Years ago, the Irish dance group Riverdance made an appearance in our city. Their thunderous shoe stomping, jumping, frenetic tapping and leaping lit up imaginations, made a generation of Americans fall in love with the Irish, and changed my kids’ childhoods forever. It was a crazed phase, really. Irish dance schools popped up all over the U.S. in response to clamoring parents, willing to plunk down hundreds of dollars for imported hard shoes and curly wigs. The universal story of oppression and rebellion and heartache and finally, freedom, told by glamorous athletes in tap shoes was powerful enough to make most hearts pump green blood. It made us all feel Irish, deep down. I ordered three pairs of little hard shoes for my daughters within a week of the show.
But no one wanted to open an Irish Dance school way out in the sticks. So down to the city I went, and I found myself a teacher who would travel to the edge of civilization once a week.
God gave us the luck of the Irish when he sent that teacher to us. This dancing Irishwoman took my impetuous ideas and impulse purchases and gently turned our country kids into Irish Step Dancers.
“Riverdance is great,” she used to say. “But there are centuries of Irish dance and rich cultural traditions that your kids would appreciate more.” For the next nine years, she patiently taught our growing group of kids dances from Irish history, set dances from the Irish countryside, dance steps normally done at parties on propped-sideways doors and kitchen tables, and even one that she learned from an Irish garbage man.
She was brilliant.
“They can share joy through dance,” she explained. “It is not just about performance and competition. With music and dance, they can bring happiness to so many.” With that aim in mind, she led them from nursing home to nursing home, across our metro area. Instead of competing for trophies, they danced for the elderly.
And the elderly responded, loud and clear.
They sang along. They clapped their hands, tapped their velcro geriatric shoes, and pounded their canes to the beat of the kids’ shoes. They smiled at the children, cheering them on with each jig and reel. Inevitably, the strains of “Oh Danny Boy” drew tears from the nursing home residents. Wispy voices joined in, crackling on the high notes.
Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side.
The summer's gone, and all the roses falling,
'Tis you, 'Tis you must go and I must bide.
Once, some of the moms found a treasure trove of cast-off dance costumes at a thrift store. The day we tried them out for the first time, a white haired man from the fifth row raised his cane, shaking it.
“Does your Mammy know you’re out dancing in that red dress?” He scolded the girls.
We put the kids back in pleated plaid skirts. Good to know your audience.
One performance, something happened that I will never forget. It was around St. Patrick’s Day. The kids put on a show in a Memory Care Facility. This wasn’t the first time they’d danced for people with Alzheimer’s. They didn’t expect much of a response here. They were veteran dancers, after all, who showed up with gifts of cookies. Just a bit of joy for the elderly, who seemed to need it.
It happened to be a Sunday, and many residents had families visiting. We wheeled residents out to the sunroom, set out the platters of cookies, musical instruments, and plugged in our speakers. Silence fell in the room, and the first dancer took the floor. The ten year old girl began her traditional Irish jig, hard shoes banging and rapping away at the floor. That’s when it happened.
A frail man, who had been quietly sitting to one side staring vacantly into space, suddenly pushed away his walker and stood up. His flaccid, sad face broke out in a huge grin.
“That’s my song!” He yelled. “I know this one!”
He gleefully bounced to the front of the room, took the girl by her small hands, and proceeded to dance all about the room, jigging his heart out. He leaped and turned, kicked and twirled with the girl, as well as any ninety year old man could. The lilt of the music kept him aloft, and it was as if eighty decades of age melted away and the two dancers became one with the music, dancing their jig.
As the song ended, the girl guided him back to his chair, and he eased down, still smiling. His family was shocked, his daughter openly sobbing.
“That’s my song!” He said again, before falling silent, back into the shadows of Alzheimer’s. “That’s my song...”
But come ye back when summer's in the meadow,
Or when the valley's hushed and white with snow,
'Tis I'll be here in sunshine or in shadow,--
Oh, Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love you so!