As a child, Haley Tilt — a creative nonfiction student in the Creative Writing and Publishing Arts MFA program at the University of Baltimore — fell hard for Irish dance. While her parents researched their European ancestry, Tilt kicked and quick-stepped her heart out. It didn’t so much matter if she turned out to be Irish or not. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.
By the age of 8, I had tried and failed five different genres of dance. Five sets of dance shoes, recital outfits, and dashed hopes stuffed the back of my closet. Then my parents, like many people of murky European ancestry, got serious about reconnecting with their roots, and I discovered my great, latent talent for Irish dance.
In their enthusiasm for plaid, my parents were tapping into the broader cultural soul-searching of our age. On all sides of the political spectrum and across racial groups, Americans are reclaiming their ancestry.
My ancestors have lived in the United States for about 200 years. My mom has my great-great-great grandfather’s naturalization papers, which prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I hail from the working-class stock of the Industrial Revolution, the huddled masses yearning to be free of European backwater poverty.
Mine are the people who changed their names at Ellis Island and jockeyed for their place in the invention of White America. We kept a few beer steins from the old country, a memory of our former names, and kissed the rest goodbye. Like others of our ilk, we cannot affect the self-importance of those descended from early New England settlers, nor can we claim roots in some international culture less watered down than contemporary American society.
But oh boy, can we try.
As a kid, my parents used to take me to the Scottish Highland Games, a two-day festival held on the rolling, green moors of the Mount Hood Community College campus, in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. There we would watchmen whose muscles ran like ships’ ropes across their backs, toss spruce logs the size of telephone poles. In the community college cafeteria, kilted men and long-skirted women peddled their wares: t-shirts with Celtic knots, artisan-crafted knives with Celtic knots, incense-burners and leather goods and pens and scarves and CDs and metal plaques and bags—with Celtic knots.
Here I should note that we did, at least, have some Scottish ancestry. Not much—mostly, we were German. But we had a few Scots up the line, a fact we know because my paternal grandmother, embracing another tried-and-true strategy to dispel the alienation of contemporary American homogeneity, conducted extensive genealogical research. She wrote to the priest of a small church in a remote hamlet bearing our family name, asking him for records. She hoped to discover what clan we belonged to. Instead, she discovered that we were clanless, indentured servants until we were manumitted. When my father went to a wedding in Scotland, he had to wear the servants’ tartan.
However humble, our roots in Scotland are at least authentic. To defend my family’s enthusiastic celebration of Irish culture, I’ve got nothing. Perhaps, having invested in expensive woolen kilts, my parents wanted another venue in which to wear them. If so, I can sympathize; I recently acquired a lace corset at the Maryland Renaissance Festival and now find myself googling Burlesque shows.
Whatever the reason, we annually celebrated St. Patrick’s Day at the McMenamins Kennedy School, an elementary school built in the early 1900s and later converted into a hotel. My best friend, Johanna, and I would tear around the grounds seeking out underpaid teenage temp workers dressed as leprechauns with cauldrons of chocolate coins. Then we would settle in with our spoils for the afternoon show: Irish dancers, Celtic music acts, and sea shanty ensembles. As my mom slurped down a shamrock-themed microbrew, Johanna and I would stuff our faces with chocolate coins, piling a mountain of tin wrappers between us.
It was in that hazy atmosphere, hugged by wood-paneled walls and faded murals, sleepy from a bellyful of chocolate and the thick smell of stout, that I developed my enduring love for Celtic music.
Somehow this affliction missed my mom and Johanna. Johanna, when we reminisce on the St. Patrick’s Day adventures, laughs over the memory of a sprightly, wavy-haired brunette dressed like a sexy innkeeper, crooning Ethel Waters’ “My Handy Man” over an arrangement of concertina and bouzouki. I, on the other hand, still feel the flush of the bodhrán in my bones.
My passion for Celtic music was soon fanned by Michael Flatley’s Feet of Flames, the third show in his Riverdance trilogy. For those unfamiliar, Riverdance was Flatley’s brainchild, a silk-shirted, pyrotechnic rock show that borrowed from traditional Irish folk dance and gripped the world from its breakout at the 1994 Eurovision song contest until Flatley’s swan song in 2005.
When Feet of Flames traveled to Portland in 2001, I was 8. By then its expiration date was already looming in the American zeitgeist. But sitting in the audience, feeling the pulse of music and light and raw human energy, rapt in the glint of Michael’s naked, sequined torso, I didn’t think about that. I thought: I must learn to dance like this.
As I mentioned, my history with dance was not inspiring. My ballet instructor had advised my mom to save her money, my tap instructor had reduced my instructional program to a single step, and my modern, hip hop, and jazz dance instructors quietly placed me at the back of the formation. I had tried out and been encouraged to quit five different genres of dance. My mom hesitated to invest in yet another set of shoes and lessons. After a week of living with a child who refused to remove her Michael Flatley t-shirt and leapt around the house haphazardly, she conceded.
At my first lesson, I fell in love. I fell in love with the music, with the exhausting, heart-pounding athleticism of jumping around for hours, and most of all, I fell in love with Allison, my dance teacher. There are few things more powerful than a little girl’s infatuation with a young woman, and unlike my wiry, wrinkly modern dance instructor whose skin tags jiggled on her neck, Allison was young enough to be my older sister. She had a sheet of auburn hair that fell down her back and a bedraggled set of hard shoes that she patched with cardboard. She gave me a CD, Dance of the Celts, with standard jigs and reels, that I looped on my Discman. I soon abandoned my Michael Flatley t-shirt to molder in the back of a drawer. Allison was my new hero.
After years of failed lessons in other genres, I became quickly and inexplicably excellent at Irish dance. The dance studio began sending me up for solos during recitals. We have home movies that show me flying about the stage, sequined black skirts bouncing around my hips, feet and knees flashing.
Nothing gold can stay. The Riverdance craze was wearing off in the mid-2000s, and with it came the exodus of little girls whose parents wanted to reconnect their daughters to their Celtic roots. After three great years, attrition from our Irish troupe had left me as Allison’s only student, and she was struggling to make ends meet. I cried when she told me she would be leaving the studio.
When Allison left, I buried my dance shoes with my Michael Flatley shirt like a scorned lover lighting up their letters. I never took another Irish lesson or performed again. But my love of the music never died. I still have the Dance of the Celts in a CD organizer on my car’s visor; I’ve re-burned it twice after wearing the disc thin.
This summer I went to the Maryland Renaissance Festival and discovered gleefully that a bagpipe-bass drum-bouzouki ensemble was rotating through the fair’s stages. Sucking wind in the aforementioned corset, I trailed them through the dirt and the beer and the cosplayers, throwing myself into the music and resurrecting the few Irish dance steps I could remember. By the end of the night, I was soaked in sweat and smiling from ear to ear. On the drive home, I blasted bagpipes in my car and dreamed of a trip to some remote Scottish hamlet where I could find a stout-soaked tavern and dance to the bodhrán’s heartbeat.
In the past century, we of murky European ancestry have turned to many half-baked strategies to re-racinate ourselves. Right now, the craze is DNA testing. My grandmother had genealogical research. My parents had their kilts and ethnic festivals. Michael Flatley brought us bombastic, unabashed folk dance. I have my Celtic music.
A few weeks ago, a person of authenticated Irish ancestry told me that other actual Irish people refer to Celtic music as “that god-damned deedle-y-dee music.” So may it be. My heart’s resonance is a set of bagpipes. Deedle-y-effin-dee.