A Gathering Place for Adults Who Love Irish Dance

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Interview with S.J. Velasquez-Dancing Again as an Adult

S.J. Valesquez is a fellow Feis America writer and adult Irish dancer.  She started Irish dancing when she was eleven, and recently took up Irish dancing again as an adult.  I asked S.J. to share with us her unique perspective on dancing Irish as a teen and an adult.  You can read her blog on Feis America.

How long have you been dancing?

I started when I was 11, and I'm now 25. I danced competitively with Rince na Tiarna (Buffalo, NY) through my teens and retired from competition at age 20. I recently competed for the first time in five years -- on an adult ceili team! -- for the Johnston School (Syracuse, NY).

As a dancer who competed as a teen and an adult, have you found the stress of dancing to be harder on your body physically? Do you learn the steps equally as quickly?

I actually had a harder time when I was in my early teens. I was definitely a chubby adolescent! I lost a considerable amount of weight in high school and college -- that's when dancing was the easiest on my body. I was stronger, and there was less weight to carry. Since college, my weight fluctuated and body changed, making dance more challenging as the pounds came back. But, to be honest, I am the physically the strongest I've ever been. I recently started running long distances (did my first half marathon in May) and have found that the best runners are typically not the younger runners -- the best are those who've been training and tuning their bodies over the years. The running scene has given me a new perspective on Irish dance and what our bodies are capable of doing after what's believed to be our physical peak.

But I must admit, there were a few years during and after college where I hadn't really danced at all. Getting back into dancing was very awkward and frustrating. It felt like my body couldn't keep up with my brain. Moves and techniques that I once could do without much thought were suddenly very difficult to execute. It wasn't so much my age that was holding me back as it was my lack of practice. I found a really great school in New York City -- the Aherne Sheehan School -- that helped me get my Irish dance groove back :)

Is there anything about Irish dancing as an adult that you like better than when you danced as a teen?

Absolutely. As an adult in the media world (I'm a journalist and web producer), I connect with Irish dancers on a whole different level. As a youth, I mingled with friends at dance class and made feis buddies, but I didn't really interact with dancers beyond my region. Now I connect with dancers of all ages and levels from around the world, and I maintain many of those relationships through social networks and travel. I even briefly interviewed my Irish dance idol, Jean Butler, at the World Irish Dancing Championships in 2009. It's amazing when you grow up gawking over the stunning beauty that is Riverdance, and suddenly you're interviewing the star of the show.

So, as a teen, my Irish dance circle was very local. Now it's a global network. I look forward to meeting up with international dance friends at events. And I particularly meeting up with dance friends for an adult beverage after class or performance. Couldn't do that as a teen ;)

Do you feel any animosity from others because you dance as an adult?

Sadly, yes. I admit that when I was younger, I snickered at the sight of adult beginners. That was completely childish and prejudice of me. I realize now that Irish dance adults are extremely talented and devoted, and they're capable of reaching great heights when their teachers and fellow dancers support them and challenge them. So often, dancers that start later in life are not taken seriously, and they may never reach their full potential. I personally feel just as capable of learning steps and training as I did when I was 14. But there aren't as many people who are willing to take me as a student now that I'm *GASP* 25! (I'll turn 26 on Dec. 7.)

What do you miss about competition from your teens?

I miss dancing as a soloist. I am very fortunate to have found a school in Syracuse that teaches adult ceilis, but I would love to compete as a soloist. I didn't feis a lot growing up (roughly three feiseanna a summer from age 13 to 18), but I worked my way up to preliminary championship level and placed regularly. I always wanted to make it to open championship level, but I never really had the chance to continue competing as an "and-over" lady. I miss wearing my hardshoes, too. Ceilis are great, but there's something magical about the rhythm of a slow treble jig or hornpipe.

What do you think the future holds for adults in Irish dance?

Adult dancers are getting better and better. I look at school's like O'Rourke (in New York), and I'm blown away by how talented the adult dancers are. It proves that Irish dance is something you can enjoy and master at different ages. I recently competed at the Mid-Atlantic Region Oireachtas with the Johnston adult team, and I could not believe how tough the competition was. The level of talent in the top adult ceili teams is definitely at par with the youth categories. Any preconceived notions about adult dancers that I had were completely shattered as I watched -- in awe, slack-jawed -- the adult ladies four- and eight-hand rounds.

How long do you intend to Irish dance? Will you drop down in &overs?

I'll dance for as long as I can physically dance. My Irish grandfather (I'm of very mixed ancestry) was always so proud of me for taking up Irish dance. He loved dancing around with me, his only Irish-dancing grandchild. Shortly after having one of his leg's amputated due to a diabetes-related infection, he propped himself up on one leg and hopped around the room while exclaiming, "I can still jig!" I figure, if my grandfather was dancing a one-legged jig, there's no reason I should stop dancing while I have two perfectly good legs. :)

Right now, I really don't have the opportunity to drop down to &overs, unfortunately. I haven't been able to find teachers in my area who cater to the 21-and-over solo dancers.

What is the best thing about dancing as an adult?

Irish dance has really shaped much of my social life, and it's now more apparent than ever. As an adult, I can appreciate what dancing has done -- and continues to do -- for me. I was a bridesmaid in my friend Rachel's wedding a few years ago. Rachel and I met through dancing when we were about 13 years old. And my friend Connor -- with whom I danced at Rince na Tiarna -- took up Irish dance classes with me when we both relocated to New York City. There's something about dancing friends that makes them different from your friends from school or work. It's like the bonds are enhanced because of this common interest and talent.

Also, as an adult, I'm interested in what Irish dance means. These last few years, I've been intrigued by the history of Irish dance and how it's developed over the years. Different styles reflect regional trends and cultural evolution, yet it ties me to a piece of my ancestry. I can identify, in some small way, with my ancestors through dance.

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