The fall season is high-time for regional Irish dance competition across North America, and for the Mid-Atlantic region, Thanksgiving weekend is forever linked with the annual Oireachtas in Philadelphia.
The Oireachtas is a three-day event that, for my Mid-Atlantic region, turns the Philadelphia Marriott into a ground-zero for all things Irish dance. From the competitions to the always hectic but enjoyable results, to vendors selling all things Irish, and of course after-parties in the lobby, there is no escape from the world of Irish dance on Thanksgiving weekend.
I’ve been involved with Irish dancing for quite literally, my whole life. I started taking classes at the ripe old age of 3 with the same dance teacher my mom danced for, Patsy McLoughlin, in New Jersey. Now, at 22 years old, I’ve found myself practicing again after coming out of a five year long hiatus.
I competed in my first Oireachtas at only 5 years old. My mom likes to remind me how she and the other dance-veteran mothers had less than high hopes for our first ever 4-hand competition. “We just hoped you’d get through it up there,” she’s said. Magically, we did.
I’m happy to say that I’ll be making my return to competition this year. While I don’t have the guts (or, apparently, the ankles) to undertake solo competitions again, some friends and I have decided to throw our hats in for the adult 4-hand competition. To be in the adult competition, all members of the team need to have not competed for at least five years.
The last time I competed at the Oireachtas was when I was still in high school. After that, I hung my dance shoes up in order to focus on college, and resolved myself to be a spectator, and sometimes frantic team assistant at the Oireachtas every year. This weekend’s Oireachtas will be my seventeenth - evidently, I can’t escape them, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This year my desire to compete again materialized when I made the cut-off for the adult teams.
Organizing three fellow “retired” dancers, we embarked on the physically-shocking practice of a measly 1 hour a week class. I often find myself wondering now how in God’s name I ever endured two to three hour practices at least twice a week, which were usually intensified around competitions.
The day after practices this year were often met with aching bones and sore feet; time hadn’t been too kind to us during our retirement.
Our first practice about two months ago was a sight to behold. We all knew the dance nearly inside out as we had grown up doing the 4-hand reel every year at the Oireachtas. Physical endurance, on the other hand, was a different story.
After our first run-through, we knew we had our work cut out for us. Sure we had the parts down, but we all, myself in particular, could have used a dose of oxygen following the minute and half row through reel music.
‘Minute and a half!’ you say? I say, give it a try and maybe I’ll share some water with you after.
Aside from our resulting new and fitter physiques, my team and I were truly happy to see the excitement and interest our teachers took in us in preparing us for another round of competitions. Many of them noted how with us back in class, it was like we had never left.
And funnily enough, we had the nearly the same instructions being barked at us. “Kerry, kick your butt! Up on your toes!” Hard to teach an old dog new tricks, I suppose. We did feel like we had never left, though our collective stamina would disagree.
Thankfully, with some practice, we’ve all rediscovered our dancers muscles and fine tuned the same old flaws we’re so familiar with, and without a moment to spare as the competition is this weekend. Winding down to only having time for more practices once we’re in Philadelphia, here’s to hoping that we’ll be in tip-top (or should I say tip-toe?) shape for our competition on Sunday afternoon.
Having nearly survived the un-retiring (competition is Sunday, I’m not in the clear just yet …) of Irish dance, here are a few tips for dancers who are considering coming out of retirement:
-Do it! It’s truly the most fun I’ve had in a while.
-Ease yourself into it. Irish dance is very specific form of exercise that other type of endurance training can’t necessarily keep you in shape for.
-Plan. Do you truly have the time to commit to even a modest practice at least once a week? Do you intend to compete again?
-Check into the rules. Some regulations have changed since I last competed. Do you qualify as an “adult” dancer now?
-Talk it over with your teacher(s). It always helps to have a supportive crew behind you.
-Round up some friends to join you! Sure, the more the merrier.
At this point, for thousands of Irish dancers, the competition is merely hours away. Get practicing, best of luck, and most importantly, have fun!