This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of Feis America Magazine.
The gymnasium at the Utah State Feis had been partitioned down the center, the rear half converted into a warm-up and wait room. To my surprise, teenagers in elaborately-sequined solo dresses dominated the dressing areas. Confidence waning, I walked around the room, pretending that I belonged. I began thinking of all the places I would rather be: in my dance school, at home, under a rock. Just as I turned to leave the gym, I spotted a group of ladies wearing class dresses.
I looked around the room and found more competing teams. The adults were costumed in dresses and skirts alike, some adorned with intricate knots and embroidery. A few adults were practicing their dances, others were sitting in concentration-headphones blocking out the non-stop accordion music.
I glimpsed some ladies who wore the same class dress as me. Walking over to these teammates whom I had never met (they dance at a different location than I), I tried to make eye contact. All of the women were busy adjusting their wigs and checking their programs. I felt as insecure as a newbie entering junior high school. Sweat trickled down my spine, and I hadn’t even warmed up yet.
The mock feis my school had hosted helped prepare me for what to expect from the competitive scene, but I wondered what the adults would think of me. Were they cliquish? Did they keep to themselves and shun newcomers? How would my dancing stack up against the adults who had been competing for years?
Claiming an empty table, I rummaged around in my bag so that I, too, would appear busy. This is ridiculous, I thought, I bet those adults are nervous and insecure, just like me.
“I don’t think I’ve met you.” A circle of dancers stopped fidgeting and smiled at my boldness. Three women and one man introduced themselves and soon we were all relieved to share the burden of tension generated by the competition. Though initial hesitation showed from all of the adults I talked to, a warm singleness surfaced.
“I’m hoping to place in my light jig this time,” One of the women confessed.
“If I get through my dance without falling on my face, I’ll be thrilled,” another admitted.
Soon I noticed that the other adult dancers faced the same fears that I did. Would we place? Would we fall? Would spectators frown on the time given to “older” competitors, or would they accept us as dancers pursuing a legitimate goal?
Soon my fellow classmates arrived and I introduced them to my new-found friends. We ran through our soft shoe dances together and lined up for the first dance.
The flurry of competition went by like a dream. I leaped and hopped to the music, the smile on my face genuine. As we flew through each event, the faces grew familiar, the smiles more frequent. In between dances, kind words were exchanged and encouragement voiced. A feeling of belonging, of community, wove through the arena, tying us together like the infinite loops of a celtic knot.
I found myself at the results table, comparing placings with adults who, a few hours earlier, had been only strangers. When I found that I had placed in five of my eight dances, it felt like icing on the cake. I had gained so much more than medals, I belonged to a new circle of friends. Not everyone found good news or received the marks they had hoped for, but the encouragement and congratulations exchanged were heart-felt.
The nervousness of the afternoon had disappeared like a fog at sunrise. I had met adult Irish dancers from all over the Western United States. Some of them were at their first feis, like me; others had competed for years, long enough to own a coveted solo dress. It did not matter that we were competitors. As dancers we shared a commonality that bound strangers together in friendship: a love of Irish Dance.
As I packed up my shoes, I waved goodbye to my new-found friends. There is a place for me in this world of adult dancers. Here I can express my love of dance and be encouraged, recognized, and even accepted.
Irish dancing, there is no place I’d rather be.