Happiness is a hard thing to navigate. You have a good day and you never want it to end. You stay up late, trying to clutch at something that, necessarily, has to end. You can wake up and do everything the same the next day, but it will almost always fail. The person you met at the pond doesn’t walk by again because their schedule takes them in the opposite direction, so you burn in the sun alone. The person you love suddenly flinches at your touch, your bowling partner starts to find bowling trite, or the water in the neighborhood swimming hole is ten degrees colder, and your forced laughter rings hollow. No matter how hard you try, you cannot revisit past happiness. In fact, I’ve found that the harder you try, the less happy you become. It has to be new, and sometimes you sort of just have to sit and twiddle your thumbs, waiting for more to roll in.
Anything could have happened this weekend. On Thursday, my beginning Irish dance class had their final performance at Kendal, a retirement village in Oberlin. It could have been a disaster, but my wonderful, graceful, beautiful, amazing students put on an amazing show for a great audience. They danced like little forest sprites, and then we went out for a celebratory ice cream date. I couldn’t be prouder of them. In three and a half months, they learned three céili dances, two jig steps, two reel steps, some hard shoe rhythm, and a slip jig step. Thursday evenings were always the highlight of my week. No matter how I felt before class, I always left feeling full and light. So, thank you, everyone, for a lovely semester and a grand show at Kendal. I’m so glad we could share our love for Irish dance with the greater Oberlin community!Still reeling from the joy of Thursday night, I woke up on Friday and gathered my things for the Queen City Feis in Cincinnati, Ohio, my first Irish dance competition in five years. My motto for this competition, which many of you have already heard repeated dozens of times, was “If pigs can fly, I can place.” From July 2008 – September 2012, I had not had a single dance lesson. The steps I knew were steps that had been permanently engraved into my muscle memory, such that learning new figures and movements was nearly impossible. A back click should always follow a back toe, says my internal dance logic. Before I could even begin, I needed to have all of that beaten out of me, which made learning a slow, almost painful process. I was stubborn enough to want to cling to my old steps, but I was also stubborn enough to keep trying to learn new ones. What resulted was what happened this past Saturday, and it’s probably not what you are thinking based on this introduction to my dancing.
I was competing in the 15&O category in the Prizewinner level. It had been a while, but I remember how much I hated Prizewinner, not least because the name made me feel like I was some sort of livestock animal. It’s basically where all these girls convene who are great dancers, but have the misfortune of always competing against each other in a level that requires firsts to move up. When I was younger, there was a girl whose instructor required a first in everything before she would be allowed to advance. She got first in everything but one. In that one dance, the girl who got seconds in everything else took first. It was brutal for everyone. So, to say I wasn’t looking forward to coming back to Prizewinner is a major understatement. I was dreading it.
My first dance was the reel, which is a dance I have grown to resent. I have not proven myself ready for harder steps at O’Hare. I can barely remember Novice-level lead around they taught me, and even if I do end up making all the right moves, it’s questionable I’ll be able to execute them properly. If my toes are fully pointed, my knee is bent. If my knee is straight, my legs aren’t crossed. But I still want something more challenging. Just one difficult leap. But I know it’s something I have to earn, and until I’ve proven I can do the simple stuff, there’s no way I should expect to be trusted with the harder steps.
So, there I was, about to make my first mark on the world of feisanna with steps I didn’t think were complicated enough to even warrant a glance in a Prizewinner competition. My legs were shaking and I was finding it difficult to swallow. I wasn’t sure if I was going to burst out laughing or bend over and vomit, but I am an Actual Adult (surprise!), and I’m older and wiser than most of the girls I was competing against. I knew there was no hope if I danced with another girl, so I made sure I was at the very end of the dance. Some people dread dancing solo before a judge. It’s risky, of course. There’s no one else to watch, so unless the judge is writing, they’re going to see every single thing you do. You can’t hide, but I relish in it. I crossed myself before stepping on the stage and prayed that there was an uneven number of competitors so I would be by myself. It worked out in my favor, and despite an error at the every end of my lead around, I placed third!
The next dance was my slip jig, and this is where I kind of ruined things for myself the rest of the day. I’ve always been best at my slip jig because it’s more graceful and your power comes from your ability to fly rather than explode. When I told myself I could maybe take home a ribbon, I always figured that it would be in my slip jig. So, when I ended up dancing against a girl who cut me off three times, I got frustrated. At the very end, she was in my way. I saw her there. I plowed into her anyway. But, okay, so I was just taking two steps sideways and then doing a wrap-around. So it’s not like I was moving very fast or very strongly. I wasn’t glaring or staring her down as I came up behind her and kicked her in the butt. I just kind of bumped into her, but it did look a lot like stage rage, and unfortunately I had this judge the rest of the competition, and she did not look at me again.
When I say she did not look at me again, I am not kidding. I still placed fourth in my treble jig, but that’s only because I pulled my “end of the line, dance alone” strategy again, which meant she had no choice, and even if she pretended to write the whole time, she still could hear every single beat (and I don’t miss beats). It was supposed to be a different judge for the hornpipe, but another competitor had a “conflict” with that judge so they had to find a replacement. Lucky for her, and crappy for me, it was the same judge that had written me off earlier in the day. The judge they had replaced had given me a 95/100 in my hornpipe when I was younger, so I was excited when I saw him walking over after the lunch break. He’d judged my very first feis when I was a wee babe, and, while it was doubtful he would remember me as a dancer specifically, I knew he typically liked my look. Anyway, the replacement judge didn’t look at me once until the last four bars of the dance. I’d been watching her, though, and by that point, I was so frustrated, I slammed by toe into the stage, forgetting that my shoes were too small and what a mistake it was to do that. The pain ruined my toe stands and that’s really all she saw of my entire dance, which was fine otherwise.
All that aside, I am so grateful that I even got anything. For years in Prizewinner I came home empty-handed. It was the most frustrating level for me. I hated it. So, that’s how I know choosing O’Hare was a good decision. My dance goals were simple: to learn new steps in each dance, to compete, and to take home at least one medal (or ribbon). My first competition, I have already claimed one medal and one ribbon, with the whole summer left to go.
This weekend I hosted an amazing dance performance, got a cool new job, actually won prizes in Prizewinner, and I’ll be heading home for a fun bowling session with my champion bowling team. A little part of me that’s bigger than I’ll admit wants to know when this happiness will end and when I can go back into my cave of Knowing Life Sucks. I know it has to end sometime, but, for now, I’m just going to ride it (and write it all down so I remember that glorious meadow of Sometimes Life Doesn’t Suck.) Thanks for all your support, everyone. I love each and every one of you! 🙂