Last year I made my return to competitive Irish dancing at the Mid-Atlantic Oireachtas for 2011. Three other friends and former dancers joined me, and we competed in the adult ladies four-hand competition, which we wound up winning.
The itch to compete, however, hadn’t subsided. This year, I found myself competing in an 8-hand adult ladies competition with seven other friends and former dancers, all from the Early-McLoughlin School of Irish Dance, based in New Jersey and New York.
This year’s Oireachtas is my 18th consecutive time attending. I wasn’t competing for a few years prior to 2011, but that’s changed now.
This year’s Mid-Atlantic Oireachtas was chaired by Jean Hagen Duffy, ADCRG; Colleen Schroeder, TCRG; and Maureen O’Grady, TCRG. The honorees were Kerry Kelly-Oster, Deirdre Shea and Christine Boland. The competition saw dancers of all ages and expertise from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York come together to compete and qualify for National and World competitions.
I said it last year, but getting to come back to the same school and same teachers where you first began is an experience like no other. Six other ladies, who were returning to dance for the first time, joined me and another girl who was on my 4-hand last year. We had all grown up dancing together, so getting to head back to class together was great fun.
Coming back into class, we realized everything and nothing had changed all at the same time. The style and caliber of dancing is far superior to anything we were used to during our time competing in our not-so-distant teenage years. The once ‘fancy’ moves like feathers and ‘bicycle’ kicks look outdated compared to the speed and agility of today’s top dancers.
At the same rate, when my team began practicing, it was back to basics. Our beloved teacher Patsy was again yelling at us to kick our butts, and of course, to keep the chatter down. We couldn’t help but laugh and, of course, abide.
Thankfully, by doing a traditional ceili dance, we wouldn’t be subjected to having to learn the new tricks of today’s solo dancers. Ceili dances are uniform across the board, save for some very minor interpretation. Execution - dancing, timing, appearance - outweighs creativity in ceili dancing.
As retired dancers who had done the Cross Reel 8-hand several times in competition before, we knew exactly what needed to be done and how it needed to be danced. Getting there, however, would take some practice.
We committed ourselves to at least an hour and a half of practice a week - a measly comparison to our Oireachtas preparations of years passed. Our achy feet and legs would have us believe otherwise, though.
Week after week we improved as a team. Getting our counts memorized, knowing exactly where to ‘cut’ into a skip-two-three or not, keeping our arms steady and even - it took work, but we muscled through.
We were all excited to be back in each other’s company though again, reminiscing about the past. Our shared experiences of competitions and dance classes cultivated the friendships we would end up carrying with us outside the dance halls and into the present.
Soon enough, Oireachtas was upon us. Thankfully, our adult competition was held in the afternoon on Sunday of the three-day weekend event, meaning we could get in more practice time once in Philadelphia - as well as some socializing in the lobby bar.
Sunday rolled around quickly though. We piled on the makeup, whipped our hair up under faux hair pieces and bedazzled crowns to take the stage once again, together.
To say we were nervous sidestage is an understatement. We were a perfect storm of nerves, excitement and anxiety. We tried to stretch out our old muscles a few more times, and made sure our shoes were all double-knotted. It had been so long for some of us since we were in this situation - about to dance at the Oireachtas! The stress! The pressure! The fun!
Thankfully, we were surrounded by other competing teams who had a better grip on their nerves. One team kindly pointed out that one of our team members’ cape was unpinned before wishing us good luck on stage. I’m happy to report that the sometimes catty competitiveness of teenage competitions evidently subsides with age.
Getting back on stage is surreal. The stage feels bigger than you remember. But to look around and see your team smiling, perhaps nervously, perhaps dumbly, back at you waiting for the music to start is a thrill like no other for a competitive dancer. When the music does start, you find your legs and feet taking care of all the work.
The dance flies by and all of a sudden you’re bowing, holding hands with your team. Your parents, friends and dancers from your school are roaring from the back of the audience. That’s it; it’s up to the judges now who are scribbling away their scores before hitting the bell, signifying you’re free to exit the stage.
We’re met by a barrage of hugs, kisses and tears of those who were excited to see us back up on stage, ultimately successful with no glaring flaws during the performance. Still, anything could happen at results, so we try not to get too excited one way or another.
Results finally roll around and we’re jittery with excitement and nerves. (Being adults, however, permits us to indulge in the beer or glass of wine to help calm the nerves, a welcome difference from our younger years.)
Our school places well in the other ceili competitions they’re entered in, but no one captures the first place title. We’re the last team from the McLoughlin school to hear our results.
We scurry sidestage, holding hands in a chain, as they begin to call out the numbers for the six places in the competition that saw 12 teams compete. The numbers keep coming down. I myself prepare to be called for each and every place - first would be perfect, but any place would be knowing that many of us have dusted off our reel shoes for the first time in years.
And then they call second place...not us. We’ve won it! We won the Oireachtas, as a team, much to our teachers, fellow dancers and families’ delight. We’re roaring before we run on stage to hoist the trophy on the podium.
We’re just as possessed as when we were dancing just a few hours earlier in competition. Excitement takes over us all as we’re cheering and waving to the audience. This … this is great.
We take time for a group hug before we get off stage to be met by our teachers. Still jittery with excitement, we make our way to the back of the hall for pictures with our new prize.
Talks quickly turn to whether we’ll make our way to the North American Irish Dance Championships - also known as Nationals - in Anaheim in July. As of right now we will, another chance to reunite as dancers and friends, another chance to pay homage to our long history with the Early-McLoughlin School of Irish Dance.