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Top Five Girls under 14b at 2011 North American National Irish Dancing Championships embrace: Champion Anna Sulger (Pender-Keady) with 2nd Libby Decker (Tir Conaill), 3rd Shannon Umhafer (Hagen), 4th Caitlin TeeKing and 5th Clare Ahern (Gilleóghan). Photo by: Feis America LLC

Hoping to win - planning to succeed in Irish dance

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Top Five Girls under 14b at 2011 North American National Irish Dancing Championships embrace: Champion Anna Sulger (Pender-Keady) with 2nd Libby Decker (Tir Conaill), 3rd Shannon Umhafer (Hagen), 4th Caitlin TeeKing and 5th Clare Ahern (Gilleóghan). Photo by: Feis America LLC

It is the rare individual who goes to a feis or major competition and does not hope to win.  ‘Hope springs eternal’ even when the dancer him/herself knows placing is a stretch.  Sometimes we parents also envision scenarios that might contribute to a win THIS time – perhaps this judge values my dancer’s style over technique or that adjudicator was watching another dancer when mine forgot half the step. 

A single focus on placing and winning can be a recipe for disaster.  The dancer forgets about the fun and camaraderie associated with Irish dance and only thinks of the trophy or moving up to the next level.  Unfortunately, today there are fewer opportunities for the simple joy of performing or to participate in a cultural center’s ceili dance or sessíun.  Thus, a majority of Irish dance schools encourage solo competition as skills develop.  The very nature of competition calls for a focus on placing and winning. 

Realistic goal setting almost always results in greater feelings of personal success.  If asked “What do you want from this feis?”, most competitive dancers will answer “To win.” And almost none associate competition with the intrinsic rewards of dancing.  All too often, dancers end up with an ‘all or nothing’ approach and consider all to be lost if they do not place.
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Every year after the regional championships (“Oireachtas”), there seem to be a number of dancers who drop out.  On the surface it may seem that this one single event is powerful enough to make or break a competitive dancer.  But dig a little deeper and we see that critical thinking errors were in place far before this competition that set the stage for that dancer’s definition of ‘failure’.  There are ways to avoid this “all or nothing” approach, which will naturally lead to more success, happiness and joy from this athletic cultural pastime.

As parents, we instinctively want to protect our children from feeling disappointment.  One mom, Kelley, confided in me as we waited anxiously between rounds, our programs and pens at the ready while our dancers optimistically changed into hard shoes and refreshed makeup. 

“I feel sick to my stomach!” she whispered.  “Your daughter is a lovely dancer,” I replied, recollecting her elegant reel round. 

“No, not just for her!” she went on, “I’m sick for all of these dancers and their parents.  They have all worked so hard and the investment in time, energy and resources is enormous.  How can it be decided after just six minutes of dancing whether they are good enough?”

Kelley was referring to the point in a major competition when all becomes unbearably quiet and the stage manager announces the dancers who have placed high enough in the first two rounds to dance a third round.  Every one of those recalled has earned a place on stage at awards; a small percentage will qualify for Nationals, and only a handful will qualify for Worlds.  But the fact is that at the time of the recall announcement, fifty percent of the competitors are eliminated and they and their families respond in different ways. 

We all agree that accepting the outcome is part and parcel to competition; sadly not everyone is able to exert self-control in the face of adrenaline and save tears for a private moment.  Worse than the emotional display are the parents who jeer, defaming those whose best efforts earned them the right to dance a third round.  Remember the study of the toddlers who walked clear ‘off the edge’ of a wall when their smiling parent was at the other end?  It’s not kiddie campus anymore, but the idea holds.  Your smile, your kind words and yes, YOU turning to the parent of a recalled dancer to offer your best wishes and sincere congratulations are as important to your child’s self-esteem as that which instilled those unknowing toddlers to walk ‘off’ that wall.

How many of us have joked that we would love to go to Worlds?  This places inherent pressure on the children even when the comment is said in jest.  We adults must keep it in perspective as well, especially when Auntie Moira visits and asks, “Did s/he win?”  It doesn’t help that the grade levels are ‘all about’ getting the first placements to move up.  Nearly every champion dancer remembers the shock of going home with nothing after years of first, second and third place medals on colorful ribbons.

There are many goals that can be set along the path to placing at a local feis or even for qualifying for a major competition such as the Worlds.  Helping your child outline clear and reasonable objectives will keep the dancer grounded and freed from the “if I don’t win, I lose” chokehold on their confidence.

Setting goals that are simple and attainable is the best place to start.  Use a gradient approach where the more realistic goals are listed first, followed by those of increasing difficulty.  Write them down to make them real.  For example, your dancer might list placing at a feis as her end goal.  Define the timeline to meet the goal, and do your part by making sure that s/he is registered on time for the feisianna you agree to attend.

Start by helping him/her map out a realistic practice schedule, taking all his/her other responsibilities and needs into account.  Encourage your dancer to create a chart showing the steps to be practiced along with the drills that build their technique and endurance.  Add days and times and remember a box for that gratifying checkmark!  Success is plainly seen on paper.  

I sensed my friend Margaret’s frustration with her children’s unrealistic goals and lack of practice outside dance class.  “My dancers have lofty goals about getting firsts to move up another level so they can wear a solo costume but they are lax about practicing at home.  I keep telling them, ‘these are YOUR goals, not mine’.  Don’t complain when you don’t reach them because you haven’t made the effort outside of class!”

A sympathetic teacher reminded me that while my daughter’s dance class lasts two hours, there are sometimes as many as twenty dancers running through the drills one at a time.  Fifteen dedicated minutes a day to start is realistic; perhaps one objective could be to increase practice by five minutes every week or two until a thirty-minute practice session is manageable. Set a timer to help the dancer keep it in perspective.

Having a concrete plan will alleviate parental anxiety and teach the dancer responsibility.
Remember to have a single goal with no more than five objectives to reach it.  If daily practice is the first objective, perhaps the second is a commitment to attend class regularly.  A third objective might include extra practice with a friend once a week or an additional dance class one weekend a month.  A fourth objective could be a morning and evening stretching routine, just a few minutes’ at the beginning and end of each day to focus on the goal and help the body stay limber.

Finally, remember that the dancer’s regimen leading up to a competition is important.  Perhaps the fifth objective focuses on sleep and nutrition, such as no sleepovers or fast food.  Again, write them down and check them off!   Other areas that might be incorporated into goal setting for older children might include cross training and the identification of a mentor who can serve as inspiration.

Using the single goal and specific objectives approach to competition makes Oireachtas and Nationals just another venue and timeline.  Partner with your teacher, encourage your dancer to share his/her goal and checklist and use adjudicator feedback to impress that success is a process.  Remember to help your dancer revise objectives as time elapses, engaging teachers to help measure improvement and make constructive suggestions.

Make ‘meeting a new friend in my competition’ an objective for every feis, and your dancer will always go home a winner!
   
There is always another feis around the corner. 

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