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Christina White’s Ceili Journey

St Patricks Day 2020_003

At our October General Meeting, AICS member Christina White presented on her use of the 2019 Scholarship Award. It was a wonderful presentation! If you missed it, here is a summary:
When Christina was around 5 years old, she was playing, as kids do, in her room. Avidly engaged, she stalwartly refused when her mom requested she come watch something on the television. “I’m busy!” said the precocious 5-year-old. Playing with toys is much more important than television! Geez, Mom! Mom asked again a few minutes later, and Christina again refused. But then Mom sent Dad in a few minutes later – there was no refusing Dad. So she stomped stubbornly to the living room and plopped down in a huff in front of the tv, arms crossed in protest and glaring at the screen. Little did she know that her life was about to change as she watched Riverdance for the first time.
Little did I know. Boy was I hooked! I immediately glued my arms to my side and began bouncing all over the house, attempting my best imitation of the beautiful phenomenon I’d just witnessed. I had terrible form looking back, but my heart was in the right place! Alas, this was before the world wide web, so my parents had no idea where to find Irish dancing lessons for their enthusiastically jigging jumper.
It wasn’t until I was 9 years old that a girl named Margaret transferred into my grade school. In getting to know Margaret, I learned she did Irish dancing and “MOM! THAT’S THE THING I WANT TO DO! THAT’S THE THING!!!!!” And so I followed Margaret to her class one day, and the rest, as they say, is history. My life from then on was shaped and molded around my love for Irish dancing, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It has made me who I am and has allowed me to spend my life doing what I love.
I started out taking lessons with Portland’s Yeates Academy, training with them for many wonderful years. I spent many friend-filled days on their performance troupes, took my first steps towards teaching through their assistant program, and started my competition circuit. I was a bit of a natural at the light shoe part of things, I think in part due to my gymnastics background. I loved to jump, what can I say? My heavy shoe beginnings, though, were not so natural, to put it kindly. I would’ve been quite content back then to never put on the hard shoes and stick with just the ghillies, thank you very much. But alas! You must compete in both in order to advance to the top level of competition. It was a 20-year-long struggle, but I can happily say that I now quite love dancing heavy shoe! It just took two decades of practicing and the expertise and care of many, many teachers.
In the later part of my competitive career, I trained with Melanie Sanderson of the Claddagh School in California for a few fantastically fun and informative years, and then I finished off my competitive career with Portland’s An Daire Academy, run by the lovely and incredible Jim and Lauren Mueller. With the help of all these fabulous teachers, not to mention my incredibly supportive parents, I checked off some big competitive goals. I ranked as high as 5th in the Western US Region, and after a ten-year-long battle, I recalled at the World Championships (which means I made it into the top bracket) and achieved a ranking of 44th, which meant I was internationally ranked. A huge moment and one I’ll never forget!
In these last few years of competing, I also began to take the twelve Grade Exams, which are prerequisites for eventually taking your teaching certification exam. At the end of 2019, I had just finished my last Grade Exam, Grade 12, and was waiting on my results (they can take months, as they have to be ratified by the Commission in Ireland), when I learned that Mary McElroy would be hosting a ceili workshop in Philadelphia in January of 2020. This is what I used the AICS Scholarship to attend.
Now who is Mary McElroy, you ask? Well, in order to understand who she is and why she is important to me, you need some backstory…
In amidst my competitive career, I had the blessed luck of finding my way into Sam Keator’s local Tir Eoghain and Winds of Donegal ceili classes. It was a whole new world from what I was used to with competing and performing step dancing! The world of social ceili dancing was a completely different kind of fun, not to mention exhausting and so good for my stamina! It was a caring community of people that welcomed me with open arms – I’m so grateful to Sam for bringing my ceili family into my life!
Sam started training me to call ceilis probably 15 years ago now. I didn’t believe him at first when he said he was going to teach me to call and know all the dances he knew – there were SO MANY and they were SO LONG! But he did – slowly but surely over the last decade, Sam helped me learn to dance the dances, then call the dances, both for classes and full ceili events. And it is SO MUCH FUN! Sam eventually passed the teaching of the Tir Eoghain class to me, and now together with my friend Emily O’Sullivan, we teach it monthly (at least we do when there’s not a global pandemic!). 
Emily and I love ceili dancing and have, over the years, choreographed a few of our own ceili dances. As we choreographed them, we would jot them down on a bit of scratch paper, in spare notebooks, on our phones, in an email, in a Google Doc, in a Word document…before we knew it, they were everywhere! We could never find one when we wanted to dance one! So one day, we sat down to try and organize the mess, and lo and behold, we had, without knowing, choreographed some 50 dances over the years! We realized we had enough for a book, and so the work began.
Writing a ceili book is HARD, folks! We slog away at it for a few hours every week, but geez louise, is it slow going! Painstaking work – thank goodness we love it!!! Well, while we were doing all this lovely slogging, trying to solidify our format for the book, we began researching and expanding our knowledge of other ceilis and particularly other ceili books.
Now I should note here that I was born in 1989, aka I’m planted firmly in the Pokemon generation, which, if you’re not familiar with Pokemon and its slogan “gotta catch ’em all” – it means that if I find that a collection of something exists, I then have an all-consuming compulsion to want to collect all of it, whatever it is! In this case, ceili books.
Ceili dancing was first written down in book form in 1902. There were actually two separate books published that year, one by O’Keefe and O’Brien, the other by Sheehan. I’ve been lucky enough to find a first edition 1902 O’Keefe and O’Brien – that was an exciting day!!! But I have not been able to find a physical copy of Sheehan. The Irish Traditional Music Archive has a digital copy, though, so anyone can view Sheehan’s work. So I’ve been able to see it, at least, if not physically hold the beautiful, precious, dilapidated pages in my hands!
There were then only a few other books published on ceili dancing between the 1900’s and 1950’s. Elizabeth Burchenal, an international collector of folk dances of all kinds, published her book, National Dances of Ireland, in 1924, of which I was fortunate to find a pristine hardcover copy – I could hardly believe it, it’s so gorgeous! My parents had previously bought me a paperback copy of the same that is beautifully battered and falling apart – the pages just drip of history! Grace Orphen then published a book in 1931 called Dances of Donegal (hup Donegal! @Anne!), and then O’Rafferty published three different books, two in 1934 and another in 1950. I was able to track down copies of all of those for my ceili bookshelf, so the collection is nearabout complete.
Then in 1990, Dr. John Cullinane published a book in his series on the history of Irish dancing, the book being titled A History of Irish Ceili Dancing 1897-1997. Dr. Cullinane is a gifted writer and one of few historians who curate Irish dancing history. In his ceili history book, he delves into the fascinating history of ceili dancing, including laying out ceili’s history in relation to An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha. Better known as simply Commission, or CLRG for short, Commission is the largest international governing body for competitive Irish step dancing. They were founded in the early 1900’s by the Gaelic League and as far as ceili history is concerned, they, around 1930, decided that they would undertake the writing of a ceili book to promote and preserve the ceili dances of their tradition.
Some 50 dances were submitted for inclusion in the proposed book. The first 10 were released as a volume in 1939, then the next 10 in 1943. Edited editions of those first two volumes were released in 1949 and 1967. It wasn’t until 1969 that another 10 dances were published (the 30-year lag time being due to contention over the proper execution of the popular Fairy Reel dance). Now here my research gets a bit dicey, but from what I can glean, a revised edition was published in 1971, while then in 1989, the three volumes were finally merged into one book, called Ár Rinncide Foirne. That book had a green cover, and from there on out, each book was a different color and known that way. So there was a Blue Book in 1992 (which for the life of me, I can’t find a copy of!), an Orange Book in 1995 (which our Bette Lou was kind enough to gift me from her collection), a Yellow Book in 2000, a Blue Book in 2003, and finally a Purple Book in 2014, rechristened Ár Rincí Céilí.
The Purple Book was written by Mary McElroy. And so now you know why I wanted to go to her ceili workshop. She hosts these rare workshops as preparatory experiences for the teaching certification exam. Now, at the time that I signed up for Mary’s ceili workshop, I was still waiting on results from my Grade 12 Prerequisite Exam, so I had no intention of taking the teaching certification exam anytime soon. But that didn’t matter to me! This was a chance to learn from Mary McElroy! Author of the Purple Book! Perhaps the most expert person on the planet currently on the 30 ceili dances included in CLRG’s ceili book. I was SO excited!
But fate had additional plans for me. It wasn’t long after signing up for Mary’s workshop that I learned that I had successfully passed my Grade 12 Prerequisite Exam and therefore was eligible for the teaching certification exam. Now, those exams are often difficult to enroll in, as they are held only a few times a year and often with long waiting lists. But it just so happened that a few spots had become available in an exam that was being held in New Jersey at the end of February. It all seemed quite fortuitous and meant-to-be, so I enrolled in that February exam!
I was lucky to have a local Portland study buddy, Alex, attend both the workshop and take that same February exam with me. We had a blast! The ceili workshop with Mary was great, really nailing in for me that I knew my ceilis inside and out (how could I not after all of Sam’s help?!) and was more than ready for the ceili sections of the teaching exam.
The teaching exam is colloquially called the TCRG (an abbreviation for the longer Gaelic which roughly translates to ‘teacher of the Irish Dancing Commission’). Now this exam is hosted by CLRG, which remember, is short for An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha, the largest international governing body for competitive Irish dancing. There are other organizations (CRN, An Chomhdháil, World Irish Dance Association, and RTN, to name a few), and they have their own teaching examinations. CLRG’s, though, is largely regarded as the most difficult examination to pass, for a number of reasons that I won’t get into here. Let’s just suffice it to say that CLRG’s TCRG exam has a reputation for being extremely difficult and stressful.
The exam has five parts:
1) a solo dancing portion where I dance many, many dances in front of adjudicators who assess my skill, level, ability, proficiency, etc.
2) a music exam where I am tested on 40-some Irish tunes and have to identify by ear the tune, time signature, and bar counts – I’m happy to report I got 100% on this section, woot-woot!
3) a written ceili exam – boy, was ours brutal! There were multiple mistakes in the exam questions themselves, which was not fun! But it made for great ranting between the candidates afterwards – yay, candidates commiserating!
4) a practical solo teaching exam where you teach some light shoe and heavy shoe dances to some volunteer dancers from the area
5) a practical ceili teaching exam where you teach two ceili dances of the examiners’ choice (they choose from the 30 in the book, so you have to have all 30 prepared) – I’m happy to report that this section felt like a breeze for me! Thank you Sam and thank you AICS Scholarship for sending me to Mary’s workshop! I taught the body of Trip to the Cottage and the Antrim Reel – pieces of cake! We dance those all the time here in Portland, ceili class for the win!
The exam weekend was so much fun. Wait, what did she just say? Fun? I thought she said this was known to be a stressful and difficult exam? Good catch! Usually it is. And it was, in many ways. But I was incredibly lucky to have my friend Alex there, in addition to many other friends from around the world that I’d met over my 20-some years of competing, and between us all, we all knew everyone. We bonded, helped each other, and met every stressor with smiles, laughter, and supportive hugs. It was lovely, and I feel so lucky to have had such a positive experience surrounded by so many wonderful friends.
So I took the exam at the end of February, but I didn’t expect to get my results for ages. It can take up to 6 months, as the results have to be ratified by the Commission in Ireland. But with the pandemic, CLRG wanted to be proactive with the results, and they let us know by April! I passed all 5 sections, which means I have now passed my TCRG exam, which means I’m considered “qualified” or “certified” as a teacher now in the eyes of many Irish dancers around the world.
I don’t agree with that assessment, however. I feel like the TCRG exam only barely assesses your teaching ability (though it certainly puts your memorization abilities through the ringer!). I’ve been teaching for 12 years now, and I feel like my mindset combined with those years of experience are what has “qualified” and “certified” me as a teacher. This singular exam is but a blip on my teaching career, and the things I had to cram into my head and memorize for the exam will be promptly forgotten, but the things I’ve learned working with so many wonderful students over the years – those experiences will stick with me forever and mold me as a teacher for years to come.
So what next? When someone passes CLRG’s TCRG exam, they then have the option to pay annual dues to CLRG and therefore be a member of the organization and enter students in competition. If you don’t already know, my sister Victoria and I run Oregon Irish Dance Academy, which is completely non-competitive (Emily also teaches with us!). I enjoyed much about my time in competition, but I have learned over the last 12 years that I much prefer teaching non-competitively. It is uniquely fun and fulfilling to craft a joyful experience of Irish dancing completely separate from competitions. So I’ve chosen not to register with CLRG, and we’ll keep OIDA separate from any governing organizations and instead remain independent. We’re looking forward to spreading the joy of Irish dancing in Oregon – by bringing more classes to more students, more performances to the public, and more ceili classes for everyone to enjoy!
To sign off, I’d like to say a big thank you to the All-Ireland Cultural Society of Oregon for granting me the 2019 Scholarship Award. Thank you for making it possible for me to attend the ceili workshop and pass my TCRG! I look forward to many more years as an AICS member, helping to promote and preserve Irish culture in Oregon!
P.S. There is so much more to say about ceili history and the evolution of ceili dances! This just barely scratches the surface. My teacher that I mentioned above, Jim Mueller, actually published a ceili book a few years back called Rincí Fóirne Caillte, in which he researched old dances (including working directly with Dr. Cullinane!) and rewrote them into modern format so that they could be learned anew by dancers today! There is also a fantastic ceili group in the Berkeley area of northern California that years ago published their own ceili book, which was a combination of their variations on existing dances, as well as debut choreographies. The Berkeley ceili book is available to view online, and Jim’s book is available for sale from multiple online retailers. Maybe we can have Jim come present to the AICS about his ceili book!