend Anne Hall, a wonderful judge and dancing teacher, always says, "Dancers come and go. Your colleagues are forever." Long after prizes are awarded, long after the trophy has tarnished and the first-place sash has been put into storage, years after a school's best dancer has retired, the teachers are still there. I simply don't understand why it is that so much energy goes into being jerks over kids when, in all honesty, they will eventually quit and the teachers will still be there, except now they have hurt feelings and bad blood. No dancer, in my estimation, is worth the cost of a friendship.

I look back on my past with Irish dancing and I cannot recount the number of wonderful ways it has impacted my life. This being said, I have serious reservations about seeing my niece and nephew as Irish dancers. I don't know that either of them will gain a more profound understanding of their cultural heritage or gain a sense of what role they will play in the preservation and propagation of their tradition. With the games and politics that seem to be increasing, I don't want them to think - at least not at a young age - that their success or failure in Irish dancing rests not on talent and determination but, rather, on political connections and intrigue. I want them to love Irish dancing and music because it is fun and because it brings out the best of them. I do not want them affiliated if it is only to be pawns in the small-minded games of immature adults.

To my colleagues in Irish dancing: please remember that, after your champion's shoes are put away and the dress sold, after you teach your last lead-around and treble, after you have closed up class for the last time, that you certainly will be remembered by a small number for the world medalists and national champions you trained. Yet, you will be remembered by countless more - the novice dancers who struggled to get third, the leggers who never made it into Preliminary Championships but came to your class because they loved to dance, the kids who gladly danced teams but never did much in the solos - whose lives you have touched by your passion for your craft. You will be remembered for who you loved.  Choose to put medals over people, trophies over hearts, honors over honesty...you will be remembered for what you loved. In the short-term, it may make great business sense. In the long term, I simply don't think it either sustainable or wise.

Please don't read this as an indictment or a judgment. I'm simply a musician - certainly not the best or most talented of them - and I do my best to sit back and play the music. My livelihood does not rest on playing feiseanna, so I feel at greater liberty to speak freely. My words, though, do come from a place of deep concern and love and while they might not reach many, I hope that those they do reach take but a moment to consider their approach to this culture we love so dearly and ask how their actions help, or hinder, its flourishing.


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