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Dance of Joy
I was young—really young—when I realized I was different. In some of my first memories I sat on the floor in Sunday school, four years old, playing by myself. Even then I just couldn’t fit in.
I was tiny and skinny, with fine, strawberry-blond curls falling in my eyes. My dad says that I didn’t have any hair until I was two years old— or at least you couldn’t see it. I was the baby who always wore a little pink sunbonnet because my skin was so fair. I was the child who hid behind my mother whenever a stranger came to the front door, and I was the child who had my fingers clamped around mom’s belt loop when we went to the grocery store, terrified of getting lost. That was me—until a few years ago.
I was eight years old. My best friend and I sat in the middle seat in my parents’ van. She told me she was taking Irish Dance lessons.
“I’m starting classes next week.” Kiely confided. Being partially of Irish descent (and proud of it) I took an interest. I wanted to know about Irish dance. I asked about the classes, I wondered if I knew anyone else who would be going: I was hooked.
A few weeks later, I went for my first lesson. I wore socks for class that day, and followed the teacher around the entire forty-five minutes. I tried imitating her sharp, precise movements in my graceless, eight-year-old fashion. Hop with the right foot, step in front two, three; hop with the left foot, step in front two, three….
For the rest of the year I wore flimsy Kmart ballet slippers that flopped around on my feet and fell off when I kicked too hard.
The next year I got my first pair of real Rutherford Irish dance shoes. Those are the ones that look like black, lace-up ballet shoes made of leather. Two years later I was given my first pair of Rutherford hard shoes—the kind that resemble tap shoes with fiberglass toe and heel pieces. I loved my new shoes. Wearing the real thing was an immense satisfaction for a ten-year-old with endless energy and an appreciation for the small things in life.
As for Irish dance itself, I had found an unprecedented joy. Irish dance became what my sometimes-teacher, Esther, called my “dance of joy!” Over the years it became even more to me.
When I was fourteen, I had reached the highest level in my school: I was a champion. That was about the time when dance began to really change me. Attending classes and practicing at home, while they gave me joy and helped me attain the rank that I had coveted since I was eight years old, didn’t otherwise have much of an effect on me.
That year, I was invited to be a part of the elite team of dancers our teacher was forming. I would be a leader. I would be a member of a team. A team that works together, trains together, laughs together, and grows together.
In the beginning the team consisted of 10 girls, all at my level or the level directly below. They were acquaintances, people I had known, at least superficially, for years. The deepening of friendships that our work as a team brought about is something that we will always treasure.
I was no longer the little girl on the fringe of the group: I was part of something. Even when our first performance as a team, at a benefit, was full of mistakes, we were still a team.
However, amid the flash of colorful satin and velvet dresses, bouncing wigs, ballooning short blue skirts, black tights, and shoe polish, there have been problems.
A good-natured rivalry between Angelina, the oldest member of the team, and Faith, one of the youngest, kept us all laughing even though it occasionally grew out of hand with prank phone calls and competition for control of the stage.
The colorful dresses—Faith in lilac, lavender and lace; Angelina in contrasting raspberry and white—symbolized their clashing personalities. Faith is the carefree, boy crazy tween, and Angelina the world-weary, cash-strapped, over-stressed and under-rested barely-adult.
Then there was Gloria. She was wonderful, friendly and tried hard. There was just something about a teenager needing help to tie her shoes, pin her wig and glue her socks…
Suffice to say, that while our experience as a team was not perfect, it was an experience worth the time. I learned how to deal with people through this team. While we dealt with each other, within the team, we also often dealt with strangers. After each performance, the dance team was required to mingle with the audience. We answered questions and learned to graciously accept compliments.
Two years after our first performance, I performed with the Martin Family Band at a folk festival.
The day started with our arrival at the festival early on. The Martin family, all eight of them, had been there for about a week already, playing two sets of tunes a day. That day, the team was to join them for the second set.
My family attended with me and brought our friend, a teammate of mine, Gretchen. Gretchen was, at the time, about to become the first dancer from my school to achieve the only level above championship, Open Championship, the highest level in the world of Irish dancing.
We parked and walked through the gate, receiving stamps on our hands indicating that we hadn’t jumped the fence, and lugged our duffels and awkward dress bags through the crowd.
When we arrived at the stage, the Martin family was waiting, watching the other performers, a bluegrass band called Blue Mountain Junction. The banjo picking and guitar strumming set the toes of the audience to tapping.
After a spending a few minutes listening to the music and getting settled, we rested in the shade of the giant maple trees. When the time drew closer for the Martin Family Band to play their first set, Gretchen and I received the surprise of the day. Nelson Martin, the father and leader of the band, asked the two of us if we would like to join their first set of tunes. Not to be suppressed, the ever exuberant and energized Gretchen eagerly accepted the offer for both of us.
I will say that I have never been a fan of improvisation or impromptu performances. I am careful that way. I meticulously check every detail, from the smile on my face to the speed of the music. This set was impromptu.
Since the rest of the team had yet to arrive, Gretchen and I spent a few minutes going over what we wished to do. We chose a tune—a reel which we had performed with the Martin family before—and planned our choreography. We would each take the steps that we had learned and fly across the stage, cross each others’ paths and go into our intricate two-hand reel.
The reel is an upbeat, fast tune which may be performed in either soft shoes or hard shoes. Any number of moves can be choreographed to it. A “step” is a short choreography for one performer that usually last for sixteen bars of music. A two hand is a dance that is performed by two people at the same time, and it may be performed to nearly any music.
After Gretchen and I decided on our choreography, I nervously awaited the tune that we had chosen to perform to. I suppose that some people can suppress their nervousness, but when I am nervous, I’m nervous and that is the end of it. On a day when the temperature soars into the high nineties, nervousness is a killer. I have never been more thankful for a breeze and a cool pavilion.
A signal from my friend Melissa, the lead fiddle player, and I danced onto the stage. My feet were flying—my hair, too—and the first tune was a complete disaster. Somehow, we miscounted the bars, miscounted steps, and miscalculated meeting points.
I don’t think that I will ever forget that tune. But, something was different. Something had changed in me, previous to that performance. I flubbed a tune in the first set and later I went back on and rocked the second set. I even went wandering about the festival with Nelson and Melissa, playing and dancing in the middle of the walkways.
I was tired. It was hot. I had every reason to find a private corner and cry, but I didn’t.
That shy, disconnected little girl from Mrs. DeWitt’s Sunday school class didn’t exist anymore. The feeling of belonging and being good at something gave me confidence; my years of experience performing at these types of events gave me the perspective of time and knowledge. I knew that these types of problems were inescapable.
Each stage and set of circumstances is different and part of being a professional dancer (okay, semi-professional) is learning to deal with the problems that arise on stage. Being flexible and always knowing you did your best, even if you make mistakes.
Being professional in my on-stage performances and interaction with the audiences forced me to learn how to deal with people. I may not be an extrovert now, but I’m not hiding behind my mother anymore, either.