Every March, my dance class seems to grow. I always say it’s because people are more interested than usual in pursuing their Irish heritage.
That may be so, but recently, I added another reason. I believe what the experts have been saying for ages that people join a dance class or other activity they enjoy, with the hope of finding romance. Any holiday is more fun to celebrate when you have someone to share it.
We were in the middle of the Duke Reel during one class when I was reminded of this reality. The dancers were working on the chain movement when suddenly Liam couldn’t help himself as he took Claire’s hand in his.
Instead of moving on to chain with the next dancer, he gently put her fingers to his lips. Well, this charming lady, lost her footwork momentarily, but Liam danced his way round the floor and everyone in the class, including me, left the studio with bigger smiles than usual on our faces.
Yes, they’re dating now and they make such a lovely couple that I feel like adding “matchmaker” to my dance teacher bio.
Back in the fifties, I had been a keen step dancer in Mayo. When I came to America, I joined the McNiff Dance School and continued dancing for a few years until I joined the Franciscan nuns. I later left the order, and have now written my story, my memoir, “Call of the Lark.” It tells about my life as a child in Mayo, and the new life that followed in America.
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The following excerpt from my book is about my early days in New York, when a friend, I’ll call Susan wanted me to go to the ballroom and do rock-and-roll dancing with her so we could meet “college fellas.”
“You’ll have to come to my dance class first,” I told her. “Then I’ll think about your rock and roll stuff. I joined the best Irish dance school in North America.”
Susan looked annoyed. “Oh, that old fashioned stuff! The Walls of Limerick, the Four Hand Reel and that kind of thing, is it?”
“Well, yes. There are lots of Yanks learning Irish dancing too, you know.”
“Yanks? I don’t believe it.”
“Suit yourself,” I said and started to walk away.
“Wait,” Susan said. “If I go to the your dance class, will you come to City Center?”
We made an agreement. She learned Irish dance steps, and we practiced along with Vera from Limerick, a young woman who had taken dance classes at home. She, along with her sister Helen, and brother Mossie, were singers.
We practiced for the Connecticut feis, held in a football field in Stamford. Vera, six others and myself were in the competition for the High Cauled Cap. It was my first New York summer, and I could hardly breathe, much less dance.
The wool dresses didn’t go well with the humidity. It would take some getting used to. Regardless, I loved the dance and couldn’t wait to get up on that stage and lash into it.
My excitement turned to embarrassment when, during the double quarter chain, after turning right hands with my partner, then giving my left hand to the next dancer and turning again, I lost my footing and fell off the stage.
Pretending confidence, I jumped right back, just in time to turn with my own partner. But Greta, from Cork, had a miserable look on her face, wondering where I was when it was time to link her hand. This was supposed to be my time to shine. How could I go to City Center Ballroom and dance with “college fellas” after dropping off the stage?
But with Brendan Ward’s dance band at the helm, City Center Ballroom proved to be easier that I expected. The band played a mixture of ballroom and céilí. Although much more glamorous, with mirrors all over the place and flowers in the ladies room, the setting was like the dances back home in Aghamore and Kiltimagh.
The girls stood around and waited for the lads to ask them to dance. Susan and I were fussy about “the fellas” we danced with. We’d observe them on the floor and giggle about the ones we wanted to do the slow dances with.
From time to time, we’d say to each other, “time to run.” That meant we were going to act as if we wanted to say hello to someone on the other side of the dance floor to avoid being asked to dance by the lad approaching. If one of us didn’t make the getaway, that person got asked to dance by the one who had too many pints before coming to the dance. We had to be quick to move into the crowd, and I learned to escape very well.
One night I crashed into Brian, a good dancer, while trying to run away from a too tipsy guy.
“What’s the hurry? Will you dance this one?” Brian said taking my hand and leading me onto the floor. He was tall with dark hair, a ready smile and sexy blue eyes. Brian was my dance partner for the rest of that year.
Well, here I am fifty years later, still dancing and watching romance take place on the dance floor.
This St. Patrick’s Day, I’m leaving my dance class behind for a week to join fellow writers for a workshop in sunny Sicily. The novel I’m now working on deals with the joys and sorrows of three older women who are looking for love.
Will they find romance on the dance floor, or will they join the Internet dating scene? The Sicilian sun and the strangeness of being away from New York on St. Patrick’s Day may help me figure this out.
Maura Mulligan, a native of Aghamore Co. Mayo, teaches a céilí dance class in Manhattan. Greenpoint Press, New York, will publish “Call of the Lark,” in May.