Essay: katie hamel
March Madness means something different to Irish dancers. It’s the one month of the year when the rest of the world cares about us. We dance at theaters and public markets, pubs and nursing homes, regional conferences and libraries. Over the next four weeks, my dance students have nine shows, seven of which are during the week of St. Patrick’s Day. It’s exhausting and exhilarating.
Clare is in a boot. Last week, she misjudged a step during our warm up, a traditional set called The Blackbird. As the other girls tipped and trebled through the dance, Clare’s eyes flew wide open. Her face lost all color. She looked at me, palid, and shook her head.
This week, she hobbled in with crutches, a bottle of painkillers, and a notebook to take notes on new choreography. It wasn’t the first time Clare had injured herself, either. This broken ankle was the result of a torn ligament last year.
“Miss Katie, can I at least stand up to block the dance?” Clare asked, itching to get away from the black folding chair where I’d placed her.
“No, you need to rest,” I said firmly. “You only get one Clare, take care of her.”
“But if I blocked it, I could learn it faster for the shows,” she persisted. She was already reaching for her crutches.
“When Garfunkel got hurt, I told him that he better shape up and that everyone is replaceable,” her classmate Maura said from her split stretch on the floor. “It worked.”
“Who’s Garfunkel?” Clare asked.
“My left knee. Simon’s the right,” Maura said.
“Good advice,” said Clare. “Maybe I’ll name my ankle Bowie. There are ten days left until St. Patrick’s Day, he’ll be fine by then.”
I hesitated. “Clare, you’re injured,” I said gently. “You’re not going to be in these shows.”
“I… oh,” Clare said. The studio was silent for a few moments. Clare’s face screwed up, like her ankle had been broken all over again.
“It’s not the end of the world, there’ll be other shows,” I said. “You’ll rest, and you’ll be ready for them.”
Clare looked away. I heard her anyways.
I looked around at the other girls in her class. There was Maddie, who just dyed her hair blue and green and purple; Bridget, who has her pilot’s license at fifteen and plays the banjo; Taylor, who cosplays as Harry Potter characters and choreographed a Ghostbusters dance for the last recital; Luisa, who wears Lilly Pulitzer and is Student Council Treasurer; and Theresa, who runs a YouTube channel full of her musical performances and original choreography.
This dance is all forward motion, one foot in front of the other. In a few years, Clare will leave the ceili and new girls will join.
I wanted to tell her: There will always be a crisis. Aiden in Bio will make fun of your lisp, and your mom will find your role-playing Warrior Cats fanfiction, and your best friend Jade will move to Michigan. You’ll hurt and lose and fear and fall. And the dance goes on.
For a recital last year, I choreographed an Irish reel for beginners. I still have the photos- ten five-year-olds in sailor dresses, dancing and marching with big smiles. White, rounded hats and striped leotards and twin braids. The song was called “Marching Free” by Gaelic Storm (of Titanic soundtrack fame). It goes “We’re marching home, we’re marching free, we’ll sail across the ocean wide our homeland for to see”. The end of the song, which I cut, is “Our home is our true love, and nevermore will be”. Luck of the Irish and all that.
One of the sailors, Tessa, wore shiny metallic unicorn earrings to every class of the year. Another, Ellie, dressed as Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Halloween. I want to tell them: there will always be a crisis, but hope is not irrational. It’s strong and sound. Without that hope, how on earth can we dance, much less march? I want them to know how important they are. Each of them. They’re weird and creative and beautiful, and they need to keep moving.
Irish dance seems to attract a certain personality type. The freer spirits wiggle their way into belly dancing and lyrical. We welcome the anxious perfectionists who strive for precision and control. If my dancers remember anything from my classes, any of the steps or figures or lessons, I want it to be this: embrace the chaos. Embrace the crisis, and dance anyways.
“I’ll still come to the St. Pat’s shows,” Clare said at the end of class. “I’ll clap for you guys. And I’ll be ready for the show in May.”
Bowie would be proud.
Katie is an Irish dance teacher in southern Massachusetts. All of these girls and their varied interests and personalities are her real, current students, although their names have been changed.