*This article first appeared in the Sep/Oct issue of Feis America Magazine
Before signing up for Irish dance lessons at age 44, Mark Pottinger (a.k.a. “Old_Guy” on dance.net), had never taken any kind of dance. After watching Irish dancers on St. Patrick’s Day, Mark signed his then seven-year old daughter up for lessons at the Bennett School of Irish Dance in Denver, Colorado.
When Mark couldn’t answer his daughter’s dance questions, another father suggested that he take a class or two. He signed himself up for an adult session and he was hooked. Mark and his daughter began feising and it wasn’t long before they were both placing in competition.
Although Mark acknowledges the struggles that come with dancing as an adult, he knows firsthand how fulfilling it can be. In November 2009, at 48 years of age, Mark attended the Western Regional Oireachtas in Denver, Colorado. He placed fourth in his competition, qualifying for the 2010 World Irish Dancing Championships in Glasgow, Scotland.
“This sport has been a fantastic opportunity for me to share an activity with my daughter,” Mark says. “We get to spend time together.”
Having a family member who competes has its challenges. Mark often finds himself running between stages, balancing his own dances with his daughter’s. As a result, dance steps are not the only new skills Mark has acquired while dancing with his daughter; he’s learning what it takes to get a teenager ready at a feis. “[Fastening] a wig is an engineering problem, all about transferring loads to anchor points,” Mark says. “And the makeup I pretty much do as a paint by numbers.”
Mark realizes that it takes him a bit longer than younger dancers to master steps. He counts himself lucky to have supportive teachers at the Bennett School of Irish Dance. “A lot of TCs simply would not or could not invest the time it takes to teach an older dancer like me,” he says. Mark has an agreement with his teachers: if it’s time for him to stop dancing, and he’s not realizing it on his own, they will let him know.
Like many people in their 40’s, Mark lives with pain. Recently, his type of pain has been diagnosed as Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease similar to rheumatoid arthritis. Still, he doesn’t let the pain get in the way of his dancing.
“I think we just can’t expect to be pain-free past a certain age, so I do my best to work through it,” Mark says.
Mark believes that “with proper training and conditioning, there is no physical reason adults can’t continue to advance.” He has a few ideas of what the future might hold for adults in Irish dance. Perhaps a champion or “masters” level will be instated, similar to the masters competitions that are held in other sports, like golf and swimming. Or maybe the adult division will be dissolved and integrated simply as “over20,” “over30” and so on, as some sanctioning organizations have already adopted. No matter how the dance evolves, Mark is confident that the future participation of adults is bright.
Mark plans on attending the World Irish Dancing Championships in March. He practices six days a week, in addition to three or four weekly lessons. Mark plans on enjoying at least three feisanna with his daughter between now and March. If his body is still is holding up, Mark will take the only chance he may get to compete at Worlds.
Even with the obstacles that face Mark, he is optimistic. To the beginner dancer who starts at an advanced age, Mark counsels, “You will have physical discomfort, but you probably will [even] if you don’t dance.”