In the second grade, I would go over to my friend Megan’s house and we would skip around to the Riverdance album. With time we would learn the difference between Highland and Irish step dancing, but at 8 years old, all we needed was a good Celtic beat to get us fired up and practicing our pas de basques and reels. I hadn’t thought of those after-school dance practices until I stood on the arena floor in Belfast, soaking up the spotlight alongside my teammates as we waited for our cue to relevé and begin our steps to Riverdance’s titular song, in commemoration of Riverdance’s 25th anniversary.
Performing as a member of the Stag and Thistle Highland Dancers had brought me to Belfast a few days earlier, but it was not until that moment that I reflected on how dance has been part of my life for those 25 years. I have never been a strong technical dancer. I have struggled through many a dance competition, sometimes being points shy from an overall placing. I have auditioned for shows and faced rejection. Still, and maybe because of this, I continue to dance, to perform, to compete.
What I am is a dancer with heart. I love stepping into a space – be it a studio, a gymnasium, or even an empty parking lot, and feeling the rest of the world melt away where the only thing that matters is dancing. I love pulling on my knee socks, lacing up my ghillies, stretching my arches and shaking my legs out in the same way I have been mimicking the “big girls” since 1999. I love the little hellos as my friends and I get warmed up at the barre. I love feeling like I am flying as I spring and bounce from the floorboards.
On September third, I returned to these rituals when I joined the Stag and Thistle Highland Dancers – a team of adult premier dancers from across Canada – for our first rehearsal in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It had been a long time since I last had the privilege of being surrounded by fellow dancers, but with every run-through, I started to find my feet again. Our Director and fearless leader, Aileen, had brought together a team of passionate and dedicated dancers. We quickly got to work in rehearsals and before long, were standing on the arena floor in Belfast’s SSE Arena, marking out our lines for dress rehearsal.
The moment shows began, time whizzed by in warp-speed. Our first number, Lukey’s Boat, had us donning our kilts. With 30 dancers comprising the team, we were a colourful blur of jewel tones under the arena lights. During the second act, we returned to the floor, this time in bright red and gold sequins, the Canadian Maple Leaf tartan displayed in the form of our cummerbunds for The Parting Glass/Itchy Fingers.
When we weren’t on the floor, we were in our dressing rooms backstage. With a significant number of the dancers on our team being from the East Coast, news of Hurricane Dorian became of prime concern; the reality that many of our teammates’ flights were cancelled or delayed due to the impending hurricane was quickly revealed. Still, everyone remained positive and upbeat, and embraced the fact this meant we had one extra evening in our dorm rooms at Ulster University instead of a 3AM bus back to Dublin post-finale show.
As fleeting as the week had been, I thoroughly enjoyed reuniting with some dear friends, including Elaine, Sonya, and Mary. New friendships blossomed and I left Belfast with a renewed excitement about dancing and the opportunities it has granted me. There is an East-Coast Canadian songstress who sings “Life is in the dance you choose”, and I am grateful to have chosen this one, as it continues to take me around the world and introduce me to the most incredible people.