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Stepping into Irish Culture

IRELAND IS A TOUCHSTONE FOR ME. A centering place, a home. I feel a daily pull toward the Emerald Isle. News stories, contact from friends, Irish music, carefree cussing — all grab my attention and zap me back to my life in Ireland. While in college, every break was spent in Doolin, County Clare. I made six trips in four years for a total of 10ish months. I would move to Doolin in a heartbeat. 

So, with all that said, it’s maybe a little surprising that I hadn’t attempted this sooner?

Well, three weeks ago I took my first step (pun intended) to incorporating more Irish culture in my day-to-day life: I attended my first soft-shoe Irish Step dancing class! Taught by the incomparable Jane Templeton, I could only resist her invites for so long. I kept putting it off because I was “too busy.” Not untrue, but not the full story. 

I am infamously tragic when it comes to choreography. I struggled at Zumba class and any other time I attempted a dance class taught by a friend (Audrey Gamache and Andrea Mossman, you know it’s true.) In freeform dancing, however, I excel. Not to come off too pompous, but I’m a decent (if mostly enthusiastic) dancer. But, try to teach me steps in order and to the beat? Disastrous. So, I’m sure a bit of that played into my hesitation, but I knew that it would provide great writing material. I just had to wait for my family to return to school, and to have a month without a prior writing assignment. October was that month! 

I met Jane and Melodee Kennington at Sventastik Productions in Salida. I was thrilled it was just the three of us, fewer people to watch me struggle and likely fail. Jane and Melodee were incredibly sweet (as expected) and patient with me. Per my choreography-limitations, I require A LOT of repetition. 

Melodee Kennington and Jane Templeton dance a soft-shoed jig at Sventastik Productions in Salida Oct. 5. (Photo by Cailey)

Melodee has been taking lessons from Jane for four years. Jane said she will have to learn some new steps, as Melodee has just about exhausted everything she knows. Jane started taking Irish Step dancing lessons at the age of 51. She took lessons for four years and started competing after one. In three years of competitions she earned 60 awards. She explained that Irish Step is geared toward children primarliary, which she said is quite “short-sided” because adults can be dancers for 30+ years. The adult dance category was vast, 18 and up. So, in Jane’s 50s she’d compete against all ages – “and win” she said with a big grin. 

With competitions in the rearview, Jane started teaching. Jane and Melodee are both 72, a number that’s hard to believe when they make the moves look effortless and beautiful. Their calves are also impressive. 

Melodee said she saw Jane perform once and asked if she’d teach her private lessons. Melodee was looking for a new exercise routine and thought Irish Step could be the cardio she sought. She explained that dancing helped strengthen her “bad leg” and increase her overall strength and stamina. 

Complaining about pain in my hamstrings and tightness in my quads, I joked that if they ever wanted to feel young, they just needed to hang out with me. 

As I already explained, I’m an enthusiastic if not overtly comedic dancer. Big moves, all in. Irish dance is quite the opposite. It’s many tiny movements with still (not rigid) arms by your side. Your hands are balled in fists, with your thumbs tucked inside. I find this position awkward and sweaty. But getting into the movement helps me focus. 

Your feet are always slightly turned out and you spend a lot of time on your toes. More awkwardness for a non-ballerina like myself. Basically, Irish dancing is a lot of jumping. You jump and glide, jump and glide. Jump forward, jump back, glide to the side and repeat. Talk about a cardio workout! My favorite workout is one that happens while I’m distracted, Irish dance is just that. I’m learning and laughing and oh also look at that! Covered in sweat. 

I love trying new things. I love learning new things. Typically, when I’ve tried something new (especially for the purpose of this column) I thoroughly enjoy myself and also, never do it again. 

I now have an exception to that rule: Irish dance. I’ve been three times! I even ordered myself some soft-shoes. The first two lessons, Melodee generously let me borrow her extra pair. They were two sizes too big, but super comfy with socks. When I ordered mine I went with my exact shoe size, er the size I thought I was, 7.5. My shoes are a bit tight. Cutting my toenails helped. But I’m hoping I’ll stretch them out into perfection. I’m happy to have a pair I can practice in at home. The tiny bit of padding really helps when jumping around. 

For this last class, Melodee couldn’t make it so it was a private class with Jane. It was so lovely. I got to go review things over and over again. I also recorded Jane doing the “full steps” that she is teaching me. A full step is 16 moves. I recorded us doing the full steps together and you may see it below! Bear in mind this was my third class, and recording makes me nervous. So, be kind! 

My mom was also present for this class. We all agree one of the best parts of the class is listening to Irish music. I’m excited to get good enough that we listen to the music more than not. I told Jane and Melodee that my goal with this glass is to have enough steps down so the next time I’m in Doolin I can dance a little (impromptu) jig at McDermott’s Pub. It’s good to have goals, right? 

Jane teaches this class at 10 a.m. Wednesdays. (I was tempted to keep that part a secret as I don’t want to share my lovely dance partners.) But regardless, plan on attending the fundraiser for Sventastik Productions 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Salida SteamPlant. That will keep the lights on, so I can continue to dance my Irish American heart out.

Cailey is trying to focus on selfcare. Irish Step dancing is now part of that process. What a mood-booster! She suggests you find something that makes you smile this hard.