When I was a young girl I was a dancer. Lots of girls were (and still are) schlepped to dance lessons at a young age as a gender defined rite of passage, yet the years that I spent ‘jump 2-3ing’ and ‘battering-up’ were largely bereft of any true cultural appreciation. I spent fifteen years in pursuit of the hobby so I’ll expect you to go “shit, that’s a while” before you discover how horrifically underwhelming my passion and focus was the whole time.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t want to be good. I did. It’s just that I wanted be successful without any sacrifice or reason, in the same way that I wanted to have the entire catalogue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cards but I resented the idea of having to build the collection from scratch.
It all started in my first year of primary school when, one morning tea break, my very Irish friend Eibhlish was hopping around the school oval. She had the concentration of a cub chasing a butterfly, repeatedly lifting up her front leg, leaping out onto it and completing the move by bringing her lifted hind foot in front of the grounded other, closing them tight, toe to heel as if pulled by magnet. I asked her what she was doing, making her endless circles around the patch of land that we had usually flicked marbles around on.
“I’m doing my Jump 2-3’s” she said.
I was alarmed that she knew how to do something that I’d never seen before. She was usually very reserved and quiet, and such a bold move from her to switch our game to something unchartered had made me instantly suspicious.
“The circle at the start. Then I do skip 2-3’s. Here, I’ll show you” Eibhlish said, as she took my hand and taught me my first steps. From then on, all term, we’d take the same strides in close hemispheres. We’d dance during all of the breaks and every day after school while we’d wait to be picked up by my poor parents, whom must’ve eventually caved in to my pleadings to begin classes at the same Irish dance school that Eibhlish visited every Saturday.
It turned out that Eibhlish quit taking dancing classes shortly after my father was posted to another state with the Air Force, forcing us to leave Perth. We had formed a very close friendship, but I started to realise that even from the age of nine, dancing was to be something ongoing that I could hide behind. It was a part of my character as much in childhood as young adulthood, and the music genuinely inspired and consoled me, but it was still a performance act that other people enjoyed as much, if not more, than me.
I started properly competing in 1994 at the age of ten. My older sister Deb would be bribed into curling my hair with ‘rags’, which entailed strips of old bed sheets being wound into my sectioned and moussed mane. I was made to sleep in them for two nights usually, and then they’d be yanked out on the morning of the competition with a Shirley Temple inspired end result. To this day, the smell of cheap cedel or Final Net hair spray gives birth to butterflies in my stomach and more often than not, an oddly shiny eye.
Progressing from the Beginner stages to Primary, Intermediate and then Open divisions happened over the course of the next three or four years. My family couldn’t afford the fancy costumes at first, but somehow or other mum managed to hide the true total costs from dad and I never went without something, even if it was the pre-loved fashions of the other girls. It was seemingly always the richest kids with the glitteriest tiaras that took home the big trophies, but I didn’t care all that much. My dancing kept me out of the house and away from the ordinary, and instead of being swept up by house chores and hormones I was being groomed as a reasonably respected little entertainer.
I got better and better at dancing, but I was certainly never the best. At the same slow rate I grew closer and closer to adulthood, but I was still a kid behind the ever-developing arsenal of fake tan, wigs and diamantes. My dancing teachers were committed and generous, but at the same time they could be brutal. Weekends were too often spent in championship ‘workshop’ conditions, which meant that our feet bled, knees ached and muscles burned to the point of spasm from hours upon hours of repetitive strain. Other girls came and went, but for the majority of those years I was too afraid to rock the boat in case I lost my distraction from what was going on at home or at school.
Dancing stopped being an effective diversion some time after my seventeenth birthday. I’d travelled interstate every year for at least half a decade with my competitions and I’d travelled to Northern Ireland to pursue my ‘dream’. I wanted it, and I eventually worked hard for it, but the praise was peppered with guilt for being so expensive and causing ‘real world’ financial issues with my folks. My schoolwork eventually suffered. My high school boyfriend was doing what high school boyfriends do best and filling me with the confidence to run away and leave my stress behind. When that intense relationship fell apart, my dancing did too. Bitterness* replaced joy and the music eventually lost it’s draw. I went to practise once a week, and then once a month, and then not at all.
Whenever I hear a tune that is remotely jiggable, I dance it with my fingertips. Every irish dancer does this, I'd imagine. I get shitty with myself when I can't remember how each dance went, and the versions it took on as the trends changed. I kind of hope that one day some friendly stranger asks me to hold their hand and do some Jump 2-3’s in a circle with them, because that’s how a true Irishman or woman would probably react if they found out that I knew how.
*Read alcohol and party drugs