Editor’s Note: Fauna Gille, an Irish dance teacher with the CLRG-affiliated Corda Mór Irish Dance school in Minnesota, recently took to Facebook to share her equal parts unique and inspirational journey from starting Irish dancing relatively “late” in life to teaching national and regional Irish dancing champions and celebrating top placements at the recent World Irish Dancing Championships. Below are Fauna’s own words that she has agreed to have published here on IrishCentral.

I've been meaning to share the story in writing for a while now; I guess this is the right time. I know as a young dancer and teacher I absolutely clung to stories like this, stories that showed there is more than one path forward in dancing. I hope this helps someone to keep going, and believe they can do it.  

True story - to this day, I want to disappear through the floor when people ask about my achievements as a dancer. The truth is, my sister Cassie and I started dancing very late. I was 14 and Cass was 10. We started once a week in a homeschool class. We went to the one school in our city at the time. It was a certified school, but the TCRG had no real interest in competitive dancing. We competed in the grades, but there was no path forward after that. There were no championship steps or set dances, no interest in training to be competitive past the intro levels.

I'll never forget watching the PC [Preliminary Championship] dancers at a feis [Irish dance competition] for the first time and being in awe. We'd never seen dancing like that in our class or our state. We had no idea what the dancers were doing, but we were driven to figure it out.

We started studying the old Worlds documentaries and learning the clips of everyone's steps. We started going to feises just to watch the championship stage - studying not only the steps, but the technique - developing our own ideas about what went into great dancing. The pull on the knees, the overcross, the back heel off the floor. Basic things, yet new concepts to us.

We learned from Irish Dancing Magazine about something called an Oireachtas and begged our teacher to enter us. I went and competed the first year, U17, in a velvet school dress that covered my knees. I was so proud of myself going into it as I'd worked extremely hard and thought I had learned so much about dancing!

I'll never forget standing sidestage, watching the beautiful girls in the fancy dresses flying across the stage. My steps barely moved. By the time I hit the stage I was so deflated. I finished dead last. And I thoroughly earned that placement!  

The next year, Cass and I took things to the next level (there was nowhere to go but up!) We studied our dancing magazines again to see where the best dancers were located. We traveled to New York, Chicago, and Toronto to watch the champions. We were absolute nerds sitting in the audience with our notebooks, taking notes about the dancing for 8, 10, 12 hours straight. To this day, what I learned from these amazing dancers has stayed with me. Not too long ago I finally met one of my dancing heroes growing up - I was able to tell Kathy Irvine that my entire vision of a slip jig is based on seeing her dance one in Toronto. That's the truth. To this day, I think of her slip jig as I train my dancers.

We learned a lot in that year and made up new steps. We both recalled at the next Oireachtas and I was just off the qualifying. At this point, we'd tapped out on what we could teach ourselves... we longed to be taught by a teacher who took an interest in us and shared our passion for competitive dancing.

We were lucky to have such supportive parents. We left our school and trained on our own until we could find a teacher. Our dad cold-called teachers in Chicago, which was 7 hours away and yet was the closest city with dancing schools. We got a lot of "no's" until one day, we finally got a "maybe". Could we be in Chicago the next morning to tryout? We could.

We were so lucky to be taken in by Amy Moran. She would teach us, and she wanted us to open a location of her school in Minnesota. I had just turned 19 at this time and was graduating from high school. Cass was 14.

We began training with Amy, and also leading classes in Minnesota. Within a year, the location was booming. The pressure to teach full-time grew, and within a year, I stopped dancing without having ever won a championship or gone to Worlds.

So much of the dancing was still a mystery to me. I remember studying for the TCRG [Irish dance teacher's accreditation exam] and opening the ceili book for the first time and feeling like I was reading a foreign language. I had never danced a ceili, let alone been taught one.

When I went to take the TCRG everyone knew each other. I was such a wallflower, didn't know a soul! But at 20, I passed with honors and shifted my focus to training our own dancers - with Cassie's help in every single class.

Teaching was rewarding, yet lonely as young teachers. Cass and I were lucky to make a few really good friends who are still our closest friends to this day.

Within a couple of years, Amy transferred ownership of the Minnesota school to my family and we became Corda Mor.

We began learning from a wonderful workshop teacher who was so good to us. But it was overall, a very solitary path. I remember any time a TC or AD [Irish dance adjudicator] smiled at me, I just about burst inside thinking, maybe they know who I am? Maybe they want to be friends? I was too shy to ever find out, but just the thought of belonging a bit in the dancing world meant a lot to me.

We had some success as young teachers. Within two years, a boy and girl we taught from beginners both took 2nd at our Oireachtas. It was more than we ever dreamed we could achieve as teachers.

Fast forward many years, and we had several World qualifiers at each Oireachtas. But it was not without setbacks. I'll never forget in our 20s, we were celebrating at the Oireachtas on Sunday night, finally feeling like we'd gotten somewhere. We had seven world qualifiers!! Which for us, might as well have been 100 - it was so far past what we ever dreamed we could achieve.

The following morning, however, the transfer emails began rolling in. We couldn't believe it. Just when we were finally believing in ourselves, our school stopped believing in us. We lost almost 40 dancers over the next 2 years. We went from seven world qualifiers one year, to zero the following year.

Looking back now, I understand. We were young teachers, and people wanted their kids training with more experienced teachers with big successes. That's fair. We still had to learn and pay our dues. We understand that now, but at that time, it was humiliating. We thought we'd never get anywhere in the dancing. This was hardly our only setback, but it stands out as we had to start from scratch. We had to re-think our whole program and take ownership for how we could do better.

From that fresh start, came the school and dancers we have now. At the time, I could see absolutely nothing positive about this challenging time. Looking back now, however, there is no way we'd be where we are today if we hadn't gone through this setback.

As we began to have a top dancer or two, new challenges faced us. I can't tell you how often well-intentioned people would tell us "you need to do this, everyone does and without it, your dancer will never get to the top." Sometimes it was great advice, and other times it was advice that didn't align with who we wanted to be. Through this new experience, we learned to define who we were in the dancing world and what we believed in.

"Success" in the traditional definition had sometimes visited us, and had sometimes avoided us, but we've learned to define success in our own way too. Have we worked as hard as we can to make our dancers the best they can be? Have we stayed true to who we are, and what we value? Have we given our dancers the belief we always longed for - belief in their steps, training, and preparedness? Then that's success in and of itself. When we've let ourselves or our dancers down in any of these areas, then it's time to do all that we did as dancers - study, learn, question, re-evaluate - so we can be better next time.

We live in a world where there's always an excuse if you're looking for it. Cass achieved a lot more than I did as a dancer, but neither of us ever won a major. Neither of us started young, or were taught from the start by a famous teacher. We had plenty of setbacks, plenty of drama, and plenty of signs that maybe the dancing wasn't meant for us. We could and should have walked away so many times, and I don't think anyone would have blamed us. But I'm a true believer that your weaknesses can become your strengths.

We never believed - and still don't believe - that we have dancing all figured out. We are in constant admiration of those who do things better than us; we have so much to learn from so many brilliant teachers and dancers. And that feeling behind, that feeling of never quite having it all figured out, it's the #1 thing that has gotten us anywhere. We can never be complacent because we're perpetually on the chase. In the strangest way, not having a ton of confidence has been the secret to achieving something to feel confident about.

This is all just a small story, but one that will maybe give a dancer or a young teacher that push to keep at it. We have learned that if you love the dancing, there's always a path forward, and a place at the table for you. The dancing world is wonderful and overwhelming and exciting and intimidating all at once. We still struggle with it all and even at this past Worlds, right before one of the best moments of my career - I had tears of doubt in the quiet of my hotel room. The dancing is not for the faint of heart!! But it is for anyone and everyone who loves it and has the passion to find their own path in this amazing and crazy world.

For all the challenges, we wouldn't trade our experience for anything. It's made us who we are and has helped us define who we want to be. Forever grateful for dancing and the crazy, strange, unique, and perfectly imperfect journey.

Finally home and reflecting on an incredible week at the Worlds. We had 11 qualifiers, but only 5 made the trip to...

Posted by Fauna Gille on Sunday, April 17, 2022

You can learn more about Corda Mor on its website, Facebook, and Instagram.

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