Take A Flying Leap

When I was a kid, my favorite cousin, E, was impossibly cool and chic, and I wanted to be everything she was. My cousin, about three years older than me, felt like the older sister I would never have even though for most of our lives we lived on different coasts. E was born and raised in Manhattan, collected Absolut Vodka ads, had a job at The Gap, and rode horses. E knew how to navigate the city, and public transportation while my mom drove me to school every day, or I shared a carpool with kids that were varying levels of bullies to me. Manhattan was full of shops and restaurants and artists and fancy things, and Santa Clarita was an endless stream of sameness and banality. Sometimes, I felt robbed of the life I should have had if we hadn’t left New York. Why was the universe so cruel to take me from New York and plop me into suburbia instead? Looking back, I can’t really complain too much about being a kid in Santa Clarita if I’m being honest. I lived in a house with my parents, we knew our neighbors, it was safe enough to ride bikes and play outside mostly unsupervised until dark, and the quality of the schools was decent. As I got older, things got more complicated as they tend to do, and I have a complicated relationship to my hometown, which I think a lot of people experience. All that aside, every so often, a package would arrive at our home in Santa Clarita, with hand-me-downs from E, and I would lose my ever loving mind over how hip everything was. I think my desire to begin horseback riding lessons stemmed from a pair of jodhpurs Ellen had outgrown and included in the box of clothing sent to me. My previous experience with horses had been a terrified, white knuckled, eyes squeezed shut ride around a ring on a particularly docile horse during a Girl Scout field trip. I’m fairly certain I cried. I was a highly risk-averse child, which really should have made my later in life diagnosis of anxiety more understandable.

That pair of jodhpurs though too large and baggy on my tiny frame, gave me visions of National Velvet. I too would be a horsewoman. I too would one day be cool enough to have a job at a retail chain store. I too would be as effortlessly self assured, independent, and cool as Ellen meticulously saving and posting the Absolut ads around her room like wallpaper. All I had to do was take the first step toward becoming my cousin by learning how to ride horses. I poured over the local Parks and Recreation catalogue which was delivered quarterly, and brought the page with beginner horseback riding lessons to my mother and pleaded with her to sign me up. I probably didn’t have to go so hard, to be honest. I didn’t have any other extra curricular activities at this point (having dramatically suffered through a tap/jazz/ballet series where I wanted to quit immediately after procuring the costumes for our recital) and I’m sure my mom wanted me out of the house doing something even remotely productive with my life. So, off we went to Don–E-Brook Farms (now the Santa Clarita Valley Equestrian Center), which was located off a road that dead ended into a mountain and now goes all the way through the valley to the freeway (progress?) Back in the late 80s, early 90s, this was in the “horsey” part of town which only about a fifteen minute drive from home felt like it was in another country.

Liz, the owner, and her daughters ran all of the lessons, and they were kind, and patient and I’m sure could tell that my little seven or eight year old stubbornness was warring with my fear of being on an animal as large as a horse. So many possibilities for danger and near certain death! Turns out, I actually had some natural ability. I had a good seat, and strong posture, and progressed well through the beginner and intermediate lessons. I ended up riding for about two the three years, getting a used saddle for Christmas one year, and leveling up to jumping over small fences. I only ever participated in one, maybe two shows, but I was well on my way to being that horsewoman I saw myself as when I first put on those jodhpurs. I took a leap, and tried something scary so I could attempt to reach my goal. It paid off, and I proved to myself I was braver than I realized.

I had been riding for a couple years when I started Irish Step Dancing. Irish dance was something I initially fought my mother on – no, thank you, I had already suffered through dance classes before. I did not like them, I wasn’t good at them, and the fabulous costumes were not quite enticement enough to make me even consider going back to any form of dance, let alone one that I’d never even heard of. Riverdance was still two years or so away from bursting onto the international scene and introducing people around the world to Irish dancing. My mom struck a deal, I only had to attend one class, and if I hated it, I never had to return. Well, I loved it – and within a year I was going to have to make a choice: riding or Irish dance. I couldn’t go to both classes, and both horse shows and dance competitions took place on weekends, so my parents said “pick one, and let the other go.” It was a difficult decision, because I loved both. I had certainly invested more time into riding, and if I quit I would never become a clone of my cousin. Ultimately, a riding lesson made the decision for me. I was in a jumping class, and was going through a course, when my horse refused a jump. I was lucky, I didn’t even come off the horse (and was lucky, I had never come off a horse), but in that moment my life flashed before me (sort of) and I realized the likelihood of breaking my neck Irish dancing was significantly lower than horseback riding. I took another leap, and made a choice. I ended up choosing Irish dance, and spent the better part of 20 years dancing.

In my last post I talked about goals and how they can help keep you motivated. Irish dancing became my entire life, and a huge part of my self identity. I spent hours every week in class or practicing, weekends competing, and years traveling and making friends. I started dance, and specifically Irish dance pretty late comparatively. I was ten when I had my first lesson, and at the time, the pretty small community in the Western Region typically saw students begin dancing in preschool or kindergarten. The Irish dance world has exploded and become significantly more diverse, more glamorous, more expensive, and more competitive since I had my first class back in 1992. When I first started dancing, my only goal was to learn all my basic dances, and progress into hard shoes (the ones with the fiberglass tips and heels that make the fun noise.) I was deemed ready to enter competitions about a year after I started dancing (typical at the time,) and the little group of us who made up the first class in Santa Clarita, was informed just before our first competition that our teacher, Bella, did not want to see any tears. We were to have fun, do our best, make friends, and if we won something that’s great, if not, better luck next time. I am forever grateful to this mindset because there were and still are schools and teachers who value winning above all else. Irish dance was an extracurricular, and as far as Bella and my parents were concerned, it should be fun. If it wasn’t fun, what was the point?

Once I had been dancing long enough to understand the competition structure, my goals grew, and eventually my main goal was qualifying to dance at the World Championships. The Olympics equivalent for the Irish dance community. It took me ten years to reach that goal, and as I grew older and gained maturity I better understood what would be required of me to meet that goal. Just after I graduated from high school, we moved to San Francisco and I transfered dance schools. Due to the geography of San Francisco and the surrounding area, I went from only being able to attend one maybe two classes per week in LA, to three to four days a week in the Bay Area. I enrolled in ballet, pointe, tap, and jazz classes at City College, and started taking pilates reformer classes several times a week. In 2000, at regionals, just a few months after we had moved, I placed 10th in my age group for the second year in a row, and was disappointed. The following year, after additional days of dancing per week and the pilates, I placed 4th, qualifying for The World Championships. I had finally done it, I had qualified to dance at Worlds.

Now what? After qualifying, there was some drama – I got injured, there was some disappointment on my part with how my dance school was operating, I transferred schools which was still quite taboo at the time, and had to accept a six-month competition suspension. None of those things are ultimately that important now that I look back, but they each felt like overwhelming and sometimes insurmountable obstacles at the time.

My goals around competitive dancing never went as far as winning, or even placing at the Worlds – I was pretty pragmatic when it came to assessing my talent. My hope was to continue to place in the top 4, if not the top 2 or 3 in my age group regionally, to eventually place Nationally, and to go on to sit and pass the TCRG exam, a five part exam to become a credentialed Irish dance teacher, so I could one day own my own school. As so often is the case, however, I got injured, my focus and motivation waned, I discovered boys, and drinking, and smoking weed, and parties. Things I fastidiously avoided in high school in order to remain on track for my goals. The truth was, by the time I was 21, I realized I had kind of forgotten to have a rebellious teenage phase, and had spent all of my time being safe and good and maybe missed out on some fun? Don’t worry, my lack of drinking in high school got more than made up for in my early 20s. So, my focus shifted, and then a few years later, I moved back to Los Angeles.

I continued dancing in Los Angeles for a bit, but it became more difficult to juggle commuting to classes with my original teacher, Bella, while being enrolled in Cosmetology School (add to the il st o stories for another time), and attempting to live as an adult. Eventually my injury, which had never properly healed (another story for another time) caught up with me, and effectively ended my solo competition career. I would occasionally take a place in a team for competition but also really struggled with all of the demands of being an adult without a college degree or job, and the expense of life in Los Angeles, and paying for all my own dance classes etc. I fell away from dance, mostly out of necessity, and I missed it, but I also couldn’t see how it could still fit into my life the way it had before. I tried off and on for years to find a way to stay involved in dance, and I even made plans and studied to take the TCRG exam (more stories for another time,) but ultimately adulthood and life in general won out, and I realized again that my priorities, my motivations, and my goals had shifted. In the end, it sometimes felt like my last flying leap had hit a brick wall.

If you had told me when I was about 15, that as an adult Irish dance would be mostly a memory, I would have been horrified. Irish dance was nearly my entire life. What would I possible be without it? Sometimes, I still struggle with that question. What are we when we have moved away from the defining aspects of our lives? Who am I without Irish dance, and do I have value, or anything interesting to add to the world without it? I have spent the better part of a decade trying to answer these questions, and often come up blank. Not only was Irish dancing a hobby, but it was a connection to my Irish heritage. My mother’s parents immigrated to the US from Ireland in the 1930s, and died before I was born. I put a lot of value in my connection to them through dance. I put a lot of value in my connection to my Irish American family through dance, and eventually singing. But, nobody is just their talents or hobbies, and the truth is, the skills I learned in Irish dance have continued to serve me well into adulthood.

Hard work, discipline, sportsmanship, teamwork, goal setting: all skills I learned and honed while learning Irish dance, and competing over the course of close to 15 years. I’m not 100% certain on the actual number of years because math is not my strong suit but the point is, having goals is important. Being flexible and capable of recognizing when your goals no longer align with the life you are living is equally important. Changing your path, or your goals does not mean you are flakey, or lazy, or afraid of hard work, although people may tell you otherwise. It simply means you have a better understanding of your priorities and what it will take to accomplish your new or different goals. When your goals shift, sometimes it’s because you realize you no longer have the passion to put in the work necessary to reach your previous goal, and that’s fine. Sometimes goals shift due to personal or professional challenges, sometimes they shift because opportunities come and go. It’s important for us to normalize changing and shifting focus as our lives change and shift. Life does not actually move forward in a perfectly linear fashion, no matter how much we would like to convince ourselves otherwise. This is true of any goal, personal, or professional, and I encourage you to be brave, and willing to recognize when a path or goal no longer serve you. Be willing to take your own flying leap. You may get push back from peers, from family, from colleagues. Take that with a grain of salt. That isn’t to say you should completely ignore the important people in your life if or when they express concern, but it is to say, ultimately you are in the driver’s seat, and it is your life. You are the person who has to live with the work and effort needed to achieve your goals. No one else can do the work for you, so if other people have opinions that aren’t helpful, you have my permission to ignore them. This will upset people, this is a great time to utilize a quote from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, “get used to disappointment.”

Ultimately, taking a flying leap is scary; who knows where we will land? You might fall off a horse, or tear ligaments in your foot, or fail spectacularly at an exam, but taking the leap and failing is just as useful as taking the leap and truly flying. If you never leap, you’ll never fly, and to be honest, even falling feels a hell of a lot like flying at first.