From my autobiography in progress “My Life in Dance – a Motional History of my Body”
The Walls of Limerick: an Irish reel where two couples face one another with the women to the right of the men. The dance involves handholding and swinging in a céilí hold.
Does national dance reflect the national personality? Observe an Irishman at dance. Above the waist he is a vision of equanimity. If he were jigging behind a short hedge you might even pause to chat with him. From the waist down, however, that man is in a frenzy of leaping and knee-swiveling and foot stomping. In political terms this man could be doffing his cap to you, and all the while seditiously plotting your demise. The British in Ireland never learned to read the bodies of Irishmen, perhaps to their cost for those bodies in motion can be a lovely spectacle.
I wish to set out here my own experiences with dance as honestly as good taste will permit. I have a body, one that is a little succulent and that moistly disinclines to perform strenuous acts. It is not a body apt to move all that prettily. For all of that, I have tried to bend it to my will, commanding it often enough to skitter across the floor in a rhythmic and frolicsome fashion and I have witnessed its failure with displeasure. Though I can leap and skip and jump and hop, the sum of these gyrations doesn’t seem to add up to dancing. However, in perverse inverse to my skill, dancing has been a component of several of my more arresting developmental moments. I relate one here.
The Walls of Limerick
On the day he was fired from his teaching job, Mr Neary rode his motorcycle through the school gates flanked by cheering schoolchildren. It was like a scene in a prison movie where a mildly heroic inmate is released – like, say, Robert Redford in Brubaker – and the inmates salute his departure. He was my teacher in 3nd and 4th class. I was between eight and nine years old. Mr Neary had a big influence on me having appointed me as a curator of his nature table. In essence he gave me my profession. He was not, however, one of those new-fangled teachers who neglected to beat us children. I recall grasping the concept of irony for the very first time when he beat a student with a stick that that student has presented to him. It was a stick of exceptional flatness and sturdiness. The first poem I wrote of which I retain a memory began “Mr Neary had a theory, /of using a cane/that gives much pain”. I believe that he greatly admired this early work. I also learned the complex notion of plagiarism too, since a fellow student accused me of having lifted the poem from him, though I expect an inspection of our notes from that period would have shown the priority to be mine. When Mr Neary left on his blue Honda, his hurling stick riding pillion, a knapsack on his back, it was not for excessive beating that he had lost his job, for really his use of the stick by the standard of the times was moderate. His misdeeds had been a failure to assign weekend homework, as well as organizing céilí dancing lessons each Friday with our equivalent grade in the Girl’s National School.
Now, the school I attended in Templeogue, outside Dublin, was configured so that the Boy’s National School and the Girl’s National School, technically distinct units, were in close proximity. When the school moved from its original home in prefabricated “chalets” near the parish church to its current location in Fortfield Park in 1971, the school buildings were contiguous but the lines of separation were strict. A young boy once had the misfortune of following his football into the girl’s yard. As punishment he was dressed in a girl’s smock and paraded around the girls’ classrooms. The girls were invited to laugh at him. At least that is my recollection of it – his may remain a little sharper. It was a miserable, and at that time at least, a violent little place. It is still hard for me to pass the front gates of the school, which I do when I am back in Dublin, without a shudder. In passing, I’ll say that my father, for the most part a placid and affable man, seemed to have intimidated the headmaster and headmistress, a husband and wife team. Perhaps the source of intimidation was his job with the Department of Education. His intervention ensured that we were excluded from many of the unpleasant punishments. Heneghan’s – six in all of us went through this school – were set aside during mass-slappings, though I recall only one of these spectacles, and I was a little mortified to be so assiduously excluded. Individual punishments were still meted out though. I suppose I should be grateful for that.
So in a school where the boys and girls were held apart like the opposite poles of sturdy but somewhat wary little magnets, Mr Neary conspired with the girls’ teacher to release those forces of attraction, doing so for the purposes of that very peculiar style of cavorting called Irish dancing. We learned the rudiments of céilí dances, some of which are performed in large groups with a hedge of boys facing the girls with the caller giving us instructions. Others dances, more awkwardly, called for pairings of boys and girls for some quite elaborate set pieces. Two pertinent issues here. Attaining considerable height in leaping and, in addition, extending the limbs briskly and at some length from the body, are valued in this dancing form. My body, as I mentioned, is generally unbiddable, and it was reluctant to attempt a response to the directions of the caller. My relationship with gravity has been an uneasy one, I can neither predict the height of my release when I jump nor the heft with which my body falls as gravity reclaims it. It is as if one of us, Earth or man, gets more massive after my launch into the air. The second pertinent matter was my shyness with girls. I had always been appealing to the Mammies, and though I had a precocious interest in girls, I did not appeal so greatly to them. I was gravely introspective, with all the gawkiness that goes with this. The social gorgeousness of dance is precisely that it conjoins two perplexing issues: that of one’s own body and that body’s interaction with the bodies of others.
There are some memories that get replayed in the private cinema of the mind so often that by virtue of their repetition they found the most obdurate reality. Compared to them most of our moments are barely experienced at all. Two such memories coming from these céilí classes are of meeting my dance partner, Catherine, and when we went our separate ways, she discombobulated, me for an instant blithesomely unaware of what I’d done, followed in the next instant by a crushing awareness of my feeble-doing.
On the first day of this experiment with dance, the boys – of course it was the boys for Mr Neary was a radical but not an anarchist – were invited to select a partner. Had there ever been a more embarrassed shuffling of small black shiny shoes? The selection played out like a game of musical chairs where the number of players and chairs were equally matched but each player felt compelled to stretch their legs just a while longer. As youthful couples took their places away from the constrained frenzy of the selection, I remained there, until looking up at the diminished flock of potential partners, before me stood a girl to whom by some elderly instinct I motioned and we too took up our spots upon the floor. We were propelled towards one another like invertebrates: noiselessly and efficiently, both helping each other out in the binds that constitute the ordinary social behavior of creatures. And unless I am mistaken there was an immediate kinship between us, one that did not, for my part at least, diminish the solitary nature of being a human child, of being clumsily self-aware, but a kinship nevertheless that took the sting out of this first weighty social occasion. I say this for my part, because she never told me if the intimacy was a shared one. In fact, other than in the most rudimentary manner, we never talked at all.
Catherine was the same height as I was then, making her a little shorter perhaps than many of her classmates, for in human children relatively rapid growth of girls is often the case at that age. She is pretty in my memory of her, and when I saw her many years later she was in fact quite lovely. Her hair was the color of the inside of a nest, which to me was a lovely thing, and it was long and fell on her forehead in a fringe, a component of the pelt that is irritatingly called “bangs” in the US. Her forehead may have been a little wide and high, if I can offer one note of criticism, but I mention this merely for the completion of the description.
Catherine was a more skilled dancer than I and showed a great degree of tolerance with my clumsiness. We were a mute couple as I mentioned but she smiled often and smiled with what I now am tempted to retroactively read as gratitude. For unlike most of the other boys and girls who I discovered were randomly pairing and in some cases had asked the teachers to assign them partners, Catherine and I for week after week sought each other out. How long did our companionable fellowship last? I have not been able to work it out: perhaps no longer than a few months. Since our dancing lessons did not last much beyond my ludicrous termination of our relationship it may have been a single academic season.
Here then is what happened: dancing had imbued in me a little more confidence in being in my own skin. I had gotten a little lighter on my feet, and a more frisky abandon crept into my “seven and threes”. I also felt more comfortable in my being alongside another person. So I did, in a sense, that thing which no céilí dancer should even do. I broke form. One afternoon as we walked over to the girls school to the classroom where on Friday’s we danced, I made a private resolution to find a new partner. It was uncomplicated to achieve since for the most part, as I mentioned, the pairings were random. As I took my place on the floor I glanced over at Catherine – I don’t think I did so maliciously for I really had not really calculated the action – and saw her milling about looking for me. Seeing me she paused and registered confusion and pain, from which look I have never fully recovered. Since ours was a relationship without words, a repair was beyond words too. I never attempted to repair it. I can’t recall now what happened the next week but we never danced together again. It is perhaps a very tiny matter indeed but it altered me.
A few weeks later Mr Neary had left the school and the wall went up between the boys' and girls' schools again. The school world was restored to order and thereafter we all stayed a little closer to the ground. I heard from my father not so long ago that Mr Neary died fairly young of a heart condition. During our secondary schooling, the boy who was beaten with his own stick had died in a motorcycle accident on the street outside our home. His broken body was cradled in the arms of the local curate as he died. Many years later, I met Catherine again. My sister had become good friends with Catherine’s sister. When we met again we recognized each other, I feel sure of it, and though we were cordial we retained our silence regarding matters of the dance.
Supplementary materials: A quite superb example of Irish men's dancing: note the impressive height and the deft leg extensions.
Photo: The National School in Dublin where so many miserable things happened to me (to channel James Thurber).Credit: Wikipedia