Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. I wasn’t the kind of competitive Irish dancer who is at a feis (competition) every weekend, has a huge elaborate curly wig and a dress costing thousands of pounds that seem mostly to have been spent on finding the grossest combination of neon with Swarovski crystals. I danced for a bit over a year and a half, and during that time I did a handful of competitions; at the last of these, I wore a very tasteful solo dress that my mum made for me, and had my hair in a bun.
But I was, nonetheless, an Irish dancer.
As a late starter (I took it up when I was thirteen), and somebody whose parents weren’t prepared to commit their entire lives and finances to pursuing this latest in a long stream of hobbies, it was unlikely I would ever have got to the highest level. Although I fantasised about one day making it to the Worlds — or even the Great Britains, at least — I didn’t voice this to my teachers or the other dancers in my class, because I knew they’d probably tell me it was unlikely I’d get that far.
I believed that if I worked hard enough, I could prove them wrong. I knew it would cost money and time, but apart from that, I thought the only thing standing in my way was commitment. If I decided I was going to do it, I would.
Maybe I might even have been right. My childhood ballet classes set me up to have good Irish dance technique, and I made fairly rapid progress in that year and a half, reaching Intermediate level in quite a few dances. (The scale goes Beginner – Primary – Intermediate – Open, although Open is broken down into sub-categories that I can’t now remember.) That said, it was a lot easier to advance as a fourteen-year-old competing against a handful of people than as a ten-year-old who might face thirty other kids at even the smaller competitions, because there weren’t many beginners of my age, but still. I wasn’t bad at it.
I left Irish dance about six years ago (it came up on Timehop a couple of weeks back), ostensibly to focus on ballet. In reality, I was unhappy in my dance school, so when it came to having to make a decision between ballet and Irish dance because of money and time, I went with the one that didn’t make me feel miserable. I loved the dancing, but it wasn’t a particularly positive environment to be in. The teachers kept pushing me to do more classes even though I’d already had to take time off for injuries, and I didn’t have any friends there.
I mostly don’t regret that decision. Sometimes, when I see videos of really good Irish dancers, I have a moment of nostalgic wistfulness, wishing I were still capable of that, but on the whole it was a choice that I made that I think was the best decision in that situation.
Last week, it was the Worlds.
This year, they were being held in Ireland. They aren’t always; I remember the Worlds I aspired to were going to be in Glasgow, and although I thought those would probably be too soon for me to reach a high enough level, the following year they were due to be in the US — I think in Boston? — and I knew there was no way my parents would let me travel that far, so Glasgow it had to be. (For the record, there are two world championships, organised by the two main Irish dancing associations. Which one you compete in depends who your school is registered with. This year they were both in Ireland, though: one lot were in Dublin, the other in Belfast.)
I still follow several Irish dance-related pages on Facebook, so I kept seeing pictures of dancers competing in the Worlds. And I ended up having a lot of feelings.
My first feeling was that the dresses have got even more hideous in the intervening years — they’re more neon and more sparkly than I remember, which I didn’t think I was possible. My second was that I’m glad I left before I started questioning my gender, because I can’t imagine trying to navigate the incredibly gendered world of competitive Irish dancing would be much fun as a non-binary person. My third was an overwhelming sense of loss.
Like I said, I wasn’t at that level when I danced. Far from it. I might never have reached that level, even I’d stayed. Looking at the Worlds shouldn’t, therefore, evoke in me feelings that I should’ve been there, that this is a set of photos from which I’m wrongly missing. I wasn’t a world champion and, with my knee problems, probably wasn’t even world champion material.
But I believed I might be.
What I miss is the feeling of having potential, and of having lofty dreams to aspire to. What I miss is thinking that all I needed was to commit in order to be the best at something (instead of an entirely new body). What I miss is believing myself to have a future. What I miss is being able to think about dance and reminisce about my past without always being hyper-aware of the pain that went along with it.
I don’t think I mourned Irish dancing early in this six-year absence because for a long time I believed I could go back if I wanted to. I kept my shoes. I kept my dress (I only wore it for one competition, after all; sadly, I think I’ve probably put on too much weight to fit into it now). I kept my poodle socks and sock glue and shoe elastics and buckles and toe pads and blister plasters. In first year at uni, I even went along to the Irish dancing society a couple of times.
Now, I can’t even do ballet without pain, a sport that’s considerably less high-impact than Irish dance and which should suit my body and my health problems a lot better.
I know that even if I overcame the practicalities (finding a school and the money to pay for classes), I couldn’t go back to Irish dance because I’m too disabled and it would hurt too much. Even if I were physically capable of the movements, which I’m not sure I am, they would cause pain and probably substantial amounts of damage. It’s not possible.
So what I’m mourning is not a door that I chose to close, but one that was locked to me when I turned my back. What I’m mourning is the loss of a younger self who believed in my own potential — now, I have no idea how to have dreams anymore.
I don’t make lofty plans these days because I don’t know if in a year’s time I’ll still be able to do any of those things. I used to think I had a future that would involve music; I haven’t been able to play violin or flute properly for four years. I used to think my future would involve dance, or art, or archery, or any of the hobbies I’ve been forced to give up (whether temporarily or permanently) because of my health.
I can’t face losing any more dreams, so I just don’t make them. I don’t know how. While people around me plan for futures where they have good, high-paying jobs, I have no idea if I’m even going to be well enough for a job when I leave university. On a smaller scale, I can’t set myself timetables to get work done, because I might be having a bad pain day and be unable to type or write. I just don’t know. Everything about my future feels uncertain, at all times, and as someone whose anxiety stems from feeling like I’m not in control, it’s not a whole lot of fun.
Irish dancing wouldn’t have been good for me, physically or emotionally. The school I was in was a toxic environment, the competitive atmosphere wouldn’t have suited me, and as someone who spent my later teens questioning fundamental aspects of my gender identity, the rigidly gendered structure of competitions (and the costumes) would have been miserable. So I’m glad I got out.
I just miss the part of me that could do physical activity without worrying whether I’d spend the whole of the next day in bed recovering, who just needed a knee support to do two hours of dance and cycle to and from the class, who was strong and passionate and invested. The one who knew that jumps can feel like flying when you get them just right. I miss having dreams more than I regret that they weren’t fulfilled.
So… that’s a cheery blog post for you all. But it was that or talk about Theresa May calling a general election and frankly, I’m feeling even more hopeless about the political future than I am about my own dreams, so I figured lost potential was a relatively light subject. Sigh.
If anyone’s been through similar things with the loss of abilities due to health or whatever, I’d love to hear how you learned to deal with it, because I’m still struggling. If not, enjoy these pictures of me as an Irish dancer in 2010-2011, and I’ll see you some time soon with (hopefully) a more cheerful post.