Ben Spencer takes his two left feet to an Irish dance class with AV Browne's deputy managing director Dana-Marie McCracken, and senior bookkeeper Louise Montgomery.
I suck at dancing. I have rhythm. I can pass myself in a boozy night club. But integrating my moves with someone else's is one step of coordination too far. Whenever it came to couples dancing I've tried to take the initiative. Sadly, the initiative has always run away without me. I winded a girl during a barn dance when I was 12. I misunderstood twerking when it first came out, with horrifying consequences. I was relieved of my girlfriend last St Patrick's Day by a stranger who could jive. Just this New Years' eve I threw her into the Christmas tree while attempting a twirl.
Dana-Marie McCracken, our deputy managing director, and Louise Montgomery, our senior bookkeeper, asked me to come Irish dancing with them. I accepted with understandable trepidation.
Dana-Marie and Louise insist on a photo between the jigs and the reels.
I was anxious as I waited outside work for a cab to take me to the Island Arts Centre in Lisburn. The cab was late, delayed by one of those paroxysms of gridlock that periodically brings Belfast to a collective jack-knife. The city had turned into a carpark of single-occupant cars. Everyone was waving each other in ahead— “G'on" “Nah, you go", mouthed through the windscreens—while they privately seethed. The longer it took the happier I felt. Maybe I could get out of this after all. No such luck. My heart tightened as my ride pulled up.
My fears were misplaced, as it transpired, but I didn't know that when I arrived. It must have been written on my face because Dana-Marie squeezed my shoulder. “It's going to be okay."
“I need to change," I said tremulously.
“The men's room is that way," she pointed down the hall. “Take your time."
I returned, trussed up in compression tights and a pair of shorts. To my relief no one laughed.
The instructor, Anne Reid, had coached Irish dancing champions. Others would have retired at her age, but she had danced herself young. She had stature in the Irish dancing world, adjudicating at competitions all over the world, and her classes are in high demand. One new member said she had spent weeks on a waiting list to get a place. Louise and Dana-Marie told me she was a fantastic teacher, I hoped I wasn't going to disappoint.
The warm up was a series of stretches, then we danced in a circle. I skipped, but the women had a series of steps that they moved through little flicks with each step. Dana-Marie and Louise were already betraying the skills that they had said they didn't have.
As it happened, I only had to join in on a céilí dance—a popular group dance that often features at weddings. I was one of only two men in the group. Louise kept apologising for getting the moves backward—“I usually take the man's part."
When in Rome do as the Romans. I gave it dixie, skipping and jumping, while everyone else moved through the correct steps. They applauded me enthusiastically—“You're good!" I most certainly was not, but it was nice of them to say so.
Anne asked the group to practice their individual dances. These were intricate, with steps that had been impressed into their muscle memory over weeks of practice. The dancers lined up at the back of the practice space and danced toward the seats. After each wave they compared notes with each other. “Is it this way?" – skip, step, flick — “or this way?" step, skip, flick.
There were some accomplished dancers on hand to give out advice. Emily had auditioned for Riverdance, but had given up dancing. “I discovered my social life," she explained with a shrug. Paula had been an Ulster champion and placed in the top 15 in an all-Ireland competition. She had secured a place in Riverdance, but was persuaded to finish her A-levels instead. Jordan, the only guy in the class, was runner-up in an all-Ireland championship at the age of eighteen. Each took small groups aside and helped them through the routines.
Perhaps I was reading into it, but it seemed to me like there was a lexicon of steps, each dance had a meaning. How could they not, when the dances had names like 'The Walls of Limerick', 'The Bonfire Dance', or 'The Seige of Carrick'? It felt like the feet are to Irish dancing what the hands are to flamenco.
I tried to get a quick overview of the steps. There are lifts (the big kicks), overs (leaps), and cuts (where the dancer's knee seems to turn into a gyroscope). Then there are smaller, subtler moves—clicks, double clicks, and rocks. This last one looks as if the dancer is about to break their ankles and doubtless requires a ton of practice.
After a while, Dana-Marie changed out of her soft shoes and into her hard shoes. “My husband bought me these for Christmas," she explained. “At first I thought they were a pair of regular shoes. I was going to hit him with them." They are ugly, to be fair. “When I realised they were dance shoes I was thrilled. It was the best gift I've ever got."
“Why do you need two types of shoes?"
“The pumps are for slip jigs, reels and team dances. The hard ones [treble shoes] are for hornpipes, heavy jig and traditional set dances."
“Uh-huh," I dutifully copied down these unfamiliar terms.
The accomplished dancers, Dana-Marie and Louise among them, lined up for a rendition of a routine from Riverdance. The floorboards were turned into a drum skin as the heavy shoes rapped out the swift succession of steps. Out they came, eyes fixed on the horizon, faces set in grim concentration. For a moment I thought they wouldn't stop and I would have to duck a volley of legs. Then they turned, like a wave against the shore, and returned to their original lines.
“Beautiful!" Anne applauded.
Everyone in that line had a day job. There were teachers, university tutors, healthcare professionals and business managers. Keyboard surfers of all kinds. You wouldn't know that they could bust moves like these if you saw them during the day.
I had to go, and Dana-Marie was packing her things, but Louise was staying on to join the advanced team. She looked very different to when I see her at work. Her face was flushed and she was smiling broadly. Dancing must be a relief after a day spent with the accounts. “Aye, it's some craic. I love dancing, I wouldn't miss it" she agreed.