What's a Dance Competition, Anyway?

I haven't posted in a while. It's summer, for one thing, and for another I was recently away from home having quite a unique experience. Actually, this experience has become pretty familiar to me over the last eight years, but once upon a time, I had no idea that an entire subculture exists that revolves around...Irish Dance.

For those not "in the know," the words, "Irish Dance" may conjure up a rather pleasing image of young, red-haired girls folk dancing in peasant-like attire, hand in hand, in a green meadow, their bare porcelain-white feet accented against the lush Irish grass. Maybe you've heard the words Irish dance from a friend who has a cousin whose oldest daughter used to be an Irish dancer. Or maybe you work with someone who knows someone who has a child who is an Irish dancer. However you have come by the knowledge that a sport called Irish dance exists, if you don't know much more than that about it, consider yourself blessed. You will never purchase a costume that cost the equivalent of a modest mortgage payment on a four-bedroom house in a northeastern suburb. Check back in on my blog later in the week when I'm back to writing about Running With Jesus.

However, today I need to say just a few things about the secret, underground world of Irish dance competitions. My daughter, Kelly, and I, were introduced to the sport in 1998, when she was in kindergarten and a classmate asked if she wanted to take some dance lessons. It sounded harmless enough to me, so I paid the fifty dollars, signed a permission slip, and us parents alternated dropping them off and picking them up from the studio. As far as I was concerned, it was something to do one afternoon each week. Plus, in my attempt to grow her into a well-rounded individual, she also at various times took swim lessons, gymnastics, ballet, and soccer, none of which produced disasterous results. But my luck had run out. Clearly, I had no idea I was walking headlong into a land mine.

The trouble began in 1999, when the teacher decided to launch her first ever "Champion Development Class" and sent me a letter inviting Kelly to join. Innocently, I of course signed her up. How could I deprive my daughter the opportunity to experience her full potential as a champion dancer? Plus, I reasoned, surely the teacher must have seen in Kelly some incredible raw talent that would one day have my beautiful daughter's "feet of flames" flying across a Broadway stage as the female lead in Riverdance! Blinded by the prospective of her dazzling future in the performance arts, I happily paid an increased fee for two classes each week and started to shop for a dance dress.

Here, here is where the story takes an ugly turn. I was blindsided by a $350 used velvet fuschia dance dress adorned with Swavorski crystals, and a matching headpiece. The dress had obviously never been dry-cleaned. To me, $350 seemed quite a bit to pay for something that showed signs of several years of wear, but the teacher encouraged me. "It has a history of success," she beamed. Why, her own daughter had danced in that very dress the first time she got first place. I was an easy target. Sold! I wrote out the check, trying to ignore the grimy underarm stains and fraying around the cuffs.

That was the first of six dresses I purchased, each increasingly expensive. Kelly's most recent dress was darned near the cost of a year's tuition at the state university from which I graduated in 1985! I admit it, I am envious of the mothers whose daughters run track; they have grocery money at the end of the month. I'm on a payment plan by which I will finally own this sweat stained treasure by 2015! When I first ventured into the world of custom, handsewn dresses, I imagined an elderly Irish woman in a small stone cottage, smoke billowing from the chimney into the cold, gray night air, while inside she sat rocking in her creaky chair sewing the crystals on this dress by hand with only a dim candle lighting the room. Now that I've had three dresses made, however, I'm pretty sure this little old woman has made enough money from just the dancers in Kelly's school to hire the Irish equivalent of Michael Graves to redesign a 5th century Irish Castle where she can live with a full staff of servants to wait on her!

While the dress is, by far, the most important and most costly component of the entire Irish dance outfit, the wig, shoes and makeup cannot be overlooked. My daughter now dances as a blond, even though she is brunette, because blond hair looks better with the dress. So before she puts the wig on, she spray dyes her hair blond. You don't know about this wig of which I speak? Google it. It's too much to go into here.

Kelly's preparation time before a competition runs approximately two hours; that includes inserting about one thousand bobby pins into her wig to secure it in place tightly so it stays on while she dances. (Once you lose that wig on stage you never overlook the importance of all one thousand bobby pins again). The wig should be fastened tightly enough that hair is pulled taut along the hairline and a headache developes after about twenty minutes.

Once the wig is on, there's an amazing amount of make up to go with it. The dancers' rule of thumb is that if you look good, you aren't wearing enough! Contrast this to my preparation to run. It takes about thirty seconds to gather my hair into a ponytail; I wear no make up whatsoever. In fact, if I was wearing makeup from earlier in the day, I wash it off to avoid the Alice Cooper look at the finish line.

Since this entire dance thing is so incredibly expensive, its fortunate for my family (who likes to eat meat a few times each week) that running costs next to nothing. For example, I've graduated from cotton t-shirts to tech material and do treat myself to moisture wicking fabrics in the summer and the very warmest Polartec, Microfleece, Thermafleece in the winter. But I dare say that over the course of my entire life I won't spend anywhere near as much on running gear as I spent in 2010 for my daughter to compete in the World Championships in Glasgow, Scotland!

Irish dance is a curious sport, and, as you can probably tell by now, not the one I would have picked for my daughter. That said, she has learned some really wonderful things from Irish dance. She has danced alone on a stage before five judges and a crowded theatre, and not thrown up before or after. To me, that suggests she won't be even the slightest bit flustered before any classroom, boardroom, or courtroom, presentation. And traveling to and from these competitions has given Kelly and I the opportunity to spend really great mother/daughter time together. We've laughed when she's fallen, cried when she's lost, prayed before she walked on stage, and jumped up and down cheering when she's won . But regardless of her successes and failures on the stage, I will forever treasure the wonderful closeness we've developed as a result of spending time at these competitions.

Finally, I saw a dancer at the National Championships wearing a t-shirt that said "Whatever your 100% looks like, give it." That resonated with my runner self. Whether you give your 100% on a stage or on a track, it's only important that you give it. In that single endeavor, dancers and runners might actually have a single common goal.

So what are you giving your 100% today?