Some people spend Thanksgiving weekend watching football and shopping for bargains; others travel far from their homes to watch intense Irish dance competitions, as Mike Farragher did when he went to Philadelphia to watch a top regional championship.
As I was pulling into the parking deck of the hotel that hosted the Mid Atlantic Regional Oireachtas Step Dance competition in downtown Philadelphia over the weekend, my iPhone buzzed. I looked down at the text from one of my dance mom friends that lit up my screen.
"Don't make us look crazy or we will find u and kill u."
Ah, another day in the life of a feature writer, another threat against your life!
This time, the threat level was "code red" because it was clear I had hit a nerve.
None of the organizers seemed keen on me writing a piece on the Irish step dance mom culture from a dad's point of view, with my requests for press passes and backstage access politely ignored. The moms who did know who I was and why I was there looked anxious and went to great lengths in explaining how different this scene was from shows like Toddlers and Tiaras and Dance Moms.
I was informed the dance and pageant culture portrayed in those reality programs was "a whole different league of crazy" by one mom as she rounded up her girls for an appointment with the on-site spray tanner, oblivious to the irony.
“Feistan” is the official spray tanning service of the Oireachtas. Services range from the full face for $5 to the full body treatment for $45.
Aren't we a proud and pale nation with freckles that light up our faces like the stars illuminating the night sky? Am I the only one that finds something vulgar in the exchange of this natural porcelain beauty for a coat of burnt cheddar toner that makes your kid look like an oompa loompa refugee from Willy Wonka's candy factory?
They may con themselves into thinking their scene is “not as bad” as reality television fodder, yet there were signs that the Irish American competitive stepdance vibe is nuttier than squirrel crap with all the dramatic ingredients of anything on Bravo or The Learning Channel.
Tensions rose in the expansive ballroom known as the practice area, transformed on this day into a humid sauna with puffed estrogen clouds licking the chandeliers above.
One mom could be seen emptying an entire can of noxious gold spray paint as she concealed the silky, jet black hair that peeked out from the gold curly wig pinned to her head. Nearby, a gaggle of barrel-bellied broads stood at the perimeter of a portable wood dance floor. They were upset that a dozen dancers dressed in black with pink trim were hogging the space, their blood rolling to a boil with each tap pity-tap.
"S***'s gonna get real if I don't see some space on this floor for other troupes," brayed one.
"It would be one thing if they had a shot of winning," hissed another.
The word "Oireachtas" is Gaelic for "nobleman," according to Wikipedia. The husbands were outnumbered twentyfold on this day, as these noble men wilted under the weight of dry cleaning bags of ornately embroidered dresses.
They scurried through the hall to frantically fulfill coffee orders or to fetch that extra can of hairspray for the steel-jawed missus. One father who dared to check sports scores on his smartphone was subjected to a public verbal crucifixion by his wife, an acid-tongued lass from “the auld sod” who was clearly venting her frustration over a curly wig that would not lay down properly over the foam “donut” underneath.
It was competition time! We were directed to Ballroom B, where my friend’s daughter did a mighty job in the 8-hand ceili competition. There were 53 dance groups on the roster that did some variation of a routine called “trip to the cottage.”
Though the routines were fairly repetitive, it was a marvel to see the precision and athleticism dance with one another onstage! It was cause for celebration later that evening when my adopted team finished in the top ten!
The Druids were reportedly the first people to dance in Ireland as part of religious rituals honoring the oak tree and the sun. Many centuries later, the Irish stepdance is a true competition, as intense as any Olympic qualifier.
As the accordion whirled to life as an electric piano veered somewhere between a polka and a reggae jam, my friend closed her eyes and rocked on her heels for a minute.
“I hear the music and it takes me back,” she said. “It reminds me of my mom, the times I had with her that I’ll never get back, and the friendships I had with the girls in my 8-hand group that I cherish to this day. No matter where I am, I can hear that music and I am home.”
Y’know, maybe this isn’t so crazy after all...