Irish Fest

On Thursday we arrive at the festival grounds early and walk around, looking at vendors and food carts before heading to the dance pavilion. The dynamic here is different than at the weekly dance nights. Blurry confusion from the surrounding festival seeps into the open tent. Spectators watch from picnic tables around the dance floor. We’re still early, and for a while it’s just us, a couple out-of-towners, and a handful of the core Milwaukee group.
Some of us get up for the ceili dancing which precedes the set dances. We do Haymaker’s Jig and then a set dance I’ve never heard of before. I try to dance lead for a blond preteen girl. We mess up a lot but she’s laughing and loving it. She mirrors my spirit, a young dancer doing what she loves and who cares if she’s doing it wrong. Not her and not me.
It grows dark outside the tent and the sky above Lake Michigan is a stripe of blue beneath a cap of night. RiRa, the first band of the weekend, takes the stage. Sets form on the dance floor before anyone knows what the first dance will be. We walk onto the floor, joining the giddy assembly, and a set forms around us. We’re runners on a starting line, ready for the call to get ready. The set is Clare Plain. RiRa plays the opening notes, putting everyone on their marks—and we’re off.
We know this set and don’t need it called, calling it quietly to ourselves through the figures. It’s the first dance we learned, a whole year ago, and we’re dancing it now at the first set of the first night of Irish Fest.
We do great.
After a few more sets, just a few to open the weekend, everyone gathers at the tables to talk with old friends, getting reacquainted, meeting new ones. People come to us and shake hands and introduce themselves. They’re from Seattle and Toledo and Chicago and Ireland and Detroit. They are a gentle, polite kind of friendly, ready to dance, ready to sit and talk, ready to enjoy themselves. We talk until the floodlights dim around the tent. The sky is all black now, the lake invisible in the dark.
After the festival closes for the night we go to a friend’s house for a late potluck. We help set out food on the L-shaped patio: quiches, pulled pork tacos, quinoa salad, melons, pretzels. We pile meat on small tortillas and carry them dripping to folding chairs set along the patio.
More people come by and introduce themselves and we talk about beginners’ dancing and contra dancing and how we learned about set dancing.
Sometime after midnight, I’m getting cold and sleepy. Remembering that I have to drive home, I tap Jeremy’s arm and he’s ready too. Our host hugs us and walks us down the neat garden path around the side of the house, past soft glowing lamps in the foliage and flocks of plastic flamingos, to the gate where we say thank you and goodbye.
“Safe home,” he says. It’s a thing they say: safe home. I like it. It’s fitting to this group.
Safe home; tomorrow we dance.
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I Saw Her at the Riverwalk

There is no way to capture, in fullness, a very great day.
I try to, when I wake up on my birthday and see a warm June sky out my window and know it’s finally summer.  I try, as we walk out into the bright blue morning and drive into the Third Ward.  We park on a side street and pass people walking to work and go inside an elderly marble building to buy a dozen donuts from Holey Moley. I try to hold onto the moment, fix it all perfectly in my memory. I almost try too hard and anxiety creeps in.
Back off a little, I tell myself. Let today just be today.  Things will happen and you will enjoy them. That is all you need to do.
My breath comes back and I’m better.
We drive to Liz’s white house with the clover-filled yard and bounce on the steps at the back door waiting for her to let us in. We make coffee and tea and pour glasses of milk, eating the donuts. We post pictures and everyone is jealous.
We sit outside, celebratingGlorious donuts the first perfect day of the year and new patio furniture, Liz and me crisping in the sun, Jeremy cool in the shade.
We plan an excursion into Milwaukee and go to the Wisconsin Cheese Mart. We buy All The Cheese: brie and gouda and cheddar horseradish. Cheese with balsamic, cheese with chives.  Cheese flavored by itself.
We walk the Riverwalk, passing men in suits, women in business-casual lounging on patios that bulge out over the river.
We lose time in the Public Market, wandering from stall to stall. Looking (again) at (different) cheeses.  Discussing Wisconsin paraphernalia; long socks advertising COFFEE; the surprising recommendability of Harry Potter; mussels on the half-shell eaten raw. We show Liz the glories of flavored balsamic vinegar.
I Saw Her in the Library
I Saw Her in the Library – Print by Emily Winfield Martin
We buy a baguette and walk down the construction-ravaged street to Hot Pop, me carrying the baguette like an awkward stick and waving sheepishly to the lady at the counter. Welcome to Hot Pop, the gift shop of the Internet. Baguettes allowed.
I find there are a few prints left of I Saw Her in the Library. I’m delighted.  I carry one around the shop with me, wanting to get it but talking myself out of it at the last moment. Liz buys it for me, and I buy her a Totoro lens cleaning cloth.
Now it’s all our birthdays.

The Saturday Night Scene

Some famous band is playing at The Rave. All the side streets are lined with cars. Young people cross the road in front of me, stand in tight groups beside their racy Hondas, turn and watch as I drive past. I note their faces: they are probably ten years younger than me but look that much older. I’m going to be social tonight, but not with anyone at The Rave. I park next door, at the Irish Cultural Center, where the Milwaukee Set Dance Club is hosting their monthly Irish set dance night.


Yep. This is my scene.

I walk into the aged, echoing room and stow my gloves and scarf and satchel on a folding chair, and change into my dancing shoes. Irish set dancing, a distant cousin to square dancing, has eight couples per set, several figures per dance, and each dance lasts twenty minutes or more. The three-piece band has us tapping our heels during their soundcheck, dancing before the night officially starts.

“Take off your jacket and stay a while,” someone says to me.

I shake my head. It’s finally spring but Wisconsin missed the memo. “Not until my hands are out of danger of frostbite.”

He pulls me out of my chair and we two-step a pseudo-waltz around the floor, dodging people who are standing still and talking. He always has stories to tell me while we dance. About the lady who made him feel like Fred Astaire on the dance floor but wouldn’t return his phone calls because “ladies don’t call men, it’s not proper.” About the time the caller said ‘pick up your lady and take her home,’ directing moves in the dance, but he literally picked up his partner and started carrying her out the door.

Everyone is in high spirits tonight. Because it’s spring. Because the band plays well and makes us dance harder. Because it’s set dancing and we don’t need another reason.

The sets are intricate and we all mess up a lot and none of us care. We try and we laugh a lot and we cheer when we get it right. We make light fun of the kids going to The Rave, that they don’t wear jackets or long pants when it’s still almost cold enough to snow. I shed my own jacket a while ago and there’s sweat trickling down the backs of my knees. I regret wearing jeans now…but I won’t when I walk to my car later.

Set dancing has an old romantic essence, like Sinatra and ballroom dancing and bow ties. It’s a little dangerous and sometimes confusing and takes some practice. Not everyone likes it, for those reasons. Modern social settings are confusing and dangerous too, but to me they lack the old charm and panache of Irish dancing, ballroom dancing, or just about any old-timey social dance. It’s an unusual thing for a young person to do, on purpose, on a Saturday night, but for me it’s perfect.