I have been an avid blues dancer for several years now.
It all started quite accidentally. Actually, it started with one of my friends twisting my arm back in California. Since as early as I can remember, I danced classical ballet. I loved it, it was beautiful, sometimes painful, but definitely such a thrill to perform. Then, in my early teens, I started experiencing horrible pain whenever I danced. We eventually found out I was slowly tearing a muscle, and that quitting was my only real option.
I was beyond crushed, and I quit dancing for years.
Then one of my friends decided to start working out, and she decided the perfect way was to take a dance class. And she decided to drag me along. And that was how I met (and fell in love) with blues dancing, specifically blues fusion. We soon found out there was a blues club about 45 minutes from where we lived called Firehouse5, and we would drive up once a week to attend. When I knew I was going to be heading to Ireland, I began researching blues clubs in Ireland, and was disappointed to find only one located in Dublin–a nearly three hour train ride from where I would be living. Once I arrived, I started asking around, and it became apparent that swing dancing was much more popular. Swing dancing and I do not get along well at all, so that was out of the question.
During all of this nosing around, however, someone had mentioned weekly céilithe down by the lough (lake) throughout the summer. So a group of us decided to go. We met up for a small dinner beforehand (because we also like to eat in groups, too) then headed down.
As with most free dances, the event was largely populated by the very old and the very young. I wonder a bit if this might be possibly due to Ireland’s history, where, for a while, it was highly unpopular to allow one’s children to pursue traditional Irish cultural practices, a trend which has been strongly reversed in the last decade or two. Still, it often leaves an awkward gap where grandparents are well aware of many things (like the Irish language) and their adult children know little, but are dead set on making sure their children know. Thus, the odd disparages in age: lots of grandmas and grandpas, lots of children under the age of 15, and a sprinkling of people between, with most of the parents standing on the sidelines. It is to such an extreme that the Irish government has designated areas where the Irish language is “protected”, in hopes that the last remaining enclaves of Irish-as-a-primary-language speakers will not die out. Its almost as if Ireland itself tore a muscle, and had to wait a generation to pull its dancing shoes back out.
This gap was something Tomas and I had discussed quite a bit at one of the stops on our previous weekend trips, where, over ice cream (for him and Cait) and chocolate cake (for me). Tomas told us that his grasp of the Irish language was fairly elementary, and that he felt he knew more than many of his peers. When we pressed him as to why, he explained that, despite parents often using Irish in the home, children were often punished for using the language, both at school and at home. The thought was that knowing Irish would never let you get ahead in life, and was actually more likely to hold you back. As with most parents, Irish parents wanted their children to be able to get ahead in life, so worked to actively discourage its use, despite such movements as the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge). Now, those children are adults, and many, like Tomas, heavily regret their lack of Irish schooling, and wish for their children to have such opportunities.
While the goal is noble, I sometimes wonder if the advantage has been lost. Many of my Irish friends, when pressed, admitted to knowing Irish and having been deeply schooled in it, but feel they are unlikely to ever use it. Worse, it feels to me like a lingering appendage of British control, which, while it has been out of the country for nearly a hundred years, is still exerting quite a lot of control over the Irish culture, economy, and language. Perhaps Ireland just needs a bit of dancing to reawaken its memory. Only time will tell if the wound has healed and a new form of the old passion will appear.