Diary of a Feis Weekend

Originally written 11/18/10. The post is edited here, because no writer is going to pass up an opportunity to edit her stuff.

Toe Stands

Note: a feis (pronounced “fesh) is an Irish dance competition


Saturday, November 6


6:00 AM — woke up. Stumbled around blearily feeding self and cat. Managed not to mix up cereal and kibble. Minor victory.


7:00 AM — drove to U-Haul with husband to pick up cargo van for feis. Usually, at competitions where we will be selling Irish dance supplies, I get one of my dance parents with an SUV to help me drive the supplies to the competition, but no one really wanted to drive an hour north to Loveland with me the night before the competition. So I rented a cargo van instead.

The van didn’t look enormous from the outside; it looked big enough for all my stuff, but reasonably sized for a van. Inside, as I climbed in to drive it, it felt like I’d decided to change careers and become a trucker. It felt huge. The driver’s seat was proportioned for someone Ray’s size, not mine, and I perched on the edge of the seat, peering over the steering wheel like a little kid pretending to drive. I gingerly shifted into Drive, trying to remember the last time I drove an automatic instead of my usual stick shift. Before I left the parking lot, I stopped and started several times, making sure I really knew which pedal was the accelerator and which was the brake. “No clutch, no clutch,” I chanted to myself. The people inside the U-Haul office probably thought I’d just learned to drive.

I drove to my dance studio, coaxing the big van around corners like I was steering a buffalo. Changing lanes was entertaining, since I kept checking my mirrors and then glancing over my shoulder, just like I do in my Saturn, but all I could see over my shoulder was the metal side of the van. No windows in the back!

It was understandable the first time, but I kept doing it. Habit is a terrible thing.

At a stop light, I looked out the window and realized I was looking down at the roof of an SUV next to me. Cool. I was seriously tall. Maybe driving a cargo van wasn’t so bad.


7:45 AM — backed the cargo van into a parking spot in front of the studio. Felt proud of self for slow but accurate parking job. Got out of van and realized had parked in a spot where the rear doors opened right on a big juniper bush.

Reparked. It took several minutes and many cuss words.


8:30 AM to 12:30 PM — Saturday class as usual. Pretty good day, pretty normal. Two dancers needed ice packs, one dancer had to sit out with a fever, and one young dancer tried to get out of the last part of class by telling me her mom wanted her to leave early. Thank you, teachery spider sense, for helping me catch that one. For dance class, it was a blessedly quiet day.


12:30 PM to 2:00 PM — packed up the store.

Packing up the store for a feis is kind of like deciding in one, rash moment that you’d like to move 50 miles away that afternoon. We decide beforehand what items we’re going to take, and then that day we take all those items down off the shelves, inventory them, and stow them in the SUV (or, in this case, the cargo van). It sounds straightforward, and in a way it is, but it is also labor-intensive and chaotic, with multiple people counting, packing, and moving things. Since we don’t take everything, the store ends up looking like thieves with a shopping list came through, or maybe a really selective tornado. At the same time, the SUV or cargo van ends up packed to the gills, which prompted a helper of ours to ask once, “Do you really need all this stuff?”

The answer is complicated. We won’t sell everything we bring. Not even close. We bring probably $15,000 worth of dance shoes, wigs, socks, jewelry, dress bags, and assorted other accessories, but at a good feis we might sell $3000 worth. However, if we leave a particular item or size behind, that guarantees that it will be the one item or size that a 10-year-old girl and her panic-stricken mother must absolutely have in order to compete in 15 minutes.

So we bring a lot of stuff.


2:00 PM — finished packing, waved goodbye to all my faithful helpers, and hopped in the cargo van. I was starting to get used to the way the van handled, and my drive up I-25 was much easier than my drive to the studio had been. It helped that the day was clear and unseasonably warm, and I had a gorgeous view of the mountains to my left the whole way up. I just stayed in the slow lane, kept the van at 60, and enjoyed the ride. My enjoyment wasn’t dimmed by the occasional sound of boxes falling over in the back, or by that RV gunning its engine to get around me. I know I’m a granny driver, and I’m okay with it.


3:15 PM — reached “The Ranch,” the site of our competition. Officially called the Larimer County Fairgrounds, the site is a sprawling complex with an auditorium, several multipurpose buildings, stables, livestock pens, and an outdoor arena. The feis was being held in the First Bank Building, one of the multipurpose buildings that could be divided into three large areas. As I walked in, wooden stages were being assembled in each of the three areas by volunteer helpers, mostly dancer dads. Just outside one of the areas, a couple of the dads were cutting wood with a miter saw, while somebody’s four-year-old son played with a drill on the floor. Seriously, that probably wasn’t safe. Maybe it was some kind of manhood ritual.

Ray joined me at The Ranch to help me unload the van and set up our booth. Usually Ray avoids Irish dance competitions like the lactose-intolerant avoid Baskin Robbins, but since there wasn’t any accordion music and hardly any dancers, he figured it was safe. We’ve often talked about buying a booth at competitions and setting up a “man cave” for dads and husbands to escape to when the wigs and accordions get to be too much for them. There would be La-Z-Boys and beer and an HDTV showing football. We could make a mint.

Anyway, with the help of a couple little boys who were hanging around, we reversed the packing process, turning the vanload of boxes and bags back into a nice-looking miniature version of the store.


6:00 PM — with the booth finished, we drove to our hotel, checked in, and then rewarded ourselves with dinner at Cracker Barrel. The fact that there is a Cracker Barrel so close is one of my favorite things about this particular feis.

Oh, Cracker Barrel, I know it’s wrong to love you. The meal I had that night probably had enough calories to keep me going for a week. But your particular brand of chain-restaurant comfort food is really tasty after a hard day, and I just can’t say goodbye.


8:00 PM — washed and attempted to style my hair. This was an epic undertaking, since I firmly believe that my hair is actually an alien entity living on my head in a kind of symbiotic relationship. As with my relationship with my cat, my hair is definitely the boss.


8:30 PM — posted an update to Facebook using my new iPhone. I love my new iPhone.

How could I have ever thought it was weird for a phone to have a camera?


10:30 PM — went to bed.  Mentally gave the lady out in the hall talking on her cell phone 10 minutes before I went out and yelled at her to shut up.


Sunday, November 7


2:23 AM — woke up to the sounds of diabetic husband having an insulin reaction. An insulin reaction is where his blood sugar drops too low, and if it drops below a certain point, he’ll pass out. Luckily, if he has an insulin reaction when he’s sleeping, his body will wake him up and send him in search of sugary food to raise his blood sugar. He basically becomes a sugar-craving zombie, stumbling around looking for fruit and candy.

This is a serious and scary condition, but, as with any serious and scary condition that you live with day in and day out, you get used to it. It even has its funny side.

What woke me up was Ray bumping into the desk (not very hard, luckily). Apparently, his zombie brain remembered that there was a bag of Reese’s Sticks sitting on top of the desk. Unfortunately, he couldn’t put his hands on it. He did find his iPhone, though, and turned on the flashlight.

How could I have ever thought it was weird for a phone to have a flashlight?

He must have found the bag of Reese’s Sticks, because the light turned off again, and I heard the sounds of munching.  “Mmm…brains….”

He seemed to be okay. I drifted back to sleep.


5:45 AM — woke up to the sounds of the Mario Brothers theme song, which Ray uses as his alarm noise on his iPhone.

How could I have ever thought it was weird for a phone to have an alarm clock?

Groaned, rolled out of bed, and went to brush my teeth. Did a little happy dance when I saw that my hair looked reasonable, and was not (as had happened before) sticking up or clumped on one side of my head.


6:15 AM — went downstairs to enjoy the free breakfast buffet. I love buffets. All those tasty little foods, and you can have some of everything.

Sadly, there was no bacon. How can you have a breakfast buffet without bacon?


6:40 AM — went outside to the van. There was a gorgeous sunrise off to my left, and I stood looking at it for a few minutes. The sky was full of fleecy clouds stained pink and orange by the rising sun, with the clear, vivid blue of another beautiful day hovering around the edges.

Suddenly, being awake at the crack of dawn was completely worth it.


6:50 AM — reached the venue again. Congratulated myself on being early.

Reached the front doors, found out they were locked. Congratulated myself on having my wonderful new iPhone to entertain myself while I waited.

Wrote a Facebook post about the gorgeous sunrise. Tried to post it to Facebook. Message popped up: no Internet connection.


Tried to send a text. Would not send.

Oh, no.

Tried to call Ray. No connection.

My iPhone was the only method I had to accept credit card payments for the booth, and it wasn’t connecting. All around me, I could hear the kind of ominous music they use in movies and TV shows to signal that something is about to go horribly wrong:

Dunh duhn DUHN!!!


7:00 AM — the venue doors opened. I went inside, hoping for some kind of miracle. Maybe if I shook the iPhone…?

Then, in the bathroom, I saw a sign: WiFi provided by FRII.

I was saved!


7:05 AM — or not.

The WiFi was not free. You had to pay for it, and it was $39.95 for the day. Highway robbery! Forget that!

Then I had a vision of what would happen if I opened up my booth and told people I couldn’t accept credit cards. My vision included torches, pitchforks, and tar and feathers.

Hmm… $39.95? That sounds reasonable. Where do I sign up?


7:10 AM — tried to sign up for WiFi. The website appeared to be formatted more for laptop access than smart phone access. The welcome screen was teeny tiny, and I had to squint to see that there even were words. That was okay; one of my newly acquired iPhone skills was zooming, so I could make the welcome screen bigger.

Welcome to the Ranch, blah blah, proud to be WiFi provider, blah blah… ah-hah! Sign-up for WiFi. I hit the teeny tiny link.

The link took me to a teeny tiny registration form. When I zoomed in so that I could enter my information, I could no longer see the labels that told me what information I needed to enter. No problem; I could just slide the screen back-and-forth.

Okay. First name. Got that. Last name. All right. Company name… hey! What happened?

For some reason, the screen had returned to the welcome screen. Aargh!

Took several deep breaths. It’s okay. Just some technical glitch. I followed the links to the tiny registration form again and started over.

First name. Last name. Company name… no!!! The screen went back to the welcome screen. Why was it doing this to me??

Some primitive self-preservation instinct had prompted me to sit in the audience in front of one of the stages rather than in my booth. I glanced over at the empty booth, and saw people milling around in front of it, glancing at their watches. Was that a pitchfork one of them was carrying? Oh no, oh no…


7:15 AM — tried to pull self together. Started over. Welcome screen, registration form, first name, last name, company name. Tried to be extra careful as I touched the iPhone’s little buttons. Wondered how people with big fingers manage to operate phone at all.

Yes! Safely through company name. Address, phone number, e-mail — yay! Made it to the bottom of the screen and hit continue.

Now the screen was confirming the charges. Hey! It was going to charge me twice for the day, for a total of $79.90. I must have hit the wrong button somewhere in there. Aargh!!


7:20 AM — started over for the fourth time. Welcome screen, registration form, first name, last name, company name, address, phone number, e-mail. Whew! I made it again. Continue.

No!! No no no no no no no! The screen was again showing that I owed $79.90. I was not going to pay for two days when I only needed the WiFi for one.

Looked up at the booth, and there were even more people standing there. Feet were tapping. Lips were compressed.

Okay. $79.90 it is.


7:30 AM — successfully managed to enter my credit card information and sign up for the WiFi. Double checked that it was working. Success! Thank goodness! I hurried over to my booth and took the sheets down from on top of the tables. Within 30 seconds, there was a line of people waiting to buy things.

It was as I loaded the cash register to ring up the first customer that I realized that I’d brought cash, but no coins.  Oops!

For the next 30 minutes, I somehow managed to ring up customers, take their payments, try on wigs and shoes, and advise people on socks sizes, more or less at the same time.  I smiled at each customer and apologized for the delay in opening.  “I was having trouble with the WiFi in the building,” I said over and over.  Most people were very understanding.  Thank you, thank you, thank you, Irish dance customers, for not tarring and feathering me.


8:00 a.m.–my first assistant arrived.  I threw my arms around her neck and sobbed in relief.

When we finally got a break in customers, I showed her how to use the super-awesome, brand-new credit card reader for my iPhone.  You fit the iPhone in a special case which has a reader built into the bottom.  The reader plugs into the same place the charger does.  When a customer wants to pay with credit card, you swipe the card through the reader, and then you enter the amount they’re charging.  They sign their name with their finger (which is so cool), and then you can email or text a receipt to them.  It’s all encrypted and secure, and the charges get deposited into the store’s bank account at the end of the day.

Sigh.  I LOVE my iPhone.  How could I have resisted for so long?


9:30 a.m.–my other two assistants arrived, which meant that I could leave the booth and go watch my dancers compete.  The competition had started sometime around 8, but we’d been so busy that I hadn’t really registered it, except as a kind of noise in the background.

Irish dance competitions are very noisy.  And chaotic.  In case you’ve never been to one, here’s the general layout:

Dancers are divided into groups by dance level (beginner, beginner 2, novice, and prizewinner) and then by age.  That way, you don’t have a 13-year-old who’s been dancing for 5 years competing against a 6-year-old at her first feis.  Most of the dancers then compete in seven different dances.  The different dances use different music (kind of like the tango and the waltz use different music).  Also, some of the dances are soft shoe dances, which are more like ballet dances, and some of the dances are hard shoe dances, which are more like tap dances.

A feis usually starts off with the Reel competition.  The reel is one of the first two dances a dancer learns when they start taking Irish dance classes.  It’s fast, fun, and in 4/4 time, if you’re a musician.
When the competition is ready to kick off, an announcer will call all the competitors for the reel backstage.  The PA system is usually not loud enough or clear enough, with the result that the announcer sounds like Charlie Brown’s parents and no one has any clue what was said.  However, the few people who did understand will start moving backstage, and the others, with a herdlike instinct, follow.

Backstage, the enormous crowd of stressed-out dancers is sorted into its groups (see above) by the stage helpers, the underappreciated volunteer moms who are in charge of getting everybody to the right place at the right time.  You can spot them by their official-looking clipboards and the wild, I-am-about-to-lose-my-frickin’ mind, looks in their eyes.

Once the first competitions have been organized, the dancers are sent onstage in lines.  The stages are generally big sheets of plywood laid down on the floor of the venue and duct taped together, and because of the number of dancers involved (there were about 500 competitors at Fall Feis), they build 4 stages side-by-side.  So each of the 4 stages has its own line of dancers on it.  When the judge for each stage is ready, a stage helper sends the dancers out two at a time to do their dance.

From the audience’s point of view, this means that 8 dancers are performing at the same time—2 on each stage, with the stages side by side.  And here’s the kicker: the dancers are not all doing the same thing.

They are all doing the same dance, so they are using the same music (played live on an accordion by a musician sitting between the stages). Also, each of the seven dances has its own style, with moves that traditionally go with that dance and music. However, the specific choreography for each dancer is created by their school’s teacher. The steps danced by my students are similar in style but not the same as the steps danced by any other school.

That means that you can stand in the audience and watch eight dancers doing eight different things at the same time.

I’ve been dancing and competing since I was eight years old, so this seems normal to me. However, I can imagine how overwhelming it must seem to a first-time parent. Anyone walking in off the street would have no idea what was going on. Once, my husband’s grandmother came to the regional championships in Phoenix, where she lives. She wanted to surprise me, so she didn’t tell me she was going to come. I didn’t get a chance to warn her what it was like. She walked in, walked around in confusion for about half an hour, and then left. I never even knew she was there.


10:00 AM — after watching my dancers in this big room for a while, I went next door to the other two stages. The other two stages were for champion dancers. Champions are the highest level of Irish dance competitors, doing the hardest levels of choreography. There are two different levels of championship: preliminary and open. Championship competition is a little less confusing to watch than the beginner through prizewinner levels of competition, because the dancers don’t all line up on the stage and go one right after the other. Instead, they line up on the side of the stage, and the music stops between each pair of dancers. They still dance two at a time, or sometimes three at a time, and they still do different choreography, but at least you’re only looking at two people dancing and not eight.

For the beginner through prizewinner levels, each competition has one judge (or adjudicator, as they are technically called). For championship, each competition has three judges, and their scores are combined at the end to determine the winner. Also, where the beginner through prizewinner dancers have each dance judged as a separate competition, the champions do either two or three dances, and the scores for the dances are combined.

At Fall Feis, I had 12 champion dancers and about 30 beginner through prizewinner dancers, some dancing in the morning and some in the afternoon. I spent the hours from 10 AM to about 4 PM walking briskly from stage to stage, trying to catch as many of my dancers as possible. I especially wanted to see the dancers who would be going to the regional championships in two weeks so that we could work on any improvements they needed before the big competition.

In class, my job is to teach choreography (which we call “steps” in Irish dancing), polish choreography, and bully/cajole students into stretching and exercising properly. At a feis, my job morphs more into a cheerleader role. Dressed in business-type clothes, I stand in the audience and watch each dancer perform. For the beginner through prizewinner levels, I take notes which I will then send to them after the competition. The backstage for those competitions is usually too crowded for me to go back there, and the dancers don’t want me hovering anyway. If I see them in the audience between dances, I’ll go over and talk to them. For the champions, I take notes, but I also try to say something to them as they come off stage. “Good job,” I’ll say, or, if it didn’t go so well, I’ll ask what happened. I’ll hug some of the dancers; others I know don’t much like to be hugged, so I’ll pat them on the shoulder or clap for them instead. Again, they don’t want me hovering — most of the champions have been dancing five years or more, and they know what they’re doing — but I want them to know that I was watching them dance and rooting for them. When I was a competitor, it meant the world to me that my dad was always watching when I danced, and I want to be that kind of person for my dancers. I try to be supportive without being too embarrassing. I have no idea whether I succeed or not.


4:00 PM — time has no real meaning at a feis. Competitions always run late but still manage to feel hectic. I’m always running from place to place. There’s a lot of waiting. Between that and the emotional ups and downs, it’s an exhausting day. It always feels like it’s 2:00 PM in the afternoon, or whatever your low point in the afternoon is — the time when you’re hungry and crabby and really want a nap.

By 4:00 PM, most of my dancers had finished, and we were just waiting for the last of the awards. My assistants were packing up the booth, which had done well, with a minimum of problems (the cash register had died in the afternoon and wouldn’t open, a customer wanted to pay with a gift card but we didn’t have gift card capability at the booth, and a couple pairs of earrings had fallen apart. That was it! A good day). My dancers had been successful, on the whole: one dancer had earned the right to wear a solo costume of her own choosing rather than our school costume; one dancer had won three first places out of four dances, a personal best; one dancer had moved from the prizewinner level to the preliminary champion level.

The champions had had an amazing competition, one of our best ever. Out of the 12 champions, seven had placed in their competitions, and all seven of those had gotten first, second, or third. I was very, very happy, and very proud.

But as I drove home at 6:00 PM in the darkness to unload the cargo van back to the store, I was also sad — sad for the five champions who hadn’t placed, and for all my dancers who hadn’t achieved their goals that day. I wished, as I always wish, that I could magically help them fix the imperfections that kept them from placing; that I could tell them exactly why the judge hadn’t liked a particular dance; that I could make them smile when they wanted to cry. Above all, I wished I always knew the right thing to say when the awards had all been given out and some of my dancers were going home with nothing.

I don’t ever know the right things to say, and there’s no magic fix in dancing. All any of us can ever do is work on the things that didn’t go right, one little piece at a time, and look forward to the next feis.