Dancing with the stars
I was anxious as I waited for Louise O’Toole, my Irish dace teacher, at the spire on O’Connell Street in downtown Dublin – today was the day I would be dancing with the rest of the Bodhran Irish dancers, girls who grew up doing this style of dance. I was nervous. When Louise arrived, she immediately took me to Talbot Street where the most well known Irish dance shoe shop was located: Talbot’s Dance Centre, a small, unassuming store run by a short, older gentlemen with a few younger assistants (all very sweet, one was big enough to be a footballer!). They were extremely helpful in finding me the perfect pair of Jig Shoes (the hard shoe) and the pomps (soft shoe). So many of the big name dancers from all over the world have set foot in that store; they even have two entire walls of the store covered with photographs, letters, trophy pictures, you name it, thanking the little shop for their winning pair of shoes.
With a bag full of brand new dance shoes (including a pair of new, white dance socks), we headed down the street to the DanceHouse, built for the local community as a centre for dance and art enrichment. Brand new studios, only five years old, this space was great for our afternoon of an Irish dance intensive. After some politics that poor Louise had to deal with regarding liability with the studio (sorry, Louise!) I met the other dancers that were to be joining us – Claire (who hung out with us the night before at Harbour Bar), Theresa and Deirdre. They were all so welcoming and kind, that my initial fears of dancing with them had subsided a bit.
We entered the studio, did some stretching, and began to put on our shoes. I soon realized that dancing with the shoes might actually be harder than in the night before’s mini-lesson. The heel and the front tap are so thick that my feet were in an unfamiliar position that took some getting used to. We went over the routine that Louise had taught me the evening before (which was a simple warm-up for the girls, a true challenge for me!) and we decided to go for it! I kicked myself quite a few times in the shin, and I even stepped on my own feet with the very hard, very thick heel of my opposite foot; the shoes are heavy and awkward for someone who’s never put them on before (a.k.a. me!). But I was actually making the right sounds – and when we danced together, it was inspiring dancing beside these talented girls. As you can see, I had a glitch in the start, but otherwise I did OK and could keep up with the pack!
Since I did so well with this routine, the girls decided to move on and teach me a new reel. I was excited, but nervous – the pace of this session was much quicker than the night before’s (for obvious reasons), but the ladies were all very helpful and supportive, and Louise broke everything down for me to make sure I was mastering the steps. It was nice to then move on to the pomps (soft shoes); my feet were a bit sore already from the heavy, hard shoes. A completely different set of foot muscles were engaged that I just was not accustomed to using! We went over the routine Louise taught me earlier, and again, the music was on. It was a real honor for me to be given the opportunity to dance with these ladies, and such a joy as well!
We kept switching back and forth between the hard and soft shoes (for our feet’s sake), and the ladies practiced routines from some recent classes they had been taking at the DanceHouse. Their current teacher, Ronan McCormack, has been teaching them the new steps that have been added in the repertoire (axle turns similar to figure skating, ballet-inspired steps, complicated treble steps, etc.) and the girls were eager to take this time in the studio to master what they were taught in their lessons:
The icing on the cake was when Claire’s mother, Annie O’Donnell, joined us and showed us the steps she had learned and studied throughout the years. Originally born in France, she became very interested in Irish dancing when she moved to Ireland in her early twenties. She was an Irish folk musician (that is her playing the flute on the recording) and soon after became engrossed in the world of Irish dance. She studied under dance masters that specialized in the “old-style” of Irish dance (a lot of whom have passed away), which has since evolved into what we think of modern Irish dance today (Riverdance, etc.). Using a form of a heeled tap shoe, the style is extremely similar to American tap dancing as well as country clogging. I was absolutely amazed to see the evolution of American dance right before my eyes as Annie was dancing this old-style of Irish dance. The similarities are obvious – Irish immigrants coming to America and keeping their traditions alive, followed by a cross-pollination with slave music and dance, and out comes the American siblings of tap dance and clogging. Wow!
Thank you, ladies, for such an unforgettable and inspiring day of Irish dance and music!!