By Brenda Buchanan
Nobody writes songs about March. In New England at least, the third month is long on gray and short on poetry. This year is the exception to the rule—warm days having begat bare ground and the early arrival of crocus and daffodil shoots. But more years than not, March is the dreggy end of winter, a 31-day slog of grubby snowbanks and freeze-thaw-freeze cycles.
If not for St. Patrick’s Day, March would have little to recommend it.
In my family, the holiday is a big deal. My mother and her siblings were born in America but my older relatives had brogues as thick as spring fog. Determined to hang on to their culture, they maintained certain traditions including teaching children (especially little girls) to step dance.
My older sister and I took lessons from a woman named Bernadette, who was off the boat from County Kerry. Irish step dancing involves complicated footwork. In her Saturday morning classes, Bernadette called out cues I remember to this day. Heel, toe, heel, toe, heel, toe, hop one-two-three-four. A jig or a reel played in the background, helping little feet keep the beat.
The more difficult skill for me was to keep my hands at my sides, fingertips pointing to the floor. That is a defining aspect of traditional Irish step dance, intended to direct attention to the intricate steps. My little sister—who when I first started would have been two to my four—was too young to dance but old enough to keep me in line. Kate sat in the front row during practice sessions and called me out when my arms flew out from my sides. “Hands!” she’d chirp. “Hands!”
Thoughout the year, but especially in March, Bernadette’s troupe danced at various events around town. Our mothers made our outfits, green dresses with gold fabric on the underside of the skirt, designed to show when we kicked our tap-shoed feet. Somehow I have hung on to one of mine all these years. There it is at right, in all its tiny glory.
Our shoes were tied with Kelly green ribbons. On our legs we wore black tights. A back sash was pinned from left shoulder to right hip.
Such was the costume we wore the night a dozen or so of us were to be the entertainment at the 1962 St. Patrick’s Day party sponsored by the city’s Irish-American Club. We were the warm-up act for Ted Kennedy, who had just announced his first candidacy for United States Senate. His brother was president, of course, which made this gig a Very Big Deal to the older girls in the troupe. At the end of our performance we’d been instructed by Bernadette to skip down the stairs on the side of the stage—tallest to shortest—and shake the hand of the candidate, who was sitting in the front row. The oldest girl—my second cousin—had a small token of some sort to present to him as a gift from us.
I was four years old—too young to be nervous about anything but keeping my hands by my sides—but backstage jitters infected the big girls. We’d be dancing for the handsome president’s handsome younger brother, not to mention a hall packed with most of the Irish population of Fitchburg. The young teenagers were wound up. Moments before we went on one of them sidled over to me and said the plan had changed, I was now going to lead the troupe off the stage and be the one to hand the gift to Mr. Kennedy.
So out we went and dance we did and after we took our bow I led the way off the stage. Whenever my mother told this story she’d put her hand over her heart and exclaim that her relief at our fine performance gave way to dismay that her headstrong little Brenda was leading the march to Ted Kennedy instead of bringing up the rear. My memory is that he was very nice and people took pictures of all of us, then my older sister and I were whisked home because by then it was long past our bedtime.
The next day a telegram arrived at our house (yep, an actual telegram.) It read: My brother tells me you are the best step-dancers ever. STOP. Congratulations! STOP. It was signed JFK. Now that impressed me. I may not have quite grasped who the man in the front row of the audience was, but I knew JFK was President of the United States.
I was probably 12 before I learned that the telegram had been sent by my uncle, John Francis Kane.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all of the readers of this blog. My gift to you is this link to the fabulous McNiff Irish Dancers, performing in 1958. These dancers were the real deal. They performed on the Ed Sullivan show, not merely at hometown St. Patrick’s Day dinners. But we danced this same traditional style. Note that except for the parts when the piece called for them to clasp hands, the dancers’ fingers are pointed right at their tap shoes.
P.S. In my family, the tradition continues to this day. This week my five-year-old grandniece Caeley danced in her first recital.