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 www.AliceOsborn.com

What I Learned from the Elves

When my sons were young I used to tell them stories on the drive to school. They especially liked to hear great adventures, and our tales quickly grew in complexity to include the more elaborate plots of Camelot and Robin Hood. I don’t know how it happened, but I found myself starting to tell them the story of The Lord of the Rings.

As a writer, I get asked about Tolkien a lot, especially since some of my stories include an element of myth. People want to know if I think he was a great writer. Well, he certainly taught me a lot. Especially on those drives to school. My mornings went something like this:

Son 1: Tell us more Lord of the Rings, Dad.

Me: Hmm. Let’s see… where did we leave off?

Son 2: Frodo was at the Inn at Bree.

Son 1: The Prancing Pony.

Son 2: Yeah. There’s some guy sitting and watching him. He’s got his face covered up.

Son 1: I think it’s one of those black rider people.

Son 2: It’s not. Because there would be worms and stuff crawling out of the walls and there are no worms.

Son 1: Well, it’s somebody bad. Tell us, Dad. What happened?

I was astonished at the detail with which they could recount this story. And so on we went, day after day, week after week, much like the hobbits themselves, on our great adventure. I was, of course, always careful to leave them with a cliff hanger right before dropping them off at school.

All of this caused me to reflect on Tolkien himself and why my sons held such a fervor around this story. Was Tolkien a skilled writer? I would have to say not. His prose is not beautiful or elegant. But he crafted a great story. How do I know? Because I was enthralled with the story in the same way my sons were. But they had never read Tolkien. They had only heard me re-telling his story.

Re-telling is not common in contemporary literature. People tend to think of the story and the book as the same thing. They are not.

The separation of a story and its telling is clearer to me when I think about music. I play a lot of traditional tunes from the British Isles. These wonderful tunes are hundreds of years old, and have been rendered by many musicians over time. For example, “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” is a tune that can be played lyrically, or very driving. It can be played simply, or be quite ornamented. It’s a wonderful tune whether it’s rendered by a beginner on the guitar or a master on the fiddle. The tune is separate from its rendering.

This is a useful thing to consider when writing. Of course you want polished prose. Perhaps even gilded prose. But ask yourself if the story will hold up when told and re-told by others who are not as skillful at the telling.

After all, the elves were great story tellers and players of song.

And we’re still talking about them.

How to Stop Being a Serious Poet

Local Poets Struggle to Recover from Difficult Childhoods

Do you suffer from poetry? Try my recipe for recovery. Alice Osborn is a terrific poet, editor, and writing coach in Raleigh, NC. She invited me to write a guest post on her blog, Write from the Inside Out, to discuss this diagnosis.

I would like to hear from folks. What are your favorite ways to lively up those dreary readings?

You can read the post on Alice’s Write from the Inside Out page.

Contra Dance & Book Release Party

book releaseTales from the Red Book of Tunes

Calling by Louie Cromartie

Music by Rip the Calico

Location: Pleasant Green Community Center

Date: March 23, 2014

Dance: 7-10pm

Beginner Lesson: 6:30pm

Admission: $10

Come celebrate the release of Tales from the Red Book of Tunes, the new book by author Tyler Johnson that takes you from a modern contra dance back to the murky myths where the music was born.

There will be a mini-concert featuring tunes from the book! Joining Rip the Calico will be special guest fiddlers Trish Hornick and Mairead Brady.

You can purchase the book online at Tyler Johnson’s Bookshop. Or pick up a copy at the dance.

  • Paperback: $15
  • Hardback: $25
  • e-Books from Kindle/Nook/Kobo/Apple stores


A note to non-dancers: This event is structured to allow participation from folks that are not regular dancers during the early part of the evening. You will be able to enjoy a concert and reading. You’ll be able to watch experienced dancers and have a try at it yourself. You are strongly encouraged to come to the beginner lesson at 6:30 because this will give you some important background information about contra dancing. It will help you understand the book. And it could just possibly save your life.

Please download and print the flyer and distribute at your local dance event!

Directions to Pleasant Green Community Center

The address is Pleasant Green Community Center Rd, Durham, NC 27705

Pleasant Green

From points north and east: Take I-85 through Durham to exit 173, Cole Mill Road. Take Cole Mill Road to the end at Pleasant Green Road, turn right, then make the next right onto Pleasant Green Community Center Road, the Center is 1/4 mile on the left.

From points west and south: Take I-85 to exit 170. Get in the left lane as exiting, and take a sharp left onto US 70 west. Follow the first traffic light. Turn right here onto Pleasant Green Road. Follow 2.4 miles and turn right on Pleasant Green Community Center Road. The community center is 1/4 mile on the left.

From Durham: Take Cole Mill Road to the end at Pleasant Green Road, turn right, then make the next right onto Pleasant Green Community Center Road, the Center is 1/4 mile on the left.

From Chapel Hill: Take NC 86 north, go to Mt. Sinai Road and turn right, follow to University Station Road, turn left, follow to US 70, turn right, turn left at first traffic light, Pleasant Green Road, follow about 2.4 miles to Pleasant Green Community Center Road, turn right, the Center is 1/4 mile on the left.

From Raleigh: Take NC 147 (Durham Expressway) when aproachng Durham. Follow through Durham and rejoin I-85 south. Follow to exit 170. Continue to light. Turn right, this is Pleasant Green Road. Follow about 2.4 miles to Pleasant Green Community Center Road, turn right, the Center is 1/4 mile on the left.

Prairie Wolf Press Review

barnI grew up in a log cabin that my father built, and my grandmother lived in a little house halfway down the long gravel road between my cabin and the county road. Every day after school the bus would drop me off and I would stop at my grandmother’s house and say “I’m starving.” She would feed me a fried apple pie or some other treat she’d made, and I would find out what she was making for dinner. Then I would go home and say to my mother, “I’m starving,” and see what I could get from her. Whoever had the best dinner plan was where I would make my evening’s reservations.

I’ve just published two poems in Prairie Wolf Press Review about that time. It was glorious. Tell me what you think.

There was a hog farm just down the road from us that was glorious in a different way. I suppose one makes one’s fun with what is at hand. The Gospel Chicken House is a real place.

I’m curious what others remember from those days. Did you have one of those elastic book bands? I’m sure they must be forbidden now.

Spring Dance Romance 2013

swingIf you had special glasses you would see that as the dancers weave across the floor their souls entwine like vapor trails in the rafters. It makes a kind of spiritual soup with all of the burdens and joys in the dancers’ hearts intermingling like flavors: strong, sweet, and bitter. Whether it’s compost, the river bottom, or plasma in the center of the sun, something in the universe knows that soup is good.

Here’s what I found at Spring Dance Romance at Camp Sertoma this year. I invite you to share your thoughts and memories.

West End Poetry Festival 2012

The 2012 West End Poetry Festival was a complete and rousing success. Alan Shapiro, our headlining poet, got nominated for a National Book Award (probably because they heard he was at our festival). Dorianne Laux, Joe Millar, Rachel Richardson, Stephanie Levin, and Florence Nash read at Flyleaf Books on Friday night. A thousand thanks go out to Jamie Fiocco for her tremendous assistance (please support Flyleaf Books).

On Saturday we heard from:

  • Jo Taylor
  • Andrea Selch
  • Rob Greene
  • Joe Millar
  • Dorianne Laux
  • Lou Lipsitz
  • Jaki Shelton Green
  • Alan Shapiro
  • Celisa Steele
  • Susan Spalt
  • Tyler Johnson
  • Jay Bryan

A special thanks to Catherine DeVine for inspiration, hard work, and a dream that we could all follow. And deep appreciations go to Rah Trost and the Carrboro Recreation Department for their support.

A wonderful open mic featured readings by some truly fabulous local poets. I heard old friends and discovered new talent. (apologies if we didn’t get everyone’s name right. Please let me know and I can correct it.)

Thanks to sponsors, including Logan Carter – Realtor, Carolina Wren Press, Raleigh Review, and Amante’s Pizza.

And of course, the Carrboro Poets Council: Jay Bryan, Susan Spalt, Celisa Steele, Catherine DeVine, and Tyler Johnson.

See you next year.

All In

OK. Here’s the thing. This is a picture of my son’s plate as he helped himself to dinner. I have noticed that children consistently put their plates only halfway on the table. This phenomena extends to other activities as well. For example, when working on a project, the object under development will often be balanced precariously on the edge of the workspace, with screws, spare parts, and other potentially valuable or messy things rolling around, scattering, and dripping to the floor.

Why is this?

At first I thought it was because they were short. That is what they have claimed, at any rate. But the oldest, and the villain who set the very trap in this photo, is now taller than I.

No, I think something more fundamental is at work here. Something… elemental.

I think the reason that people balance the things they love precariously on edges is because they are treading lightly. Too lightly. They instinctively hold back. They don’t want to fully commit. They are not all in.

And while I am now, at this stage of my life, a firm plater, confidently centering myself over my own stable dinner, there are aspects of my life that I still set up for failure. That I rig for fragility.

Why would any of us do this?

I see this especially in creative endeavors. Writing students tiptoeing into a scene. Dancers apologetically letting their minds steer their bodies like student drivers attempting that first halting merge into traffic.

It is the same for me performing music. If I am not fully committed to the performance, if I hold back, then the rhythm is shaky and unstable.

Only by going all in do we reach that stable center.

Banjo Heads

I play a Deering Maple Blossom tenor banjo. I love it, but it has a well-deserved reputation of being overly bright and powerful, owing to its bluegrass roots.

I’ve struggled with this for years, with various articles of clothing stuck inside, mechanical muting gizmos attached, and playing techniques where I vary the head resonance by altering the way I rest the side of my palm.

Recently, though, I installed a clear, plastic head. My goodness, has it made a wonderful difference. In the past I used a variety of natural, or faux-natural heads to try to get a more mellow sound. None of them compare to the thick, clear plastic head.

I’m getting a much richer, mellow, but still loud, thumping. I’ve said before that an Irish banjo should sound like the farting of metal frogs.

It’s getting there.