One of the people in this photo won the World Championships as a teenager. Another toured with Riverdance. Neither of those people are me.
My dance teacher was not a nice man.
Actually, that's not really true. Removed from dance class, he was perfectly lovely. I have many fond memories of birthday parties, Christmas parties, and cookouts throughout the years. His whole family was good friends with mine. Even within the confines of dance class, if you were excelling, he was supportive. If he thought you were excelling. Which was basically never. And when he thought you weren't? He was terrifying.
He was a tyrant. The screaming could probably have been deemed emotional abuse. When I was very young my friends and I had a running theory that he was actually the Devil and simply rose up through the floor before dance class. For a while our practice space was in the basement of a Catholic church, where the priest had to come downstairs more than once to ask him to please refrain from bellowing at us during services. You could hear him.
He was mean to everyone indiscriminately, but I always had a nagging suspicion that he was particularly disappointed in me. I had a cousin who was a World Champion, a brother who would grow up to be a World Champion, and I was just... solidly mediocre. I was not living up to the potential he thought my genetics dictated. To be fair, I was very lazy. There was also the time I got confused and danced to the wrong side of the stage, completely ruining an intricate 16-person routine. At the National Championships. Could I have been better? Most definitely. But I was what I was, and the insults flung freely.
For all the emotional trauma, though, he wasn't physically abusive. We put up with a lot there as kids, but I like to think we would've drawn the line somewhere. He screeched and hollered and insulted our parentage, but we won everything, and I guess we had decided that the medals and trophies made it all worth it.
So how did he knock my tooth out, then?
It was very loose. But he didn't know that.
We were gearing up for the Oireachtas — regional championships. In these larger events there was ceili dancing in addition to solo competition. My teacher had exceptionally high standards for ceili dancing. A bad solo performance could be brushed off as simply a lack of talent or discipline on the part of that dancer, but a sloppy team? That reflected poorly on him. He once turned heads at an Oireachtas by having a team of seven- and eight-year-olds perform a ceili that was traditionally performed only by teenagers. They won, obviously.
Ceili practices were a special kind of hell. Any time anyone made a mistake, the music would pause, he'd holler for a bit, and you'd start over. And with eight kids dancing together, someone was bound to mess it up. In retrospect, he might have gotten further by telling us exactly what was wrong, rather than asking us if we'd forgotten to pick up our brains at the store on the way to class that day. But articulate critique wasn't his style. Sometimes he'd make every team sit in a line and get up to dance one at a time. If you danced it perfectly, you could go home. One mistake? Back of the line. And this dance school was large. So the line was long.
Occasionally he seemed to tire of yelling, and would take this opportunity to simply remove you from the dance, take your place, and show you how it was to be done. Now, ceili dancing is a lot easier when everyone in the team is roughly the same height, so the addition of someone two feet taller than anyone else didn't really help. But if he was dancing, he probably wasn't watching you. If he wasn't watching you, he couldn't yell at you. So you took what you could get.
A common feature of ceili dances is a sequence we'd refer to as a chain - you'd dance in a circle meeting up with others who were dancing in the opposite direction, alternately grabbing right and then left hands as you made your way around. The placement of these hand grabs was very important — he wanted elbows bent at 90° with the handshake happening right in front of your faces. This was, you may imagine, especially difficult when dealing with large height discrepancies.
I remember being so pleased that day that it was someone else — and not me — who had been asked to stand aside to watch and "learn something". It was a rare treat to not be the direct object of his wrath. I was feeling pretty good about myself. I probably smiled as I made my way around the chain, preparing to grab hands with my teacher.
I'm sure that all he was trying to do was grab my hand, as well. But I was very young. And he was very tall. And probably not paying a whole lot of attention. So as he swung his hand up into that 90° angle, he didn't quite meet my hand. He uppercut me square in the jaw. As his fist made contact, my tooth went flying, landing on the floor a few feet away.
I don't remember if I cried. I don't remember if I screamed. I knew my tooth was loose, after all. He did not. All I remember is my teacher stopping dead in his tracks, absolutely horrified, thinking he had just punched a child so hard that he had dislodged a tooth. I remember thinking that I was fine, but he sent me out to take a break anyway. Someone else's mom gave me some apple juice. When I told my mom later, she just laughed.
My childhood in Irish dancing was filled with many contradictory emotions. Some days I look back on it and wonder how I put up with it all. How I dealt with classes that ran hours over their alloted time and being reduced to tears on a regular basis. Some days I look back and remember nothing more than the thrill of victory and the rush of knowing that I was good at something. I can't hear a traditional Irish tune start up without my feet starting to dance.
But if I had to pick one memory to summarize it all?
My teacher knocked my tooth out.