With her glowing wig of black curls and bright smile, Mitsi Fink looks like she’s 18 or twenty years old when she points her toes to dance at the Long Island Feis on Sunday. She has danced for seven years and is in four competitions at the Long Island Feis. But Mitsi only took up step-dancing when she was 25 years old. She’s one of the few adult dancers at the feis and is competing with people much younger than her.
“The only way to compete seriously is to dance against people half my age,” she explains. Although there are adult dancers all over the country, many of them do not take feiseanna as seriously as the youngsters; it’s a hobby, a way to make friends or spend time with their children, and as a result, dance teachers themselves do not always take adult dancers seriously. The standard in adult competitions tends to be lower, and until recently, the rules for adult contests made things easier for them too.
“At our level, now they let you do slow and traditional dances, but that’s new,” Mitsi says. Slow dances allow for more intricate steps. “Before it was only slow for kids. A lot of teachers don’t want to invest time in adults.”
Mitsi lives in Sunnyside in Queens and works as a cancer researcher at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Her mother is Japanese and she is, she says, about one sixteenth Irish on her dad’s side. She wears a red dress with Celtic designs on the skirt and a dragon on the top to symbolize the fusion of Asian and Irish cultures, and she sports white knee-high socks with the obligatory sparkles.
Mitsi was always interested in percussive dance like tap, but Irish dancing had a special appeal. “I’m from the post-Riverdance generation,” she tells me. “And I’ve always been drawn to it.”
It can be difficult for adult dancers to get fully involved in competitive dancing, but Mitsi was lucky: her teacher, Niall O’Leary encouraged her when she joined the Niall O’Leary School of Irish dance, and he allowed her to drop down a level to compete with younger dancers. The young girls are fit and their dancing is athletic but she has held her own. She dances at prizewinner level and has ambitions to reach the Worlds.
There are many advantages to dancing as an adult, Mitsi says. Adults can gain from the hobby in ways that children can’t.
“Niall is really heavily involved in the music scene, and he encourages his adult students to hang out with musicians,” she continues. Mitsi used to live in the Upper East Side in Manhattan and she would seek out sessions in Irish bars, and go along and dance. Through this she forged connections and friendships with the Irish music community in Manhattan.
“Dancers should really try to dance with the music and really get into it,” she points out. “That’s definitely a skill that’s hard to achieve.”