To the Virgins

I awoke this morning and stumbled into the kitchen to find our Amaryllis in bloom but fallen over on the table, its weighty blossom too heavy a head to hold. I righted it and took this picture, knowing that its beauty would not last.

It put me in mind of this poem.Amaryllis

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry;
For, having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

-Robert Herrick, 1648

You can click on the photo for a larger version.

Stephanie Johnston | Cape Breton Stepdancer


Tell us a little about your music and dance career. Where have you lived and danced?

I’ve lived in England, Tennessee, Arizona, North Carolina, and Nova Scotia (and I became a Canadian citizen three days ago!). I’ve been playing Celtic music since high school, but didn’t stephanie_johnston_01begin step dancing until I was nearly thirty. I went to Warren Wilson College in Asheville and have been involved with the Swannanoa Gathering on campus over the years as a volunteer, staff member and instructor (if you don’t already know about the Gathering, check out It was there that I saw Cape Breton step dancing for the first time and decided I had to learn, although at the time I had idea how I’d go about it. Less than a year later, I met Malke Rosenfeld, a phenomenal percussive dancer who was living and teaching in the Triangle area at the time. I ended up joining Cucanandy, a band founded by her and her partner, quit my day job, and went on the road with them for five years. Malke was very generous about teaching me as much about percussive dance, and Cape Breton dance in particular, as I wanted to learn, and I began to dance with her a little bit in performance (I spent most of my time onstage singing and playing bodhran and rhythm guitar). After the the band split up in 2002, I began teaching Cape Breton dance in Asheville, eventually forming a semi-professional performance group called Twisty Cuffs Percussive Dance. In 2008 I married a wonderful man who had just gotten a job as a Celtic studies professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada, which happens to be about half an hour from Cape Breton Island, so I spent five years surrounded by people who had grown up immersed in step dancing and Gaelic culture. We have just moved back to North Carolina, and I’m excited to reconnect with the music and dance scene down here.

What do you do when you are not dancing?

At the moment most of my energy is going into raising our sixteen month-old daughter, Róisín (whose name means “Little Rose” in Irish), but I tend to have my fingers in lots of creative pies. I’m a Scottish Gaelic learner, and I directed a Gaelic choir in Nova Scotia for three years, which is something I’d like to try to get going down here in the next year or two. I’m also an avid knitter and sweater designer, although having a curious toddler in the house makes it hard to get much knitting done these days.

What’s one funny thing that happened to you while dancing?

stephanie_johnston_03Cucanandy used to top off the night with a big set of tunes, at the end of which I would hop up onto Malke’s 3’ x 3’ dance board and join her for a fairly manic piece of choreography. It was usually the only time the audience saw me dance, so it was our big surprise knock-’em dead number. If you take a moment to visualize a three-foot platform of plywood, you may realize that’s not a lot of room for two people in tap shoes who are hopping up and down and swinging their legs around. There were many times that we each came perilously close to one edge or the other of the board, but I remember one night in particular: Malke’s shoelace came untied and all she could manage to do to warn me was yell “Danger!” By the end of the piece we were both in giggles, but neither one of us tripped on her lace.

It seems like dancing in community is a really common thing across cultures and times. What purpose do you think dance serves?

I think it serves many purposes, but what I love most about dancing, and percussive dance in particular, is that it’s a full-body way to enjoy great music. I’m one of those people who can’t sit still if the music’s good, and getting to play along with my feet is about as joyful an experience as I can imagine.

How does percussive dance relate to community dance?

Percussive dance is often incorporated into community dance styles. There’s a great tradition in Cape Breton of community “square dances” which are very similar to Southern Appalachian square dances: couples move through a set of figures with other couples, often while doing fairly simple percussive steps. And, like the flatfooting and clogging traditions down here, particularly skilled dancers will often get up and perform more complicated steps during breaks between sets.

How long did it take you to become proficient at percussive dance?

I was performing a French Canadian waltz clog onstage with Cucanandy within a few months of starting to learn, but I had an exceptionally good teacher and was highly motivated to get good fast.

Who are some of your biggest influences?

Malke was my first and biggest influence, but I’ve known some other wonderful dancers along the way, including Ira Bernstein, Wendy MacIsaac, and Benoit Bourque. I was introduced to Malke by a lovely rhythm tap dancer in Blacksburg named Ann Kilkelly, who turned me on to Bill Robinson and other classic dancers of his era. Ellie Grace (of the Grace Sisters) is a good friend who showed up one day for a dance class and ended up playing a big a big part in the formation of Twisty Cuffs.

What’s one thing that you hope to do in your life that you haven’t gotten around to yet?

I started working on a novel about flamenco dance (another obsession of mine) the year before my daughter was born, and I fantasize that some day I will managed to pick it back up and finish it.


Stephanie Johnston has been teaching dance since 2002, and was the founding director of the Asheville-based percussive dance group Twisty Cuffs. She toured with the Carrboro group Cucanandy from 1997 to 2002, and has taught classes and workshops up and down the East Coast in the US and Canada. She studied dance with Malke Rosenfeld, Bonnie Jean MacDonald and Jean MacNeil (“mother of the Barra MacNeils”), and has danced onstage with Buddy MacMaster, Ira Bernstein, John Doyle, Liz Carroll, and numerous other luminaries of Celtic music and dance. To stay updated, “like” Step Gael on Facebook. Information on her April classes can be found on the ArtsCenter website at

Dance pictures by Chris Florio at FlorioPics.

Join me at the Haw River Ballroom

Haw River

Dear Friends,

I’ll be the featured author at Writer’s Night at the Haw River Ballroom on Thursday, April 3, 2014 at 7pm. I’ll be reading from Tales from the Red Book of Tunes. I’ll bring my mandolin and play a few tunes from the book as well. Trish Hornick will join me on the fiddle.

The reading will happen at Cup 22, which is the cafe that overlooks the ballroom. It’s a lovely space if you’ve not yet seen it.

Join Me for Dinner at the Eddy

I’m planning on having dinner at the Eddy at 6pm before the reading. I would be delighted if folks would join me. The Eddy is a terrific restaurant and bar and is, quite simply, the happening place in the Triangle. It’s adjacent to the Haw River Ballroom. Please let me know if you plan to join me for dinner so I can give the manager an estimated head count.

Open Mic

After my reading there will be an open mic for poets and authors. So if you’ve something to share please bring it.

Directions and Links

  • The Haw River Ballroom is located at 1711 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Rd., Saxaphahaw, NC 27340 (336.525.2314).
  • Cup 22 is on the second floor of the ballroom.
  • The Eddy Pub is located at 1715 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Rd., Saxapahaw, NC  27340 (336.525.2010).

About Writer’s Night at the Haw River Ballroom

Writer’s Night, held on the first Thursday of each month, is a celebration of the written word. Local authors, established and emerging, read from their fiction, poetry or nonfiction and answer questions about their craft in the intimate setting of Haw River Ballroom’s 2nd floor coffee shop, Cup 22.  Following the reading is an open mic session for any writers who would like to share their work.  Past featured authors include Celissa Steele, Ricky Garni, Nancy Peacock, Daniel Wallace, Jonathan Farmer, Lyle Estill, Bianca Diaz, and Chuck Ball.  Event starts at 7 pm and ends at 9 pm.

Mini Concert

WRAL - Tyler and Bill

I sat down with Bill Leslie of WRAL to talk about traditional music and play a few tunes from my latest book. Alison and Gordon Arnold from Rip the Calico played along in the studio in Raleigh, NC. Bill Leslie is a terrific musician in his own right. He has a particular love of Scottish music and works with some high caliber musicians. Take a listen over at Bill’s website. A special thanks are due to Dan Gilvary for helping with this event. Dan is another wonderful musician and extraordinary humanitarian.

WRAL - Gordon WRAL - Alison






 Enjoy the music!


Bluebirds – Construction Begins


This pair of bluebirds has decided to build a nest in my garden. The box has recently been moved and we were worried that this pair might not come back this year. To encourage them we’ve not been using the garden entrance.


I planted cotton last year and have left some bolls lying about the garden in hopes that someone might use it to make a comfy bed.


They’ve been checking it out for a few weeks. Mother came and sat on top to survey the garden for safety and the potential for bugs.


Yesterday they decided to go for it and this morning has been all a-flutter. Papa stands guard on the fence ready to call out a warning or fend off intruders. Meanwhile, Mama has been gathering sticks for all she’s worth. She’ll disappear into the hole, and then the whole box will shake as she redecorates. Then it’s off for more.


Why I Irish Dance

Alice Osborn is a dynamic poet, editor, and writing coach in Raleigh, North Carolina. What I recently learned is that she also has the Irish fiddle and dance bug. Bad. In my never-ending quest to understand why we dance, I reached out to her to find out just what it was that was drawing her deeper and deeper into traditional music and dance. This is what she said.

I can’t remember why I stopped dancing, but now I never want to stop. Since I was three to about twelve years old I took ballet and a year of tap in Northern Virginia. My last two years of dancing were with the Christina Heimlich International School of Dance and I especially loved the solo stuff. I re-started Alice Osborn - headshot1my dancing practice last fall when I joined Rince Go Halainn in North Raleigh, one of North Carolina’s only non-competitive dance schools. And get this, my teacher, Catrina Mineo, noticed that my folk dancing never left my body—it seems my moves were imprinted from 30 something years ago. That’s pretty cool and it gives me a great deal of hope that I can master this Irish dance thing.

I want to dance to feel more connected to my body again. To loosen up and let go of stress. As a writer, I’m all in my head most days and I’m totally ignoring what my body is doing. Plus I’m editing, sitting down and that’s way too much pressure on my lower back—my posture sucks! And within the content of my writing, I usually ignore anything that has to do with someone’s body. As an aspiring musician, Irish dancing is based on beats and it’s all about your timing. Plus Irish dancing is great exercise and I’m keeping my mind sharp learning all of the dance moves—it’s like learning to recite a poem, but much more intense.

With Catrina’s encouragement and support, I’ve been in three pub shows at Tir Na Nog. Where else can you drink a Guinness immediately post show? The first two shows I totally did some freestyle moves and at the second show almost fell over taking my bow. The third show was a lot smoother. I’m now practicing feverishly for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and need to kick my butt more. Ouch, my lower back is protesting.

Alice Osborn - dancingI’ve got my blue/brown school dress, wig, tights, bloomers and shoes all lined up and ready. My family thinks nothing of me doing butterflies, hop jumps, light jigs, reels and slip jigs in the kitchen. My six-year-old daughter, Erin, scours You Tube to help me find Irish dance instruction videos and “how-tos” for putting on your wig. Turns out you need lots and lots of bobby pins and a doughnut (I used this non-edible accessory in ballet class when I needed a quickie bun).

I had originally wanted Erin to Irish dance because I thought with her name she’d fit right in and figured she’d totally go for the sparkling dresses. But after a demo at another school’s open house, Erin adamantly said, “No!” She’s taking singing lessons instead and is my accountability partner.

Anyone can Irish dance as long as you’re willing to listen and learn. I’ve had back surgery for Pete’s sake. Some coordination helps, but you don’t have to be a kid! And you certainly don’t have to be Irish (I’m Scottish on my dad’s side—the wrong side, by the way).

It’s fun, it makes you smile, and hold your head up high. And when you’re dancing you forget about everything except the moves and the music. Erin Go Bragh!

Alice Osborn is the author of three books of poetry, After the Steaming Stops, Unfinished Projects and Right Lane Ends and is the editor of the anthology, Tattoos. She’s working on her next poetry book, Heroes without Capes. Her past educational and work experience is unusually varied and now it feeds her strengths as an editor for hire and writing coach who takes good writers and turns them into great authors. Her pieces have appeared in the News and Observer, The Broad River Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Soundings Review and in numerous journals and anthologies. She serves on the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers’ Network and is a leader in several women’s networking organizations. Alice lives in Raleigh with her husband and two children and three birds. When she’s not writing or Irish dancing, she’s playing her violin or guitar. Visit Alice’s website at