Water From the Memory Well


Most people wouldn’t choose to spend their Saturday morning and afternoon in a Marriott hotel without a booking, but that’s where I found myself last weekend — surrounded by rhinestones, funny looking dresses, banana curls that defied natural roots (pun definitely intended), nonstop accordion/fiddle music, and swarms of memories.

That’s what I get for going to a feis. For those who are unfamiliar with the Gaelic word, a feis (pronounced “fesh”) is an Irish dance competition. (In a broader sense it refers to a Gaelic festival, but for me, an ex-Irish dancer, it has always meant competing for a prize.)

As I walked across the narrow blacktop driveway toward the ballrooms at the side of the hotel, I felt confident: a native daughter returning to the world of her childhood. But this time, instead of a half-circle dress bag and a carry-all stool packed with two pairs of black leather dance shoes, a curly blond wig, bobby pins, poodle socks, duct tape, etc., I shouldered only an orange satchel purse. No stress; no pre-competition angst; just a pleasant time to reflect on the past and invest in the present.

I was there to watch a young friend make her own memories. About a year ago she fell head over heel-clicks in love with Irish dancing and dove right into it, burning energy at lessons and at home, listening to Celtic music, and watching YouTube videos of dance champions. In February she competed in her first feis (I was blessed to be there for it), and already she’s trebling and skipping upward through the ranks to Prizewinner.*

Inside the hotel corridor I met the familiar scene. Large cellophane-wrapped raffle baskets decorating long tables like giant rhinestones; shiny garment racks packed with a rainbow of used costumes just waiting for the perfect girl to find her new look; vendors selling everything from Barry’s Tea to hair scrunchies (and I do mean hair scrunchies — there were enough synthetic curls to make Shirley Temple jealous). I turned to the left and found Ballroom B.

Two years ago I had come to this feis. Not as a dancer — college had already put an end to my competing days — but as a sentimental time traveler hoping to reconnect with my past. The exact events of that day are somewhat blurred now, but I remember coming away with a new appreciation for Thomas Wolfe’s perceptive phrase: You can’t go home again. Though I had met up with a few friends, the face of Irish dancing that I knew had changed. One classmate was away on vacation; two others had moved east. Soft skirts were in, paneled skirts were out, and the wigs had gotten bigger (mine would have looked like a novice’s in comparison). Small changes added up, and I stood face to face with the facts: The era that stood frozen in my mind had moved on without me.

Quitting dance hadn’t been easy. When you’ve been involved in something for thirteen years, there’s a lot of mental rearranging that accompanies a new direction. The process started when my mom got a job and couldn’t drive me to practices. Then I registered for the fall semester and found that a class conflicted with my lessons. “I’ll be back after Christmas” I told myself (and my teacher), confident that I would simply pick up where I left off.

Christmas came and went, and with an intense spring semester approaching, I realized how much I valued the extra study time not going to dance had given me. By summertime, I had finally swallowed the new reality: I was done with Irish dancing. The fact that I had time to chew before swallowing was just one of many proofs that God is gracious.

So in spite of my disappointment, in spite of the drawn out goodbye, in spite of Thomas Wolfe, why was I back? What made this time any different than two years ago?

I had no difficulty finding my friend’s family. Together we made a fine cheering squad — filled an entire row of chairs by ourselves. During the interludes when the object of our accolades wasn’t dancing, I gladly supplied a running commentary (by request) about everything from feis procedures to costume styles. When my friend took the stage, I sat up tall in my chair to see around the adjudicator’s table as best I could, but even when the white tablecloth hid her feet, we could see her smile — a smile sweet with genuine pleasure. She was glad to be there, fulfilling a dream.

In her I saw one of my own dreams fulfilled: a dream of watching a new generation take up its Irish dancing shoes the way I did sixteen years earlier. Two years ago I had been dwelling on the past; now I was living in the present. A season of my life had ended, but a new season had taken its place, one in which I appeared not as the performer, but as the supporter.

People sometimes ask me if I miss Irish dance, and I usually answer with a decisive yes and no. I miss my teacher; I miss the kids who danced with me over the years. I miss the practice sessions and the physical stamina I used to have. But to give a flat out yes would be to acknowledge that Irish dance plays no part in my life anymore. On the contrary, I simply changed roles. My old memories are a well from which to draw water for the present, and I’m just thankful that up-and-coming dancers like my friend give me a reason to dip in my bucket and pull it up full.

*Irish dance levels progress as follows: Beginner 1, Beginner 2, Novice, Prizewinner, Preliminary Championship, Open Championship.

And since Irish dance is empty without Irish music, here’s a link to the lively Chieftains album that inspired my title.