A lot has changed in Irish dancing since I did it as a child and thinking back, the biggest change has been the parents of dancers. You see, we always had the dresses and the silly hair, but the parents were different.
My siblings and I were sent dancing to keep the heritage alive. We were the sons and daughters of immigrants to whom Irish dancing was a safe and innocent way to express their Irishness at a time when to have an Irish accent in London meant you were regarded with suspicion. It was quaint, old-fashioned and cute to be able to roll us out at the weddings of our uncles and aunts in Ireland. It was my parents’ way of telling them all that they hadn’t turned their back on their homeland; we were still Irish, just living in England for the time being. The plan was always to go back, we just never did. Anyway, I digress. Back to my point. The parents have changed.
We were sent to class every Thursday night in a church hall in North London. From what I could tell, there were two sets of parents. Aside from all the above, I think mum really sent us dancing to get a couple of hours peace from her growing band of children. Each Thursday we were dispatched at the hall at 7pm and picked up by dad irate because he was missing News at 10. They didn’t care much for what we did at class, they trusted the teachers to do what they paid them for, they dutily took us to the local feis and they didn’t put up a fight when one-by-one we announced our dancing days were over. The other set of parents were the mothers who stayed in the hall for the duration of the lesson but they too couldn’t give one iota for what was happening on the dance floor as they were there to socialise, to have a drink, a chat and a cigarette. Indeed this was repeated at the feis with announcements needing to be made for parents to quieten down as the dancers couldn’t hear the music.
Times have changed though and I first got that hint when I watched a documentary on Channel 4 a few years ago on Irish dancing. To hear one mother talk about how she didn’t care about how her daughter did at school, all that mattered was that she become world champion appalled me. Education (not dancing) was always the priority for my parents and as nonplussed as they were about our dancing careers, they more than made up for it with interest in what we were going to do with ourselves in the real world and I found great humour when another family, who in every respect looked ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’, said they moved from Canada to Birmingham (I have cousins in Birmingham, I know it well) so their son could dance for a particular teacher. So, as I said in my first post, I was in no rush to hand the baton of pure madness over to my own children.
All was ok in the beginning as she learned her one-two-threes but as my daughter began to improve my experience soured. The more interest that the teacher took in my daughter, the more isolated I became from my fellow beginner parents. I was never accepted into the inner circle of the established parents because my cynicism must have shone through. My daughter went from one class a week to two and I’d raise my eyebrow at those who’d tell me with pride that their children were doing four or five.
There’s no point beating around the bush here but there is an obsessiveness to some of the parents of dancers today and it is dangerous. The top young dancers at my daughter’s dance school look, quite frankly, anorexic because they are attending dancing class for hours after school several times a week and again at the weekend. These children are wearing their bodies out, they are not incorporating rest days into their training regime nor are they eating healthily because they are always dancing or being driven straight to class after school having only a snack mid-journey. I have seen very young children finish class at 10pm with school the next day and it scares me stiff when I see the repetitive jumping drills that the children are put through. I worry for my daughter’s physical well-being so I limit her exposure to this damage by refusing to succumb to the demands to increase the frequency of her classes. You might be surprised to learn that I don’t blame her teachers, the teachers naturally want results and aren’t as invested in my daughter’s future as I am, it’s the parents that get me; it is a complete neglect of parental care. The child needs their parent to say to the teacher to ‘cop’ themselves on when they want them for another class, workshop or display. The parent needs to ‘cop’ themselves on and allow the child some rest time, some play time, some family time, some homework time and damn it, some dinner time.
To some parents their child’s hobby must be a full time job. Aside from the classes there is the travelling up and down the country to all the Feiseanna, knowing all the child’s steps so that they can ‘coach’ them from behind the adjudicator, the befriending of other dancing schools on Facebook so tabs can be kept on the competition, keeping abreast of all the results from the Feis they were unable to make this time and the gushing on social media about how wonderful their teacher is but keeping an eye on where the next transfer might be. I don’t know how they find the time to do all this or even why they would want to do it. The rewards in Irish dancing are not so great to justify the efforts some of the parents are putting in – a medal, a trophy, a title, a stint in a show, a banjaxed knee and a disabled blue badge.
Listen, I know not all the parents in Irish dancing are like this. I know because when it comes to the time to pick my child up from her lesson I’m not the only one hiding in my car waiting for the others to leave.