I Was a Teenage Irish Stepdancer! Or, A Few Notes on Irish Stepdancing That I’ve Been Meaning to Write Down for Years Now

Michael Flatley in "Feet of Flames" wearing leather trousers.
STOP! Did someone in the audience call Irish Dancing FOLK DANCING? We will show our displeasure through this interpretive Treble Reel!


I am a former Irish Dancer.

I do not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

(But you can! And I love you for it.)

Today will be a day of quiet and rest for me.

Because every St. Patrick’s Day of my childhood, youth, and young adult years felt like an eternity.

And in some ways—it was.


For seventeen years’ worth of St. Patrick’s Days, I performed without pay (because I was still an amateur competitor) starting at 6 a.m. on the 17th and ending somewhere around 3 a.m. on the 18th. This was expected of me, and sometimes I enjoyed it.

Typically, there was some driving and waiting around between shows, and we had some sort of long dinner break around six p.m. to just before eight o’clock.

But, from eight p.m. to three or four the next morning, we’d begin performing again at this large restaurant/bar with a teeny stage. Hour after hour.

This audience loved us more than the other eighteen or nineteen other audiences of the day put together because this audience was really, really, really drunk.


Enough time has lapsed that I don’t feel nearly so grouchy about St. Patrick’s Day.

I’ve got three things I’ve been wanting to say for years.

And I finally feel ready to share these thoughts with you.


1) Irish Dancing is not folk dancing.

The steps are as new as hip-hop, or any other contemporary dance form. In the world of Irish stepdancing, people come out with new ways to move every year.

In folk dancing the steps and the music do not change. Ever. No one adds new movements and you dance to a specific time signature. Typically in a costume of clothes that people in the old country wore for celebrations.

Irish stepdancing has one folk dance equivalent.

There are four plodding “set dances” with slooo-ooow hard shoe steps that every dancer has to learn. We had to do them in competition. I don’t think the generation that’s competing now has to use them at all, but I could be wrong.

Learning the “Trad. sets” helps you appreciate the modern swift-changing form that Irish step dancing has always been, and will always be. It’s also a way for adjudicators to line up four competitors stripped of their fancy choreography and see, in one flick of the eyes, whether the dancers have correct form, timing, and style.

The rest of the dances you encounter are a horn o’plenty of reels and jigs and hornpipes of the soft and hard shoe variety. More bounty: Each soloist will have their own choreography made up of many different steps in combination.

Some of those steps will be new. In the “no one has moved their feet that way in Irish Dancing before I just saw you do it right now” school of newness.


Now, let’s talk about those new steps in Irish Stepdancing.

Where do new steps come from? How do new steps get passed around?

Someone does some cool new thing on stage at the World Championships, and every big competitor and their teachers sees the step, and they steal it.

That original competitor will place no higher than third because brand new steps are not acceptable. Last year’s new step is okay. And everyone is required to do the new step from four years ago with the double-Swiss variation.

But for that first guy: Woe to ye who thought it was a good idea to bring that step to Worlds!

Next year, everyone’s using his new step in their winning solo.

The following year, someone will add three extra somethings to the new step, a movement defying both physics and human anatomy. Gasps all around. And all the teachers and all the dancers steal the souped-up version of the step.

We’ve all got to learn to do the quadruple-doohickey the year after that. It’s become standard for your level of competition.

In the meantime, a dancer and her teacher have come out with “the Swan” which is a crosskey done backwards with a flick both ways, and a boy in a dance school in Killarney just added three twists to it.

That’s what we get to learn next year for our competitions. I hope your kneecaps are double jointed!


2) It’s not called “Riverdancing.” That’s a show.

Irish stepdancing as culture goes way past Michael Flatley. What Flatley (and Marie Duffy and about ten others) did, is loosen up some of the rules of performance.

To be fair, Riverdance was such a phenomenon, former champions were finally able to make a non-competition, non-teaching career out of Irish Dance. Dance teachers were able to fill all their student slots, and probably for the first time, keep a waiting list of would-be students.

However, Flatley created some unfortunate precedents for female dancers— he created a thin body culture Irish Dancing didn’t have and didn’t need.

Before Riverdance, some of the best “power competitors” were built like Muhammad Ali, and they had his considerable physical grace too. I once nearly cried watching this muscular dancer perform. She was a rather famous World Champion, and she was doing things my body would never be able to do.

So there’s that.

With the new “thin” Irish Dance culture, came the weirdly dichotomous femininity—also a Flatley specialty—in which you were either a withering swan or this naughty, naughty girl.

Luckily, I was heading for the exit by then. I had a university degree and I was going off to graduate school.

I didn’t have an interest in dressing up as one of Flatley’s female chorus members: Three wigs sewn together to make one super-wig, six slickery coats of spray tan, and a beauty pageant tiara, all tied together visually by a dress made from wisps of fresh Irish mist.

Male dancers had it worse. I don’t even know what to say about those “masculine” leather pants Flatley stuffed his male dancers into for his next show, “Lord of the Dance,” but I can tell you those pants looked damned uncomfortable. And so did the performers wearing them.


I said I was heading towards the exit. Check that. I was sprinting.

As I wrapped up my solo career, women in any audience got in the habit of grabbing at my solo costume (worth more than my first car) and, yes, weeping because they loved Riverdancing so much.

To be fair, it was HUGE at the time. Commercials. Specials on PBS. Some people really identified with this show. I felt bad for these women and their genuine gigantic feelings for Michael Flatley, and Irish Dance, and me, who they thought danced just like Michael Flatley, and should be in Riverdance, but all of it really freaked me out.

So I thanked them and I thanked them, and gently removed their hands from the only new solo dress I ever owned.

For the record— I wouldn’t have made the first round of cuts for the corps of any of the three touring Riverdance shows. I wasn’t good enough and that was fine by me. (No super-wig!)

If you are out and about today, for goodness’ sakes don’t call it Riverdancing. Irish dancers get really ticked about this, but they’re too polite to say anything—usually because you’re all so nice and earnest and genuinely heartfelt that no one wants to correct you.

Nor should they. Dancing for an enthusiastic audience is one of the most visceral pleasures of an Irish dancer’s life.

After more than a decade out of my ghillies*, I can afford to be frank this once. (No super-wig!)


3) This is going to blow your mind, but the national color of Ireland until late in the 20th century was actually blue.

This national color was about three to six different colors of blue because various groups in the two countries that make up Ireland couldn’t decide which blue was the right blue, so instead of picking one, they named a bunch of them St. Patrick’s Blue and called it a day.

It naturally follows that the flag that represents St. Patrick—(There are three of him too!)— is a carefully chosen symbol called the “Saltire of St. Patrick” and also the “Standard of St. Patrick.” (Though there’s fighting about that, also. Lots of history of fighting over stuff in Ireland.)

Then it certainly is at all points logical that this St. Patrick’s flag, or Saltire, or Standard is, in fact, colored bright red and blinding white with no blue to speak of whatsoever.


Today, I will not be watching a bunch of St. Patricky things on TV or singing any of those songs about “a ragtag rambling rover from Donegal who wore a black band in his Guinness black hair” or any other Irish tune stuck in my head until always. I will never, ever wax nostalgic about what it was like to be an Irish Dancer because there is always this:

My stress dreams involve Irish dancing. Every time. And that’s enough to keep me from pulling out my last pair of unbroken Rutherfords* and strapping them on for ‘ould times’ sake.

Because late next week, when I’m worried about something, I’ll be looking for those damned hard shoes in my dreams as the PA is announcing the callbacks in a competition I’m in.

While I’m frantically peeking under chairs for my shoes, a lady with a fixation for Riverdance will grab at my costume and rip it— massive points off for me. And I’ll get to the stage and remember that on orange days cats don’t wear garbage cans. They wear St. Patrick’s Blue, or nothing at all.




END NOTES

*soft shoes, or ghillies, are what female dancers wear. They’re also called poms for some reason, and most likely, six newer names I haven’t heard yet. Male dancers wear soft shoes as well. Those shoes don’t have nicknames at all.

**a brand of hard shoe. Irish dancing has hard shoes and soft shoes for both men and women.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photograph of Michael Flatley in his Marie Duffy co-choreographed production, “Feet of Flames,” was made available by the photographer MaxGuy and by Wikimedia Commons.


This post was originally published on March 17, 2013.


Essay :: Stripped for Parts

Stern man in Homburg hat staring at camera in black and white photo.
Courtesy of the Australian Maritime Museum.


I lived next to a boy, years ago, who did time for stealing cars.

When he got out, he worked at a restaurant downtown.

He wasn’t the first person I ever met who had a story to tell, but he was the first boy I ever met who bought his girlfriend flowers every Friday afternoon on his way home from work.

His kitchen whites were splattered with an astonishing amount of raw ingredients. He smelled like pie crusts and warm milk.


Like many folks you meet, this boy’s life was bifurcated by a singular event.

There was a before and an after made up of two different sets of choices, two different lives.

He stole cars. Then he went to juvie for three, four years. Afterwards, he got out and he did not steal cars. Instead, he made pastries.

He didn’t even like cars. He liked his job in the kitchen of a small upscale bakery. He liked his girlfriend. He liked to sun himself like a house cat on the steps of the turn-of-the century porch attached to the ancient duplex where we lived.

What this boy did as a teenager was not a secret— otherwise, I would not be telling you this story now— neither the stealing, nor the part afterward, where the boy that smelled like pie would sit in the sun and wait for his girl to get home.


You see, writers tend to steal little things off of people—

a complete set of figured naval buttons on a man’s patched pea coat; a certain way a woman pushes back her bobbed silver hair; a child that can whistle with two fingers like a man.

Writers pocket these moments and pull them out to look at later under a lamp with a notebook. This is fine with me— it’s magpie stealing. It is general and gestural and often sweet.

There’s another kind of stealing that happens, though, where a writer will pick the lock on your life story, touch a couple of wires together, and roll your life down the driveway before you even know your story is gone.

One day, your life may turn up in a book— it may have a new paint job and four white wall tires, but you’ll know it’s your story. You’ll know. Trust me. And you’ll feel mugged.


Joan Didion once said that you’re not a writer unless you’re selling somebody out.

In theory, that makes sense. Writers tell stories about people.

But when Didion says these words, it sounds even more tough and souped up and justified. Like they had it coming to them. Those people. For talking and telling their stories.

She was young, or youngish, when she made this pronouncement in the prologue of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and I was young when I read it.

I believed, and believe many things Didion said, and says, but I never bought this one part, not really.

And I wonder, sometimes, I really wonder what it cost Didion to sell out so many people’s stories with a practiced flick.


This boy from all those years ago did not keep this side jaunt from his own story a secret from anyone.

And I’ve met people before, and since, who have done more astonishing things than stealing a car with a team of teenagers in the middle of the night for a living.

What I like to remember about that boy is a moment every Friday when we would have the same conversation.

I lived behind the house in the old servant’s quarters above the garage. Most days, I would back down the driveway with the windows down. And most days I would stop because the neighbor boy would wave at me and pop his chin in my direction.

“Hey girl! What’s up? A— ‘s gonna be home soon.”

“Lotta nada! Gotta work.”

“You’re always working.”

“Don’t I know it. You need me to bring you all anything?”

“No, I got dinner for A— and I bought her some Zinnias today. Gonna sit here in the sun ’til she gets home.”

“Lucky you! Give A— my best.”

His eyes would close. His smile would widen, and his chin tilted back to the sun. He knew what lucky was.


I once lived next to a boy who stole cars and went to jail.

But, this? This is not the remarkable part of the story.

What is remarkable is that he bought his girlfriend flowers every Friday afternoon, without fail.

Zinnias. Orchids. Gerber daisies. Tulips.

He never bought her roses. Not once.

He said that roses lacked imagination, and he loved his girl too much to be lazy.

So he bought her Calla lilies— blooms that smelled as rich as a warm Friday afternoon spent daydreaming, daydreaming in the sun.


Young woman with bobbed hair looking off into the distance in black and white portrait photo.
Photographer William Hall. Courtesy of the Australian Maritime Museum.

This story has been revised. Originally published on May 4, 2012.

Editorial :: It’s not about Kellyanne on the couch—it’s about the circumstances

bb-editorial-kellyanne-couch-oval-office-2

It’s not about the couch, y’all. It’s about how Kellyanne Conway turfed up in that room in the first place.


Given the record number of bomb threats called into Jewish schools and community centers yesterday and the excitement of the 50th Academy Awards the day before, some people might be surprised that the public seemed most interested in a picture of Kellyanne Conway kneeling on a couch in the Oval Office fiddling with her cell phone.

Some media outlets rolled their eyes at the Kellyanne Conway couch controversy. Other commentators found her informality in the Oval Office itself to be an egregious breach of basic White House etiquette. It’s a serious topic. Let me tell you why.


Here’s the reason the pic of Kellyanne Conway’s couch crouching moment is a big deal:

The room is filled with the presidents of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in their tailored suits meeting a president who has shown in many ways that he has no respect for people of color, regardless of their accomplishments and accolades.

A tense moment, at best.

Then there’s Kellyanne Conway herself, showing visible disrespect by kneeling on the couch in her short dress in order to take pictures of some of the most important people in the entire country with the current head of state.


Presidents, like the ambassadors they deploy, are expected to afford visiting guests all of the respect and honor that is befitting of their stature. The best world leaders make everyday people feel as though their presence is just as important as that of a visiting king.

Those sorts of leaders make sure they have a professional photographer on staff to take pictures of every visitor to commemorate their meeting.


This administration thought it fitting to have a controversial member of the president’s staff take snapshots with her phone of this historical moment.

It’s not “just” her feet on the couch. It’s everything that put Kellyanne Conway and her cellphone in that room filled with HBCU presidents in the first place, a choice that was inappropriate at best, deeply disrespectful at worst.

What do you think?


bb-editorial-kellyanne-couch-oval-office-1

If you decide to comment, please be civil and courteous. Remember, you’re talking about people and to other people—not faceless entities on the internet. No name-calling. No trolling. No viciousness. Thank you.

BB’s Personality Quiz :: Are you savvy about Valentine’s Day?


Skeptical looking woman holding a photograph of a man.
This was the last guy who tried to give me tangelos for Valentine’s Day. Don’t be that guy.
This quiz was originally published on Feb. 8, 2013.


Are you a know-nothing when it comes to Cupid’s cuddliest holiday? Take this quiz and find out!


VALENTINE’S DAY CELEBRATES:

 

    a) the invention of the colors pink and red by known international scientists,  who were actually trying to find a cure for the common rhinosinusitis infection.

    b) I want chocolate. Let’s celebrate that.

    c) St. … Something-or-other. And the creator of “accordion style” holiday decorations.  So pretty!

    d) the discovery that a woman’s uterus does not travel freely around her body when it’s not anchored down by marriage. So we give each other non-anatomically correct hearts and chocolate to remind ourselves that uteruses. . . don’t roam anymore? That doesn’t sound right.


FOR VALENTINE’S DAY, I PLAN TO:

 

    a) dress in pink and red, and walk around with a decorated basket full of loose Necco Conversation Candy Hearts that I will throw violently at my coworkers. And then I’ll get arrested like I do every year.

    b) Shhhh. I’m listening for the UPS driver who is bringing me a quarter-ton of chocolate assortments sometime today.

    c) get eighteen boxes of Kleenex and twenty extra-squishy romantic comedies and some sort of blanket-poncho. I am going to cry myself dehydrated. My skin will look like fruit leather afterwards, but I will feel sooooo much better.

    d) This year, I’m going to twirl in a bed sheet in front of the public library. Gonna Isadora Duncan up this joint! Wanna come with?


THE BEST VALENTINE’S GIFT IS:

 

    a) When you care enough to give the very best you put in wall-to-ceiling pink shag carpeting in the master bathroom. Like Jayne Mansfield’s classy bath in her Pink Palace.

    b) That UPS driver is late. And I’m jonesing. Where’s my secret chocolate stash?!? I HATE EVERYTHING.

    c) I dunno. Nineteen boxes of Kleenex? Twenty-one romantic comedies? Crying ’til you throw up? I’m pretty set on my own plan, here.

    d) (Singing.) I gave my love/ a bucket of tangelos. / Oh, why did she go? / Oh why did she go/and smash up my Chevrolet?


WHAT’S THE WORST VALENTINE’S OUTFIT?

 

    a) There is no such thing. Please help me put on my gigantic pink leghorn hat. My pink lace gloves make everything too slippy.

    b) This is a sweatpants only household on this holy day. Now, shush! I’m calling @#*%ing UPS.

    c) Just dress like Julia Roberts in any of her movies and you’ll be fine.

    d) Dude, I’m wearing a pink leotard and a blanket poncho for my impromptu library performance. You bring the sparklers! See ya!


DO YOU DECORATE YOUR HOUSE FOR VALENTINE’S DAY?

 

    a) I always do a scale-replica mosaic of The Rokeby Venus using Necco Conversation Candy Hearts on my front door. And then I’ll get fined by the neighborhood association like I do every year.

    b) I want that delayed UPS driver’s head on a pike on my lawn. Happy Valentine’s Day!

    c) Only with my tears, darling.

    d) One word: Bongos. Where do you put them? Everywhere. (Singing.) I gave my love / a bushel of bongos. / She drummed my head / with her pointy young hands. / Oh, why did she go? / Oh, why did she go? / And eat all the tangelos with another young man?


HOW TO TALLY YOUR RESULTS:

 
Make a printout of this quiz. Ball it up. Put it in a blender with PLENTY of water and puree for one minute. Then count the pieces of paper in the blender. Read the key below to figure out your results!

    0-25 PIECES (MOSTLY A’S): You are a Valentine’s Traditionalist. In a perfect world, you’d have a battalion of concrete reproductions of Michelangelo’s David on your front lawn. Barring that, you should get all the candy hears your little heart desires this year. Go and mosaic in peace, my friend.

    26-60 PIECES (MOSTLY B’S): You are Valentine’s Oblivious. Your personality is entirely constructed out of milk chocolate, and therefore should not be left out in the sun. I know you’re not actually reading this right now, because you’re busy using your chocnoculars out the front window to spot that errant UPS driver. Hey, UPS driver—drop that package and run like hell!

    61-90 PIECES (MOSTLY C’S): You are a True Valentine. Grab your blanket poncho and your Kleenex and go out to the movies this year. You need to be surrounded by other romantic comedy enthusiasts with similar, uh, needs as your own.

    91-1000 PIECES (MOSTLY D’S): You are a Valentine Improvisationalist. (Singing.) My true love tried/to give me fruit. / For Valentine’s Day / For Valentine’s Day / My true love tried / to give me drums. / For Valentine’s Day / For Valentine’s Day / I burned up his car / and now I date Arnold / who gives me flowers / For Valentine’s Day / For Valentine’s Daaaaaaay!