July 2013 | EditorSpeak

Irish Dancers Unite

When I attended the World Irish Dancing Championships, I didn’t realize what a world I had stepped into. Even when I left three days later, having made friends with a former world champion, a band of mothers from Colorado who were flattered by my endless questions, unpretentious professional dancers, charming competitors, and practically an entire studio from Ireland, I still had no clue. It wasn’t until two weeks later, when the horrific Boston Marathon bombings maimed a young Irish dancer, that I began to understand the shared pride that binds Irish dance studios separated by miles, languages, even oceans, into one community.

Jane Richard, a bombing victim who lost a leg, wasn’t a champion, or a revered teacher, or a famous name. She was an adorable 7-year-old who had practiced her hops and skips every Tuesday at Clifden Academy of Irish Dance in Milton, Massachusetts. But her suffering was a call to action. A Boston “Dance Out for Jane” fundraiser of Irish dance and music sold out (all 1,080 seats), and was copycatted by Irish enclaves in New York and Kansas City. Dancers at feises (competitive events) in California and Ohio took up collections. One donation would get you a pair of traditional Irish dancing knee socks—dyed red (in honor of the Red Sox) by dancers in New Jersey.

A Wisconsin dancer and her mom thought it would be nice to collect about 20 T-shirts from Irish dance studios and make Jane a small quilt. In a little over a week they had 495 shirts from schools in Australia and England, Ireland and the U.S. with more arriving every day. And 18-year-old Drew Lovejoy, who won a World Championship in Boston a few weeks before the bombing, said Jane could have his gold medal.

“The Irish dance community is so tight,” one teenage dancer told me at Worlds. “We give up so much, but here you are with people who really understand. We are competitive people, but we talk to everyone.” After what I’ve seen in the wake of the bombing, I believe her. —Karen White, Associate Editor

Pay, Not Play

I recently helped edit our upcoming story about teacher compensation, which addresses the thorny question of whether teachers should be paid for doing work outside the studio, such as attending meetings, traveling to competitions and conventions, participating in tech or dress rehearsals, and so on.

I agree that dancing, teaching, and running a dance studio all require dedication, sacrifice, and love—and that the rewards don’t often make it into the bank. But I also believe that one’s love of dance and commitment to one’s students should not mean all of us—teachers, performers, and studio owners—shouldn’t be paid fairly for the work we do. Working for nothing or next to nothing because we love our work and think it’s important denigrates its very importance.

This is a profession, not a hobby, an act of devotion, or the playing out of some (one else’s) romantic notion of “Dah-nce.” Those outside the dance world will continue to devalue our work if we continue to operate like amateurs or slaves of love. We need to create a system that looks and operates like a functional and vital cog in our national culture—and one that compensates all of us justly.

That means dancers performing in a play should not be expected to set and put away the actors’ props. Teachers who are paid by the hour for their in-studio time should not have to clean, sew, make phone calls, rehearse, or babysit backstage for free. (Attending meetings is a little trickier.)

It’s all too easy for those outside the dance world to simultaneously reap the rewards of and undervalue the work we do. Everybody loves So You Think You Can Dance, but how many viewers know or care how much a dance education costs? Or how long it takes? Or how few dance teachers have health insurance?

We should stop playing our parts in the myth that casts us as a bunch of besotted devotees who don’t know how to take care of ourselves. Dance is a serious enterprise, and we all deserve fair pay, respect, and a place at the grownups table. —Lisa Okuhn, Associate Editor