I’ve been an Irish dancer since before I could remember. My childhood is marked by hair curlers (later replaced by wigs), Thursday and Friday evenings’ humid dance classes, and poodle socks. Poodle socks everywhere.
The competitive world of Irish dancing has changed a lot since I was a child. It’s hard today not to get caught up in the “politics” or pageantry of competition that so often belittles many dancers’ talents and or hard work.
However, the perks of being an Irish dancer remain by and large the same, if not growing better with age.
This past weekend I found myself in Anaheim, California - a six-hour plane ride from my home of New Jersey - with thousands of other Irish dancers from around the world for the five-day competition of the North American Irish Dance Championships, shortly known as Nationals.
My mom, who came along and is a former Irish dancer herself, frequently noted how bizarre it felt to be bringing her relatively “old” 24-year-old daughter to a major dance competition. Some former competitors and teachers from other schools we ran into in Anaheim weren’t sure exactly why we were there before explaining I was actually competing.
I last competed back in November in Philadelphia at the Mid-Atlantic Region Oireachtas. There, my eight-hand ceili team and I took first place in the adult competition. Soon after, we decided it would only make sense to go on to Nationals (especially with them being in California, a perk if ever there was one.)
The year before that, I competed in a four-hand competition at the Oireachtas, ending a five-year hiatus from competition for my team and me, and ultimately winning first place.
I can’t lie - winning first in a regional competition is a lot of fun. Growing up as a solo dancer, I usually considered myself lucky to even place in local or regional competitions. I was never really the front of the pack; I was mediocre in competitions. Marks often showed that I was the next placement out from actually being placed, thus coining the nickname “One Away O’Shea”.
But for me, Irish dancing was more than about the placements. I was never one to stress about results or marks. There would always be another competition to dance at; why worry?
Despite my sometimes lackluster approach to practicing, my parents didn’t fuss too much about the money. Not because my family is necessarily rolling in cash, but because Irish dancing is more than that, something that was reiterated to me this weekend in Anaheim.
Irish dancing has deep albeit relatively new roots in my family. My mother, the daughter of Irish immigrants, began her Irish dance career early as well, first dancing for Fedelmia Davis, before switching over Patsy McLoughlin, who I dance for today.
However, and perhaps this is due to the intense cultural aspect of Irish dancing, the relationship between my family and Patsy’s family, and even Fedelmia's, extends beyond teacher and student.
That same and slightly bizarre relationship is carrying on today in my generation. The girls who were on my ceili teams for the past two years were the same girls I grew up dancing with. We all know each other, each other’s families. We’re not just friends at dance class - we’ve been to each other's Communions, Sweet 16s, and even upcoming weddings, along with our families.
My eight-hand team that competed in Anaheim on July 7 was made up of girls who I’ve known my whole life through the Early-McLoughlin School. Growing up, we even competed against each other at times, though it hardly mattered as we all emerged friends first from the sometimes choppy waters of competition.
Reconvening for the Oireachtas (regional competition) this past November, we found ourselves reflecting not upon who won what place at whichever competition, or who beat who when, but rather the shared memories that come as part of the package of Irish dancing.
We recalled, laughing, about the 7-11 we would walk to to get sodas and snacks before Friday night dance class. The seemingly countless birthday parties we all had and attended. The somewhat painful evolution of wigs and costumes from awkward to elegant.
Class oddly doesn’t change, however. We couldn’t help but chuckle when our dance teacher was barking (lovingly, of course) the same corrections she had when we were young teenagers. Or for us to stop talking; apparently that doesn’t go away with age.
We remembered the traveling, not only to dance classes together, but to bigger places like Ireland, Toronto, Nashville, and Orlando for competitions. The shared car rides and plane rides, I’m not sure we realized how lucky we were to be traveling, especially together, so much then, but we do now.
I was laying poolside at the Anaheim Sheraton on 4th of July this year when all the perks of Irish dancing made themselves apparent. Without Irish dancing, I would have most likely not found myself in California for a long time, never mind with some of my lifelong friends.
On Sunday evening, it was announced that our team had won first place at Nationals. Of course, we were thrilled. But it was the celebrations that went on to the early hours of the morning amongst the team, other McLoughlin students, friends and families that was perhaps the most fun.
Competition can sometimes bring out the ugly parts of people, but I’m happy to say Irish dancing, on the whole, has brought about some of the nearest and dearest friendships I’ll ever know.