All or Nothing: how an Irish dancing influencer misses the mark during a pandemic
COVID-19 has had an undeniable impact on the mental and physical health of millions of people across the world. Within the small bubble of Irish dance, the repercussions have been unprecedented. Although the 2001 Worlds were cancelled due to an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in the UK, the North American Nationals was still able to proceed as normal, and almost acted like a substitute Worlds for that year.
The 50th anniversary Worlds in Dublin, which fell smack in the middle of the first wave, was cancelled. It had been postponed by a year because of the 2001 Worlds, and then ironically had to be cancelled itself due to another disease, this one more widespread. With most Canadians and UK residents unable to leave their countries for the US, and many people afraid to fly even domestically, the NAIDC organizers decided their event was cancelled, too. Irish Nationals? Cancelled. Scottish Nationals? Cancelled. At this point, it’s not even certain that all of the regional qualifiers, the most important competitions next to the Worlds, will move forward.
In the middle of a worldwide pandemic, former World champion and “Reaching New Heights” business owner Lauren Early has weighed in, offering what she ostensibly feels is motivational content.
Now, let’s say you’re a teen dancer whose mom is a nurse that’s working at a hospital, or your dad has diabetes. Maybe your grandmother lives in an assisted living community. Being off from school felt fun at first, but now you’re constantly worried about the health of your family. Even a routine trip to the grocery store is stressful because you need to mask up and bring hand sanitizer just to grab a gallon of milk. You’re afraid that even though you personally might get mildly sick, your parents or older family members could get it from you and it would be much worse for them. Now your academics are completely virtual and you’re having a hard time understanding trigonometry via Zoom. You and your siblings are constantly fighting because you’re cooped up together and you miss your friends. FaceTime isn’t the same as hanging out in person.
Taking all of that into consideration, why isn’t Irish dance your #1 priority right now?
Lauren’s above post was deleted, but replaced by a slew of passive-aggressive Instagram stories about how people like to tear others down. Although this “it’s your own fault that you’re not a better dancer in the middle of a pandemic” message feels insensitive, it’s par for the course. Lauren Early’s content first comes across as generic “tough love” that dancers need to be successful, but is really just diet and wellness culture repackaged for the Irish dance world. What worked in the mid-aughts for Lauren is what she believes every dancer needs, without taking into account the differences between individuals, and the changes within sport and coaching to be more holistically-minded.
Through the pandemic, Lauren has been relentlessly posting that the “I don’t have time” excuse is gone; that the pandemic has forced us into “some sort of comfort level” with too much “free time”. The thought that people anchored to their homes because going out has the potential to make them deathly ill doesn’t really feel like laziness to me. It feels more like stress, worry and anxiety. “When you get comfortable someone else wins.” At what competition, exactly? Feiseanna and majors are being cancelled right and left, and for good reason. At the time of this writing, more than 41,000 people have died in the UK and more than 176,000 in the US. We don’t want to get back to competitions where people from all over the world crowd together in small spaces right now. Even a single local feis seems like an unwise event.
The pandemic can only account for some of Lauren’s harmful messages, however. Although Irish dance insists there is no arbitrary body standards in the sport — not like ballet — Lauren gives specific advice to reduce body fat in order to be a better dancer, in a program targeted to children and teens. Diet culture is so insidious, it’s hard to even recognize it for what it is. “I’ll be bad and have a cookie” is so common, it’s a cliche, but it’s applying the language of morality to a thing that has no moral implications. I’m reminded of the time my 89-year-old grandmother — who is in a demographic where holding onto weight actually improves health outcomes — said “I’ll be bad and take two scoops” of ice cream on the Fourth of July this year. I told her “Grandma, it’s ice cream. You didn’t murder an entire family.”
Marketing “good” or “bad” foods to adults is problematic, much less minors. Telling young kids, especially girls, that “every single thing you put in your mouth can benefit you or harm you” is a recipe for disordered eating. Unless the thing you’re snacking on is a Tide pod, what you eat will not be irreparably harmful. It pains me to think of a girl having a cupcake at her friend’s birthday party, or going for ice cream with her grandparents, feeling bad thinking she’s not a good dancer, or person, because of an occasional treat. Nobody should feel guilt for eating food, something that their body needs to survive.
And then there’s the new buzzword of “clean eating”. Like “good” and “bad” foods, this terminology makes a moral judgment on the types of food you consume, since something that’s not “clean” must therefore be “dirty”. I can’t have that, I’m eating clean — but if you ask five fitness experts what “clean eating” means, you’ll probably get five different definitions. Every diet has its bogeyman du jour. In the early 1900s, it was protein. Then it was fat. Now it’s carbohydrates. Paleo was hot, now it’s keto. Why not go raw vegan?
The culture of fatphobia is so often couched in terms of “health”. The pandemic has brought to light how little “health” has to do with it, since if you wanted dancers to stay mentally and physically healthy, you’d be encouraging them to stay home, wash their hands and make time for rest. Health is not a virtue. It’s often complete luck of the draw and genetics. Making children feel responsible for how their eating habits or own bodies are falling short of an impossible standard is problematic, to say the least. Trying to say that restrictive eating is helpful to mental health would be laughable if it wasn’t so damaging.
Ironically, during the month of July, Reaching New Heights participated in a mental health outreach, in which Lauren posted that “suffering is not a superpower”. This is from a woman who says to be a champion you have to sacrifice all, including attending family milestones like weddings. Denying time off, eschewing meals or snacks that aren’t perfectly “clean”, and being rigid to a fault sounds a lot like suffering being an aspirational ideal. Even rest days get a prescribed plan. If you’re not working toward your goal all the time, you aren’t dedicated enough.
Experts say that the mental health of children is reaching a crisis point. With many parents being furloughed during the pandemic, economic stress also reaches children since they pick up on their parents’ reactions and emotions. Their support structures at school, places of worship — and yes, dance class — are completely upended. Many children have had a family member become very sick or die because of the virus. Is it any wonder that many dancers aren’t making drilling their hornpipe a priority?
There is such a taboo of criticizing those within the Irish dance world, especially small businesses, even when the experience with these businesses is not positive. The fear is that it’s somebody’s livelihood (or side gig) and if you leave anything that’s less than a glowing review, you’re destroying how they make their living. I think this fear should be discarded, because as long as you’re telling the facts about your experience, I would certainly want to know if that business was bad at answering emails, rude, or didn’t send things on time, and this goes double for teachers. It’s a business — they’re serving consumers, and we shouldn’t have to live in fear of people that WE are giving money to. Some may disagree. But especially here, when the product is not just a shoddily-made dress but reinforcing disordered eating and body image in children, there absolutely needs to be push-back.
Brushing off legitimate criticism as “negativity” is cowardly. Deleting comments and blocking dancers and their parents because they want you to change your approach is cowardly. People challenging your mindset is not bullying or being a hater. If you can’t defend your words, don’t say them in the first place.
So what’s the alternative?
Balance. Balance is vague and doesn’t follow a specific formula. Balance doesn’t have anything to market and it’s not going to make you into the perfect dancer. You can’t find balance in one specific diet or grab it from one section in the grocery store. Balance isn’t nearly as easy to wrap your head around as the dichotomy of black and white, good and bad.
Balance makes room for the family wedding or funeral instead of forging ahead and going to one dance class instead. Balance says sure, eat some kale, but you can also have the slice of pizza. Balance says taking a break does not make you a bad person. Balance says sometimes dance isn’t the most important thing in your life, and that’s okay. You can have all these things — in balance.
So I’m challenging Lauren to turn her initial message on its head:
- Instead of using guilt and pressure as a primary motivator, why not position Irish dance as a healthy way to cope with the stress and troubles of dancers in a COVID-impacted world?
- Instead of pushing for maximum competitive effort for majors that may not even take place this year, why not recommend that dancers take this time to have fun and rediscover why it is they dance?
- Instead of making practice an immovable obligation, why not encourage doing Irish dance just for the love of it?
- Instead of treating dancers as if that’s all they are, why not treat dancers like whole people with feelings, obligations and worries outside of dance?
More than ever, Irish dancers need the support, love and encouragement of their community to get through this era, which will likely shape them for the rest of their lives. There’s enough pressure on them right now. Their teachers, leaders and role models need to reassure them that they’re doing the best they can instead of telling them they’re not enough. Instead of shame and guilt, instill confidence and resilience. Those are skills that will carry long after the wigs and shoes have gone back into the closet.