I went home to Cleveland for a visit and ran into my old basketball coach from 6th grade. She said, “Oh, Natalie – Mike Miller’s niece, the Irish dancer!” Well, it was quite a surprise to me to hear myself described this way since I’d only taken Irish dancing lessons for one year…when I was seven years old.
I quit those lessons, held in the basement studio of a TV repair shop, to play T-ball. My Irish grandmother never forgave me.
Now, there have been occasions, usually on St. Patrick’s Day, where I break out my old moves – which are easy to fake alone because the essence of Irish dancing is the precise rhythm with other dancers. I may have been forced into a performance at a holiday company party because there was a fiddle player there. But really, calling me an Irish dancer is an insult to anyone who truly practices the art of the dance.
But this year, when an Irish dance studio opened just down the road from my house, I decided that, yes, I would return to this and see how it went.
First Class: The teacher had me wear a pair of hard shoes, which have blocks underneath the toes and a square heel. They were tight. The music was inspiring – I love the sound of pipes and drums. But I as I went through the basic steps of shuffling, stepping, hopping and stomping, I found I had no balance. I felt like I was constantly falling over. When I took the shoes off at the end of class, I was sore, so incredibly sore. My feet were in agony. Muscles in my hips that I didn’t know existed were sore. My teacher said, “You’ll get great legs doing this!”
Second Class: I’d barely recovered from the soreness when it was time to begin again. I returned feeling a bit bolder. I wasn’t doing this to compete, I was doing it for exercise and a sense of heritage. It is undeniably great exercise, but less aerobic than you might think. There’s a tightness needed for the right stances and the precision of the steps. I needed to concentrate very hard to follow along with the pattern of the steps, and then, the even bigger challenge of making my body do what my mind told it to. I think that dancing is a great way to keep the cobwebs out – there’s learning something new, plus the physical activity and the mental challenge of remembering the dances over the long term.
I have long held the belief that I must fool my body into exercising – I think dancing is a great way to approach it. There’s music, and the concentration, as well as my teacher and classmates egging me on.
During my second class, I wondered if some of my seven year old experiences were coming back to me. I suddenly recalled the shuffle step was something I recalled as “the feather step.” A few more people joined the class this time and it was less intimidating to all be learning together.
Third Class: I’m getting it. I’m feeling better and less sore by the end of class. I can remember a few things in between classes.
Fourth Class: I find myself doing the odd foot positioning stance in my kitchen, or at standing an event.
Sixth Class: I’m struggling to find time to practice, and sometimes I’m dreading going to class at night when I’ve had such a busy day.
Eighth Class: This is the first time I’ve left without feeling I’d mastered the piece. The steps are getting more complex.
Tenth Class: I’m too tired. I feel like I’m failing. I went to see the Irish Mystique show over the weekend and it was so good, coordinated and professional, that I felt like I was so far behind getting any of this right. I felt like my left side was a piece of deadwood. Doing steps to the left is significantly harder than the right side.
Sixteenth Class: I’m getting better, but my feet are cramping. I have moments where I think I’m getting it and feel elated. The steps are familiar, but I still get confused about the order they go in. I’m trying to focus on the steps and be better coordinated. I need more practice.
Well, I’ve taken a break from my lessons and may pick them up again soon – it’s great exercise for my legs AND my mind. I love the connection with my heritage and the sound of the hardshoes hitting the floor in time with the jig. While you won’t see me up with Riverdance anytime soon, I may be sitting in the audience with a deeper appreciation of what those dancers do to keep rhythm!