Friday, July 22, 2011
Chicken Dance, Irish Style
I was at a feis this last weekend. Spelled f-e-i-s, but pronounced f-e-s-h,, it’s a series of Irish dance contests. Mostly girls, but a few intelligent boys who want to be around rakes of beautiful girls with smashing legs and short skirts, vie for standings in an international organization, ranked by experience and age, stepping to Irish instrumental tunes called reels, jigs, hornpipes, and set dances.
Those technicolor dresses cost upwards of six hundred dollars new. The venue accommodates 5-10 stages thirty by forty feet square, 500-1000 dancers, parents, grandparents, vendors of dresses, soft shoes—called gillies—hard shoes with taps, those over-the-top wigs that replaced those over-the-top Shirley Temple curls. (Not too many years ago mother would “do her hair” the night before and the poor girl would have to sleep on curlers the size of improvised explosive devices, waking up cross and more petulant than usual in a teenage girl, not hat I entirely blame them.) A nearby hotel accommodates many migrant families. Throw in meals and movies, and it’s easily a cool million bucks for the auld local economy.
For my little portion of it I drove 250 mile Friday, and on Saturday and Sunday played for about eight hours each day. I love those tunes, but after fifty repetitions of the St. Patrick’s Day set dance, it can get a mite dangerous. Once I fell asleep on stage playing it for the fiftieth-odd time. (I haven’t been asked back to THAT feis.) Because it’s the first “set” dance—a prescribed pattern of footwork—that Irish dancers have to master, there are many children competing to that tune, and while it has its charm, too many repetitions can rob it of its life.
Toward the end of the day musicians are tired. Instead of crawling back to the hotel or getting an early start home, they gamely migrate an adjoining stage where another has not finished the afternoon’s schedule. Playing “seconds” is liberating with its unisons, octaves, harmonies,and chords, always re-invigorating the players, and sometimes even the dancers. Sunday was no exception. Two of us fiddlers join a third for a big treble reel. The musicians tear into a rake of tunes, and thirty dancers in turn show off their best stuff as everybody claps along. For the winner a Waterford crystal bowl the size of the Stanley Cup is sitting on the adjudicators’ table.
Here we go. David and Nancy, tired from eight hours’ playing, join Maria; all draw new life from a classic set of reels. The ‘teens catch the fever, and the hard shoes in turn strike thunder from the stage: hormones rocket through their veins—feet are flying, eyes are flashing. Finally, all dance an 8-bar step at a percussive volume of shock and awe. Screeching to a halt then, all freeze into a “ready” pose to await the judges’ decisions. But wait! The potential of the moment is not yet exhausted. Somebody shouts out “The . . . Chicken . . . Dance!” and the musicians, dizzy from unspent excitement, swing into action. It’s the work of a moment to grab a key—G—and fire away, each repetition faster than the previous. The stage dissolves into laughter as thirty girls in polychromatic dresses and wigs the size of large sheep dogs flap their elbows, shake their tail-feathers, and polka away to the tune accorded “Most Annoying Tune of All Time” by a year-2000 poll. But there’s a time and a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to glory, and this was one such moment. Irish music at its best, maybe, but Midwest America breaking through for a triumphant finish. With a tip of the tam to all the Pulaskis and Kosciuskos, Hoffmanns and Finnegans, this is David James for Michiana Chronicles.
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