Long before there was “Toddlers & Tiaras,” there was Irish dance.
My first-generation Irish-American mother was determined to rid our family of any possible resemblance to “lace curtain” or “shanty” Irish, but in doing so, she eliminated some of the potential cultural experiences of our heritage. While my neighborhood pals were off learning jigs and two-hand reels, I was enrolled at Miss Marguerite’s Dance Studio to learn tap — which was about as American as you could get, Mom reasoned.
So words like “ceili” and “feis” only existed on the perimeter of my vocabulary; they were things Mary Pat, Mary Catherine, Mary Beth, Mary Frances and Mary talked about on Monday mornings in the schoolyard of St. Margaret of Cortona.
That was until I fell for a first-generation boy in college who introduced me to the joy of ceili dancing. Suddenly my vocabulary broadened to include such phrases as “The Siege of Ennis” and “The Haymaker’s Jig.” I learned to waltz for the first time at an Irish bar called “The Archway.” I thrilled to the steps, the music and the sheer exhiliration of dancing all night and allowing a Guiness to cool your parched throat in between sets.
When I married outside the faith (well, not really, but I married a German-American, so it was the same thing to my family, really), it seemed important to me to pass some of that experience on to the next generation. So at the age of 6, just as “Riverdance” was making Irish dance trendy, we enrolled eldest child in Irish dance lessons. Not as easy to find in Cincinnati as in the Bronx or Westchester, but we found a small school and were off and hopping.
She loved it, and initially, so did we. The 45-minute drive each way on Saturday mornings was a small price to pay for this chance to expose her to such an iconic part of her heritage.
But then came the curls.
As the students learned, they were expected to represent the school at dance competitions throughout the midwest, the nation and even the world. It started off small, with contests in Cincinnati, Columbus, Louisville. But the older girls chattered about “All-Irelands” and other grand and glorious goals, and the younger girls started to catch this new brand of dance fever.
But before you can compete in Irish dance, you have to learn about curling hair. Or at least, you parents do. We actually were asked to take a class on how to roll our daughters’ hair so that the headful of gleaming sausage ringlets would cascade perfectly over the velvet-clad shoulder as our rugrats leapt or pounded across the wood platform. Hair curling should be its own Olympic sport— it’s that complicated.
A full can of high-lacquer super hold Aqua Net would not keep eldest child’s hair in anything resembling a curl, especially not during the warm days of summer competition. Like me she is blessed with fine, straight hair that resists braids, clips, headbands — and especially ringlets.
But we tried. We dutifully bought the special curlers, spent over an hour on the set, listened to her whining about how hard it was to sleep, piled her in the car and then waited until just before performance time to unroll and pull them apart. All things considered, she looked pretty cute.
But like any sport or competition, there are those children who can spot a newer, weaker creature in their midst at 50 yards. As we completed eldest child’s hair and shimmied her into the 75-pound embroidery laden dress, another child sidled across the bleacher row.
“Is that how you’re wearing your hair?” she asked innocently, her eyes gleaming with the thirst of the hunt. “Can’t your parents afford a wig? That’s what the real dancers wear . . . ”
My 7-year-old froze and shot me the scared, “we did it wrong, oh crap, now I’ll never fit in and win a medal and go to college, life is over” look.
As the day wore on, we fielded similarly “innocent” questions and comments from girls and mothers alike.
“Is that your school’s dress? Hmm. I’ve never seen a design like that. Interesting . . . ” “You don’t wear tiaras? Oh, you wear plain crocheted headbands. How quaint!” “We bought Siobhan’s dress in Ireland last year when we were there for All-Irelands; her older sister is world champion, you know . . . ” “We have a glass case at home just for Emily’s medals . . . ” “Oh, I’ve never heard of your school, is it new? . . . ” “Michael Flatley guest instructs at our school once a year . . . ”
By midday, eldest child was in tears, and I wondered what bizarre world I’d landed in. This wasn’t the beauty pageant circuit, was it? Booths and vendors offered embroidered and rhinestone tiaras and headbands, horrifically expensive shoes, dance-related jewelry, glittering brooches, music CDs and even wigs, guaranteed to hold the curl tournament after tournament.
We lasted about five years in the world of Irish dance, but as the students grew older and competition became de rigueur, my daughter’s enthusiasm for the art slipped away. She didn’t care enough about ribbons and medals to embrace the cattiness and psych-out tactics employed by so many of the dancers — and their parents. She just liked to dance, and Irish dance was not just about the joy of kicking and gliding to the contagious music.
Some of the behind-the-scenes work and sweat is captured in a new documentary, “Jig,” but the somewhat disturbing parental blinders about the art are also depicted, as in the story of a family that moves from California to the United Kingdom so that their son can have more opportunity in Irish dance. (I can’t imagine broaching that idea to my husband: “Hon, Gaby’s not getting good enough teaching here. Can we pack up and all move to Belfast in the hopes that she might someday get a part in the supporting cast of a road company show of ‘Riverdance'”?)
As we witnessed in our years of soccer, t-ball, grade-school basketball and football and so many other activities for youth, a new breed of stage parents and even coaches are pushing a competitive spirit of win-at-nearly-any-cost that takes much of the joy out of kicking or hitting a ball, or spinning like a dervish in a jig or reel.
Interestingly, eldest child went from Irish dance to choosing to study martial arts, where the years of high kicks paid off in her current viciously accurate side- and roundhouse kicks. I figure that if she ever meets a bitchy ceili queen in a dark alley, she can hold her own. (Maybe not emotionally, but physically, yes.) She can knock a tiara off at 10 feet.