Them Old Dancing Shoes

by Michelle McDevitt

"What's in that green bag hanging off of your bookshelf?' asked Jenny.

"Oh, those are my Irish dancing shoes. I haven't used them since I've started school. I keep looking at them and telling myself that I'll go down to the dance studio, but I just never get around to it."

"You Irish dance? Is it like Riverdancing? I saw that on PBS during the summer. Can I see the shoes? Actually, can you show me a little dance?"

I stepped up on my bed and retrieved the small cloth bag that kept my shoes since I started dancing at the age of six. I explained how the two pairs of shoes differed from each other. "These black ballet-type leather shoes, called 'soft' shoes, are worn when performing dances that require high jumps and leaps, while starting and landing on the balls of the feet, or as my teacher calls it, 'on your toes.' The other tap-type of leather shoe is called, you guessed it 'hard' shoes. They have fiberglass taps on the heel and the toe." As I explained the structure and purpose of the shoes, Jenny examined them with her eyes and hand, nodding in understanding. I continued, "I use the hard shoes in dances that require shuffles and clicks, which is when you hit the fiberglass heel of one shoe with the other heel."

I stepped into the soft shoes because I feared the preceptors who live downstairs would not appreciate my hard shoe dance. I laced up the worn soft shoe and tied the laces around my ankle then pressed play on the tape deck. I performed a short jig that made Jenny smile. After I was done, she asked me why I started taking lessons. I had so much to say about how important and meaningful taking Irish dancing lessons were to me, so I explained to her that I couldn't sum it up in a few sentences. She retorted that she was interested in my answer and her core class didn't start for another half hour, so I tried to give her my clearest explanation. The Irish music was still playing in the background and made me nostalgic towards the passion I had for twelve years.

"Unfortunately, I cannot continue to dance here at school because of time restrictions and most of all, no instructor. When I look at the bag gathering dust, I feel guilty about not making any true attempts to start dancing again. I can remember the hundreds of hours being at the dance studio, trying to learn new steps, laughing with friends, sweating from the strenuous activity, and releasing stress built up throughout the day. Everyone needs an outlet for stress and frustration. It helps clear your mind and allows you to focus on more important things in your life. Dance is one way that people can relieve pressure and tension from their job, family, friends, or random incidents. When I get angry at someone or something in my life, music and dance help me to relax. The negative thoughts push me to work harder and I can feel stress exit my body through Irish dancing. Other forms of dance can have the same effect. Koreans once used a traditional mask dance to depict the insolence of the upper class. The dance, called Talch'um, allowed the lower class to vent their resentment against the authoritarians. Korea's heirarchial social structure had difference between the poor who were forced to live under the rigid rules of social order. (Lee, and Lopez, 1995, 28) Their dance became their means of expressing their anger.

Expression through dance can come from the dancer themself or it can be symbolic. Solo Irish dancing shows the extremes of both liveliness and stiffness. The upper half of the body is stiff with arms straight against the body while the legs are energetically jumping off the floor. There are several explanations of why the dance takes this form of expression. One theory is the priests in Ireland thought it was indecent to notice the body dancing, so only rhythm through tapping and jumping was allowed. (Brown, 1993;S2) Another theory is the Irish did not want their English oppressors to know that they were enjoying themselves, so they expressed military-like defiance. (Parry and Parks,1997;70) Two other theories from folklore say that because dancing took place in small taverns, arm movement was limited and the other is the viewer should only look at the feet, so to keep distractions at a minimum, the upper body is kept still. Regardless of form, all dance is a type of expression. Expression allows relaxation from stress and dissatisfaction, or it can be fussed as a form of meditation.

I make meditation a fundamental part of my Irish dancing. It is not incorporated into the dance, but I make it a routine to meditate before dancing. My dance class always stretches before any strenuous dancing. I use that quiet time to think to myself about issues or things that worry me. Other cultures use dance as a form of meditation. The Chinese healing art of Qigoing (pronounced chee-GONG) combines movement, breathing, self-massage, and meditation. Qigoing has gained popularity in America because of it's physical and spiritual benefits. The ancient amalgam of dance and meditation shows how dance can be helpful in blood circulation, posture, and countering the effects of stress. (Stone, 1997, 71)

The discipline involved in Irish dance is important. There are certain rules that an Irish dancer must abide by, much like ballet dancers or American folk dancers who follow traditional rules of dance. I learned the rules for Irish dance at my dance studio. Dancers are judged at competitions by the difficulty of their dance and how well they follow the rules. When dancing solo, the ideal dancer has her arms straight at her sides, hands closed into a fist, head straight forward, looking straight ahead and not at her feet, her upper body stiff. Meanwhile, in the lower part of her body, her toes are pointed, feet are turned out, knees stay together, feet are kept in front of her body, and not to the side. She must execute her dance with precision and perfect timing with the music. The rules not only apply to the performance, but also the physical appearance. Female dancers are to have their hair curled and pulled back away from their face, their costume must be flawless with no embroidery missing or tattered, their shoes should be shined, and they should be smiling, even it they are concentrating too hard to smile genuinely. The male dancers must wear kilts, a collared shirt, have their hair neat, and should also smile. According to Colin Dunne, one of the main dancers in Riverdance, competition rules were, and are, very strict. Dancers are graded on a system run by the An Coiisiun le Rinci Gaelacha, the Irish Dance Commission. (Perry, and Parks, 1997, 70) Discipline and concepts learned from Irish dancing can be applied to other areas of life. Just as an Irish dancer must follow the regulations set forth by the Irish Dance Commission, a citizen must live by laws established by society The rules for Irish dancing are similar to those of a Catholic school; dress code, hair neatly groomed, only certain types of shoes are allowed (no open toes or heels). I demonstrated that I knew and observed the rules of Irish dance at competitions. That fact that I know how to dance and the discipline I have is satisfying to me. Discipline can give people something they can be proud of. The fact that they can endure the struggle to follow strict rules makes people appreciate their effort.

Yet, not all Irish dance must be performed according to the rules. People can move away from the rigid and strict rules of Irish dance and create their own steps. There are certain rules that a dancer must follow in order to compete, but if someone does not want to compete and just wants to dance, they can have freedom from competition rules. Michael Flatley, a former Riverdance performer, won the World Irish Dancing Championships at the age of 17 and is probably the most publicly defiant Irish dancer to have broken the traditional rules. When he went to Ireland in 1994 to help create Riverdance, it was "like two trains colliding," according to Flatley. People criticized him and told him he was bastardizing Irish dance by breaking traditional rules. He is now the creator and star of the production Lord Of The Dance which has been a tremendous success in London, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. (Peyser, Mar.17, 1997, 71) Instead of playing by the rules, Flatley incorporated his own twist on Irish dance and is apparently extremely happy with his decision to break away from traditional rules.

There were times when I wanted to quit because I felt lazy or felt I was criticized too much, but there were also times when I felt proud to be able to perform in front of people, lifting their spirits. Every year I danced in the Saint Patrick's Day parade in San Francisco, representing my dance school. Once a year we danced at a nearby convalescent home. These are the instances when I can give something back to the community and show people how wonderful Irish dancing is. Many spectators come to competitions to watch dancers compete against one another.

A competition called a feis (pronounced "fesh", rhymes with "mesh") is where dancers come to challenge themselves and see how well they do against other dancers near the same level of difficulty. The feises are divided up into 5 levels of difficulty in order from beginning to championship. They take place at church halls, restaurant ballrooms, and schools about ten times a year all over the country. The most memorable feis I competed in was in April of 1997. It was my first feis in the championship level and I won first place! It was the end of my senior year and I knew I would not continue in Santa Cruz. I had also become disappointed at the fact that recently the atmosphere at feces were growing hostile and negative. I noticed that stage mothers had a bigger presence. It made the competition seem too serious. When I was the dancers' age, I concentrated on having fun, which is the most important aspect of dance, and not so much beating my competitors. At the same time, feises do have a positive effect on the competitor. They help build confidence for those who get nervous performing in front of crowds. In addition, motivation to do their best increases for many competitors. I knew that if I wanted to win, I needed to practice harder. I also learned how to deal with losing because I lost more competitions than I won. The understanding of losing and winning is learned at feises. That understanding can pertain to other aspects in life. Losing at competitions did not disappoint me. I learned I needed to prepare myself better for the next feis. From those experiences I learned that I did not need to aim for an "A" in class, but instead, I needed to do my best and prepare better.

Competition is a reason for being motivated to continue to dance. Although it is not necessary to participate in competitions, it appeals to many people who want to improve. They strive to beat someone else. The incentive of winning helps me keep my mind focused on doing my best. The motivation to perform for a judge and my parents makes me work hard.

Many people complain about exercising because they say it gets dull after or it is not motivating, but dance is the perfect way to reduce health risks without the boredom of traditional exercise. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, moderate physical activity, including dancing, may prevent coronary disease. It is evident from news and the people around us that Americans need to exercise. Despite the availability of health and sports programs, the fitness level of Americans show that a high percentage of people do not participate in regular physical activity. (Roach, 1990, 222) Also, child and adolescent obesity is associated with higher and more dangerous risks of cardiovascular disease and low exercise tolerance. (Weiss, 1993, A99) Taking a class in Irish dancing or any kind of dancing is a good way to stay healthy. Irish dancing is a new concept for most people, so the level of curiosity is generally high. After a dancer masters a step, the level of difficulty is raised and variations of the old step are learned. As you get better, you learn new steps. The dullness and repetitiveness of running on a track, climbing stairs, or lifting weights is not present in Irish dancing.

The learning experience I gained from Irish dancing has changed my life and other people's too. I learned a lot about myself; my endurance, my limits, and what I like. Colin Dunne has found that he has rediscovered why he dances. "I dance now to communicate,to show pride in our traditions, not just to win prizes." he explained. (Parry and Parks,1997, 70) Kim, a friend who took gymnastics for six years learned about responsibility and self discipline. "I had to work really hard to gain skills in order to well in competition. This carried over to other areas of my life making it easier for me to do well in school and work. I made myself work at new skills that I hadn't quite mastered yet. I realized that the relationships were very important to me. I spent a lot of time with people who took lessons with me. We shared so much and experienced things that other people might not ever experience. I made friendships with people that I still keep in touch with even after all these years." Realizations about one's life through anything, including dance is important.

Those two pairs of Irish dancing shoes hanging in my dorm room represent not a mere hobby of mine, but a passion that has had a great impact on my life. I learned things that could not be taught in a classroom as effectively as learning through my experience as an Irish dancer. I have unforgettable memories of laughing with friends while dancing. I do not feel bad about having to quit dancing, it was perfect for me at that time in my life. I will always have the memories of me in those worn out shoes trying to do my best. The faded leather and thinning laces represent the struggle and dedication I feel towards Irish dancing.

Some people like Jenny may view my shoes as old, tattered shoes, but I see them as a part of me; the shoe formed to my foot. Even when worn to the point where a hole developed in the toe of my right soft shoe, I cannot part with it. Those shoes work better than they did on the first day, now that they are broken in. The once shiny charcoal black leather hard shoes have faded into a dull gray that only I can appreciate. The buckles are no longer shiny silver, but scratched and used looking. The fiberglass on the bottom has gradually lost its smooth, crisp surface. The time spent while wearing them, stretching, dancing, walking, sweating, crying, and competing has rewarded me with great memories that I cherish and will cherish for a long time. My foot shape has been engraved into my shoe. Those shoes are a part of me. They represent more than merely a hobby of mine. For others, dance can replace the old and boring workout, be a way of expressing emotions, be learning experience for people, a way to learn about history, and can be for entertainment. For me, it is that and a much much more.