One of the first things you will be likely to find out about me by looking at any of my social media pages is that I’m a competitive Irish dancer. The elaborate dresses, deep rust coloured tan and ginger wig – yes, you did read that correctly – are a sure give away. Granted, it is not always immediately apparent exactly what all of this is for. One of my closest friends has admitted to me that she thought I was a pageant girl. This is completely understandable.
However, this outward appearance of glitz and glamour is exactly that. It is just a shallow presentation of the sport I compete in and I will only put on the costume twice a month at the most. Every other day of the year, Irish dancing consumes my life physically and mentally, and not always in a good way.
I started Irish dancing at the age of just four. You can probably tell by my incredibly Gaelic and therefore hard to pronounce name, it was in my heritage. Every weekend my family would go to our local Irish club, the smell of Guinness and trad music create an air of nostalgia for me. They held classes for Irish dancing at the club, after begging my parents for a couple of weeks they signed me up for my first class. Little did four-year-old Laoise know that this decision would completely change the course of her life. It isn’t just a cute little hobby like my family expected.
From a young age I guess one could say that I had a natural ability – timing, rhythm and an ability to pick up choreography. A year later I started competing in local ‘feises’ (competitions) and began climbing the ranks. By eight I was competing in the championships and placing well. However, I admit this is where my improvement stunted. I remember becoming frustrated as other dancers started to overtake, and my placements were slipping. Looking back on that time itwas obvious that other dancers were training in a stricter environment, my school was relaxed and more focused on having fun.
British National Championships, Manchester, 2011. After another disappointing result I met Danielle. She had once danced for the school I was competing under. She had been in a similar situation and transferred to a school in Essex who catapulted her to the position of 9thin the world! Danielle spoke to my parents and I; she was retired now and was going to be teaching not far from my house. Realistically the decision was a no-brainer. I left my dancing family of seven years which was difficult, but I was ready to move on to the next stage of my dance career.
I joined Reel Eire school of Irish dance at the end of 2011. The atmosphere in class was extremely different. I went from sitting on my phone and eating crisps at the back of the hall to strictly no talking, no sitting down and constant shouting and chasing us around the floor. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a shock to the system, but I knew that is how you had to train if you wanted to get anywhere in the competitive world.
My first competition with Reel Eire was in March 2013. I was incredibly nervous. What if all of this had been for nothing? Am I better than before? Is everyone staring at me? At this first feis out, I won the U13 preliminary championship, something I had been working towards for years. I had done it. I could now compete in the big leagues with the best of the best.
However, what I did not realise immediately was that this did not mean the work was finished. It was only just beginning. Years of blood, sweat and tears were still to come as I had to claw my way up the ranks of the championships. At times it seemed impossible, my placements would improve and then I would get stuck, I couldn’t seem to get any higher. This is hard to comprehend when you think you’re working as hard as you can, but someone else is always working harder.
One of the biggest disappointments of my dance career was definitely the Southern Region Oireachtas (qualifying event for the World Championships), in 2017. I had been improving a lot that year and the previous, recalling at major championships for the first time ever. At local feises I was continuously placing on the podium and so obviously I thought I had a chance at a qualifying spot. I have recalled every single year at the Oireachtas, until this one. I remember standing in the corridor by the theatre with my teammates Annalise and Jess. I wouldn’t even say I was nervous for the recall numbers to be called out. They started calling the numbers in numerical order, then it got to my number… It was skipped. I hadn’t recalled.
In that single moment I questioned everything. Nothing had gone wrong; I had given a clean and strong performance. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough. Was this my time to quit, end the constant disappointment and focus on my A-Levels?
After some long nights of thinking (and a fair amount of crying), I decided to give it one more year and if I still didn’t achieve my dream of qualifying… that would be it. However, for this year I changed my mindset. I danced because I loved it, because it could all be over in a few months. In that year my results remained fairly consistent right up until I finished my A-Levels. That summer I had nothing else to do between finishing exams and starting my degree, so everything was put into dancing. This was when I won my first championship!
In October I recalled at the All Scotland Championships and placed in the top 20, a few weeks later I was placed 11that the Great Britain Championships, before this I was barely scraping a recall. Everything was falling into place and I was hopeful for a top 7 finish at the Oireachtas, meaning a qualifying space.
At this time, outside of the dancing world I was the happiest I had ever been, making amazing friends and enjoying university life. I truly believed that this helped me mentally in a way I couldn’t have imagined.
I went to the Oireachtas putting no pressure on myself, my age group were going out to celebrate that night regardless, so I just focused on looking forward to that. It almost seemed that my lack of ‘care’ and therefore having no nerves helped, like a strange reverse psychology. If I don’t care, I do better. My brain works in strange ways that even I don’t understand…
The score boards came down for the U18 ladies’ results, and again I felt nothing for the first time at an Oireachtas. There was no heart beating out of my chest, no butterflies. Just nothing. As the scores came out, I was achieving higher than ever, scores above world medal holders… I placed 3rd. Easily qualifying for the World Championships and a wave of adrenaline came over my body. I broke down in tears. Perhaps I did care after all?
Riding the high for a few weeks was amazing. I was loving the idea that I would fly to America to compete and fulfil my lifelong dream. In February, the week before my next major championship, I badly sprained my ankle. Realistically this took me well over a month to recover from and even to this day I still feel it pop on certain movements. Not only did this set me back physically but also mentally. Although I was still recovering, I had to continue attending class and give it 100% - anything less is not acceptable when training for a major championship.
I had prepared psychologically for the tough few months ahead, but I don’t think anything can truly prepare you for the rollercoaster of emotions. On the average day I can struggle with depressive episodes, but before the World Championships 2019, I was definitely at my lowest point ever.
Training intensified and the thought of going to class made me feel physically sick. I was having negative thoughts constantly, I felt that I wasn’t good enough, strong enough, prepared enough. I was too fat, too weak… anything you can think of, I had thought it.
Every class I was screamed at, chased around, made to start again. I had panic attacks, asthma attacks, sat shaking in the corner. Then I would go home and cry for hours before waking up the next day and doing it all over again. If the flights and accommodation hadn’t already been funded, I truly believe I would have quit right there and then.
(Enjoy this snotty collage of my nightly breakdowns...)
I wasn’t eating much, was sleeping too much and yet would still be tired. My blood pressure was low, heart rate dropping below 40 at times and I would get headaches from stress almost every day.
Alongside this pressure, my friends were also getting frustrated. Their bubbly and upbeat friend was suddenly dragging her feet into University or not showing up at all. Every evening I would be at class and weekends I would either be competing, at extra training sessions or too tired to go out. I believe it was hard for them too, they didn’t know how to help me.
My teacher Danielle pulled me to the side after class a few weeks before the Worlds and simply asked “What is going on?”.
Another toxic trait of the Irish Dance world is that you cannot show emotion, but equally no emotion at all is also bad – confusing I know. If I were to cry in class that would be like a death wish- you’re seen as weak and punished for it; if you don’t cry at all it means you ‘don’t care enough’.
When Danielle asked me that one question, I couldn’t help but cry as I told her how I felt, that I didn’t think I was good enough. Just getting it off my chest did help a lot, but it can’t truly clear that feeling and I still have that little voice even now.
I decided to write this blog post because I am about to begin these tough few months for the second time as I prepare for the World Championships in Dublin 2020. It was a bittersweet moment when I qualified just over a month ago. I was so excited to achieve a qualifying space again, to live my dream for a second time.
However, this time I know what is to come. I know the gruelling months ahead of me. I’ve been researching to try and figure out how to keep myself from falling into a depressive hole this time round. I don’t think I can mentally put myself through that again.
Perhaps my reverse psychology from Oireachtas 2018 is the strategy I should adopt? I guess time will tell.
For now, I’m enjoying class and training. I’m just really hoping that I can make it last!