Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone! This post originally appeared in Germ Magazine, High school & Beyond: Real Thoughts, Real Writing, Real Life. Germ‘s literary editor, Sheryl Monks, asked me some great questions about dance, poetry, performance and bouncy wigs! Enjoy!
Germ Magazine: Alice, you’re quite well known in Raleigh, North Carolina, where you live, as a poet and editor, but who knew that you also practice Irish folk dancing. Are you Irish? How long have you been practicing and how did you become interested in this style of dance?
I started Irish dancing October 2013. Late last summer I got it into my head that my six-year-old daughter Erin should learn Irish dance since she has a great name for it. Turns out she thought it was too hard to learn after we left a local studio’s open house. But then I had a light bulb moment: why couldn’t I learn Irish dance? I have dance ability. I have timing. I need the exercise. I only needed a school that had daytime classes. So I found one: Rince Go Halainn which is one of two noncompetitive schools in North Carolina, headed by Catrina Mineo. I had that same light bulb moment earlier that summer when I suddenly wanted to learn violin. In a few days I manifested a Craigslist violin and a fabulous teacher who believes my Celtic ancestry is pushing me to discover my inner Celt. I’m not Irish per se, although my Scottish/English ancestors, and maybe even my French ancestors, hailed from the Fair Isle.
Germ Magazine: We understand that the old style of Irish dance is called sean-nós. Is that right? Can you give us a quick overview of the various styles of Irish dance? Is it more accurate to call the style you practice solo step dancing or social folk dancing or something else entirely?
Great question! In North America sean-nós branched into what we know today as clogging and tap dancing—this style is not my form of Irish dance. My form is called traditional solo step and group dancing (céilí dancing) and its roots come from the southern part of Ireland and the 18th and 19th century dance masters who emphasized strict upper body, feet and arm movements. They also choreographed dances with eight bars of music for the right foot and eight bars for the left. Our type of dance is not social folk dancing, although we do get very social before, during and after Irish dancing! Too bad ballet wasn’t this much fun.
Germ Magazine: You recently performed with your dance troupe at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Raleigh. Was this your first public performance? How would you compare dancing before an audience to reading your poetry at a literary event? Were you nervous, or did your experience as a veteran poet help with whatever stage fright you might’ve otherwise felt?
My performance in the St. Patrick’s Day parade went smoothly thanks to doubling up on lessons, practicing at home, and downloading the music. I wasn’t nervous because I’ve already danced with my school at three pub shows. Now at the first two pub shows I was nervous because I was shaky on my timing and moves—plus dancing by yourself and then dancing with full-on crazy Irish music is something else entirely. But by the third show, I held everything together and didn’t go directly into Irish dance “freestyle” when my head went blank. I never felt this way as a kid dancing, but as an adult, I’m more nervous about getting my moves right so I don’t look like an idiot, especially in front of the younger, more experienced dancers! Reading my poetry comes easily to me and I’m never nervous. But if I’m reciting poetry, I get butterflies; same goes if I’m giving a speech or talk—more so if I’m not practiced enough.
Germ Magazine: Tell us about the costumes. Do you wear soft shoes or hard shoes? When is one or the other appropriate?
Because I’m still new, I only wear ghillies, which are the soft shoes. They’re like black ballet slippers, but with laces. When my teacher feels I’m ready, I’ll advance to hard shoes, which are waiting eagerly at the top of my closet. Before my blue and brown school dress arrived in the mail, I wore a black dress with a paneled skirt and lacy sleeves I purchased at Kohl’s. On top of my black tights, I wore black bloomers, which are the undershorts dancers wear so we in the audience don’t see any underwear flashing. With my school dress, I wear the cape that’s pinned on the left shoulder and right hip and the school headband with the blue flower on the left. With my new dress, I wear blue bloomers because the skirt is rather short and I want to go with an intentional look. My teacher said your bloomers should show a lot because that means you’re kicking up high! For practice, I wear a dry-wick T-shirt, a black tennis skirt, tights and ghillies. In Irish dance, like in ballet, you want your teacher to see your knees so she can correct any improper form.
Germ Magazine: There’s a nice feature about your interest in folk dancing at fellow poet Tyler Johnson’s blog <http://www.tylerjohnson.com/blog/dance/why-i-irish-dance/> this week where you list some of the dance attire you wear during performances. In addition to leggings and bloomers, you mention wearing an Irish dancing wig. Is there some significance to this practice? Is it an Irish folk tradition?
Irish girls and curly hair traditionally go together, so back in the day, the hair ideal for Irish folk dancers was to curl their hair and wear their Sunday best before performances. Curly hair equals bouncy hair! It is still de rigueur to have curls for dancing, so ladies have two choices: curl your own hair or wear a wig. I’ve done it both ways and I prefer a wig. My naturally straight got flat and frizzy after five minutes on stage, while my wig stayed pert and uniform all throughout the day. However, I did struggle with it in front of the bathroom mirror. My daughter kept telling me to re-watch the YouTube video—if I had I wouldn’t have put my wig on sideways (it later got fixed).
Germ Magazine: Do you have a favorite step? Our theme this month at Germ is “Dance to the Beat of Your Own Drum.” Do you know how to perform the “Irish Drum” step? The “Walking Irish Drum”?
This is a great video—in fact, my daughter showed it to me a few months ago. I can’t wait to learn the drum step, a hard shoe dance. Right now, my favorite step is the slip jig. If you remember The Thorn Birds, the main theme was a slip jig by Henry Mancini. This step is lyrical, elegant and graceful—plus it doesn’t pull my back out, which is my Achilles’ heel.
Germ Magazine: You studied ballet and tap as a youngster, many years before you took up Irish dance. Is one more strenuous than another, or does each have its own demands?
I did ballet and tap, but I wasn’t one of those girls who wore a bun at school or who did pliés while waiting for class to start. As a kid, ballet and tap didn’t feel hard at all. I loved the once-a-year recitals because of the costumes, makeup, hair and bright lights, and probably would have loved participating in more performances. Irish dancing is more demanding because of more frequent opportunities to perform and I really love that about this sport/hobby. You need to be solid on your old stuff, while still open to learning new steps.
Germ Magazine: Finally, do you have poem about Irish dance or St. Patrick’s Day that we could share with our readers?
St. Patrick’s Day by Jean Blewett
There’s an Isle, a green Isle, set in the sea,
Here’s to the Saint that blessed it!
And here’s to the billows wild and free
That for centuries have caressed it!
Here’s to the day when the men that roam
Send longing eyes o’er the water!
Here’s to the land that still spells home
To each loyal son and daughter!
Here’s to old Ireland-fair, I ween,
With the blue skies stretched above her!
Here’s to her shamrock warm and green,
And here’s to the hearts that love her!
Germ Magazine: Thanks so much, Alice. And best of luck with your dancing and writing!
Thanks so much for having me!