A New Day

March 10, 2012

You trickle in, softshoes in hand, and sit on the ground to loosen the laces and slide your feet in. I turn on some music and a couple of you can’t wait until after the warmup. You just have to dance. You start running the new section of your reel and asking me questions. Yes, yes, I danced in the aisles at the market too.

Another student arrives and several huddle together to hear each other’s news. I love that you’re friends, but I hide it under a stern admonishment that we need to get to work. Another girl bounds in to give me a hug. It makes me feel excited to start the day. We’re partners in a goal, and it’s thrilling for all of us to see the improvement.

Okay, time to focus. The drill music goes on and everyone begins to move together, slow at first, lazily stretching tight muscles and sore joints, then increasing in spring as the blood flows. I worked that muscle hard last week, and we both enjoy exchanging tales of how sore we are from that drill last time. Finally, your faces begin to shine and it’s time to dance.

Let’s get to work.

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Pride and Prejudice

April 6, 2010

After a very eventful March into April, I come back a little reluctant at what I’m about to write. Oddly enough, while this affects students more than you know, my remarks are directed at your teachers- at the overarching personality canopy and political structure that Competitive Irish Dance functions in. That, unfortunately, I must work within.

As I have attended meetings for the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a growing trend of teachers asking why their peers don’t obey local and general rulings. The subjects can vary from recent rulings in skirt length to classic “white lies” involving ratios on teams or dancers entered for competition in the wrong age category. Others express frustration on issues not covered by rules, including “feis boycotting” and other gestures of support for feiseanna and Oireachtasi. When a rule is passed that is clearly unenforceable, it’s open season for sneaky behaviour.

This extends to adjudicators. Some judges are sticklers for rules, and will mark you down if you went out-of-bounds during your figure dance, or your skirt is too short- you’ve all heard stories. Others seem to let things slide, much to some parents and teachers frustration. The scores of people who have observed unethical judging could be marked up to many cases of sour grapes. But why would such extreme opinions and experiences be so widespread?

If you stand and say “why can’t everyone just be ethical?”, you’re not alone.

Pride wields her mighty fist in this Irish Dancing world. Each teacher is fighting desperately for his or her school to be the best, to have the most advantages and make sure that anyone in their way is set down. The “my way or the highway” attitude is taken by mighty figures, as well as the political power to grind into the dust anyone who might have another opinion or need. Just like one dance move will work for one student and not another, one ruling may help one school while tying the hands of another.

Apathy also takes a leading role in this melodrama. “Because that’s just the way it’s done” is the rallying cry of those who don’t know the reasons why we do things, just that it’s “traditional”. (for a humorous story about why we do things, visit http://www.wattbusters.com/news/article17.html) People with new-fangled ideas are laughed at or shunned. New blood (with it’s new ideas, technology or philosophy) in the organization is congealed by the tourniquet of the “old crowd”. It’s easier for these disenfranchised new teachers to just say “why should I bother trying to help? No one listens.” Then they become part of the apathetic herd.

Others are scared. I’d count myself in this group. We are so afraid to step a toe out of line, for fear the vitriol of the region will be directed our way. We are the silent ones, the “abstain from voting” crowd. Better to not make a splash then to be cannonballed. (Now you are recalling how my blog is anonymous… scaredy cat me.)

Then the only option left is to decide whether to obey the rules that others will not, or find your own way around them. Of the host of consequences resulting from this, perhaps the vicious cycle of teachers and learners is the worst. Dancers who emerge from the schools of dispassionate teachers have less respect for rulings and guidelines as well. It becomes a game, entitled “what can I get away with?” Those who win, get away with it with flying colors.

Reading the above is enough to work anyone into a rage. But as I started pondering this major flaw in my organization, I had to look to myself first. I had to ask:

“Have I always followed every rule exactly?”

“Do I speak of my colleagues with respect, even in my own mind?”

“Do I make excuses for my behaviour by saying ‘But they do this and this to get ahead- I’m only making things fair.’?”

“Do I always consider myself right, not considering the situation or experience of others?”

I found unsavory creatures inside my own head. Hubris, Hypocrisy, Hate. I’d love to pretend they aren’t there, but they’ve grown up alongside my humbling experiences, tests of integrity and genuine love for my students. No one is free of them completely. I’ve met many a wonderful person and teacher who will regretfully admit that behind their pleasant facade they are battling these monsters themselves.

These problems are not going to go away until we do two things:

1. Someone must come forward, risking political pull, respect and power to say that what we are doing is wrong, and that we need to do better.

2. There will always be a struggle until moral discipline is nurtured personally in each member of the organization, from the president of An Coimisiun to the newest teacher. Because no one wants to listen to a hypocrite call us back to dignity.

For this, a couple months late, I resolve to try to do what is right, not just what is legal. Maybe if I work from that higher law, I won’t worry about the trends in regional and organizational rules. Maybe Hate, Hypocrisy and Hubris can take a backseat, and freedom to be the best teacher I am capable of can come to the fore.

When You Grow Up

February 20, 2010

I loved dancing.

I would get my steps stuck in my head, just like you’d get that annoying top-40’s song. I would doodle dress designs on my school notebooks. I would ponder at length which touring show I wanted to be on. I would live for the day of class each week. I loved announcing to my schoolmates on the first day of school “I’m an Irish Dancer!” I loved going to feiseanna, waiting around sidestage and chatting about how late the feis was going with my fellow competitors. I loved doing dance-outs, performing for audiences who loved to see “that riverdancing stuff”.

Then I started teaching. Helping out with beginners really. And my life changed. I didn’t know that helping a child learn how to do something new could be so fulfilling. I didn’t know that I would eagerly comb results for the dancers I helped before finding my own. I didn’t know I would jump up and down with joy when trophies were announced and they won their special and I didn’t win my championship. I didn’t know I would start loving to go to class because I loved helping others find their dreams.

I’m not sure when it happened. People used to ask me “Are you sad you took the test so you can’t compete anymore?” Every once in awhile, I am. I remember the adrenaline rush, the lights, the way my costume felt. But mostly, I would rather be here, where I am more than anything else.

So long Jean. So Long Mr. Flatley. I’ve got my own troupe now.

Being a Grown Up never felt so good.

Welcome to My School

January 18, 2010

Thanks for coming in and watching class. It was good to see you, recognize you and hear what you have to say. I’ll go ahead and send that transfer in after a couple criteria are met.

I’ll need to call your teacher first. You see, you’ll be in my classes for a little while. 6 years, maybe more if you keep dancing beyond high school, maybe less if you move on to greener pastures. But I’ll be working in the same area as your teacher for decades. It’s important to me to preserve that relationship. Sometimes he’ll tell me what a great student you are and how they’re sorry you have to leave. Sometimes she’ll tell me “good luck, sister” and give me a laundry list of the issues I’ll face in taking you on. Sometimes they won’t care either way.

I hope you have already talked to them about this, because the worst feeling in the world is when a student transfers “Out of the Blue”. Please show enough respect to your teacher to make sure they know your concerns, what needs are not being met or what feelings have been hurt or that you can’t afford them anymore. They taught you. They deserve the chance to grow and make things right. They deserve this face-to-face, not in an awkward break-up letter or phone message timed when you know they can’t answer the phone. Those are tactics for cowardly ex-boyfriends, not for someone honest. Like I am sure you are. Someone who lurks behind the backs of those who trust them is not someone I am interested in having join my school.

Here is what you need to know about transferring to me.

I am not your old teacher. Being certified does not automatically turn us all into teachers who have the same experience, methods and philosophy. I run my classes differently. This is what works for me, and has worked for my students. My schedules, fees, and policies are a part of how I work best, both as a teacher and also as a parent and support to my family and personal life. Give me a chance if you like, but please do not try to change me.

You are a talented dancer. I can see that plainly. I am already thinking of the steps you will learn first, the moves you will do nicely. I know you have choreography from your old teacher that you love, that you feel comfortable with and have won with before. I know you’re eager to show them to me, hoping they will have a new home within my steps. But part of the restyling period mandated by my organization is for the purpose of giving you time to assimilate my steps and styling. Please don’t hang on to the old you. Give me a clean slate to work with. Learn my movements and my sequences. You’ll look nice doing these too.

Change takes time, sweat and committment. While you are doing well now picking things up, some things will take time. Changing the way you move, how your muscles have learned one movement in favor of doing it a new way. Becoming the dancer I’d like to see. Some moves will be hard. Some will be “too easy”. Trust me. Trust yourself. This is not like a new costume, that instantly transforms you with no more work than doing up the zipper or tying the tie. This may take months. This may take a year, or two. Expecting better results out of the starting gate is like expecting to lose 50 pounds the day after starting a new diet. This kind of patience will serve you your entire life, long after you stop dancing. It’s the principle of delayed gratification.

I know you have a lot to share. I know that your teacher does a lot of great things. And that they do a lot of things that made you angry or sad or frustrated. These experiences are private, and between you and your teacher. I’d rather not hear your insider info, for better or for worse. I’d rather my students not hear it either. We don’t gossip. We’d rather you didn’t either. It spreads quickly and everyone’s hands get dirty. Irish dance as a community doesn’t need that. Your teacher is a person and a professional and deserves respect, no matter what they have done. I’d like to think that I’ve been given chances to change and grow and mend my ways, even if my former students move on in the end.

Oh My, I’ve given you a lot of info. I hope you are not on overload. If you go ahead and make the decision to do this, you are welcome. I’ll teach you with no preconcieved expectations. We’ll start at square one together, and make you the best dancer you are capable of being. Let me know what you need, and I’ll let you know what I need from you. This will be an exciting new chapter for you. Let’s make it count.

How the World Works…

July 15, 2009

You’re fabulous.  You’ve been a natural since you stepped in my studio.  You have this grace of movement, perfect timing and lovely carriage.   You’re everything a teacher could wish for.   Except dedicated.  It might be that you’re just taking it for granted.  It might be your ultra-perfectionism getting in the way of letting yourself fly.  I’m not sure.

But it kills me when you dance next to her.  Watch her.  See what dedication is.  It’s the sweat rolling down the back, the hands clenched in fists, the limping back to the back of the room to go at it again.  She wants it so bad, and has the issues most Irish Dancers do… not high enough, sharp enough or fast enough.  If you work like she works, you’d be on a worlds podium in two years… and you just barely started prelim.

She is my favorite.  I know the parents all say that you’re my favorite, because you got into championships. But little do they know that I like the kids best, who want it most.