Oireachtas Rince na Corona

On March 11, 2020, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was placed on the injury list because of an unspecified sickness. The Jazz were set to play the Thunder in Oklahoma City, but after Gobert went to an area hospital, he tested positive for COVID-19. It was an especially ironic diagnosis, considering only two days before, he had downplayed the threat of coronavirus and playfully touched all the mics at a postgame press conference.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver took swift action and put the NBA on indefinite hiatus. It was the first pro sports league to react to the pandemic by taking such seemingly drastic action. It was not clear whether basketball would return in 2020, and although others were optimistic, Silver made no promises during his period of investigation. Only when feasible plans were put in place did the NBA resume its season.

Those plans were sweeping, creative and unlike anything in the NBA’s history. The NBA “Bubble” was instituted: sports in lockdown, held on Disney properties in Orlando. Only a limited number of teams were invited based on earlier standings before the season was paused. Players, coaches and athletic personnel entering the “bubble” had to quarantine on their own for a period of time before being declared coronavirus-free. COVID-19 tests were regularly administered. Players were limited to their assigned hotels and arenas. There were some notable rule-breakers (with consequences), but for the most part, players adhered to the guidelines in a giant summer camp-like atmosphere, which created some truly wholesome moments.

The bubble may make another appearance based on how next season unfolds, which is being permanently moved forward because of the change in schedule, but importantly the infrastructure for next year was laid well before the end of this season. The NBA has been a model of how to adapt and change in a rapidly changing situation. It takes decisive leadership, evaluation of what is possible instead of what is optimal, and contingency plans for the future.

And now, forget all of those lessons because we’re talking about Irish dance.

Corona irony has spread its contagion to CLRG, since the 50th anniversary Worlds was cancelled this year. It technically should have been the 51st Worlds had the 2001 edition not been cancelled. The UK closed travel due to an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth, a strictly animal disease (not to be confused with hand, foot and mouth disease, a common childhood virus).

Over and over again, CLRG and its regional organizations have been Lucy with the football. (Insert major here) is still happening! We’re making changes to ensure it’s safe for you! Ok, we’re pushing the date back! Ad infinitum until the event is finally cancelled. The only events that have actually gone forward have been a limited number of local feiseanna, with people from all over the country flying in because it’s one of the only competitions available. Photos of maskless children sitting in large groups appear on Instagram. Oh well, we promise social distancing will be better enforced next time!

The Southern Region’s insistence on holding a qualifier has been particularly egregious. When it was obvious that Greensboro was not going to work out due to “circumstances” (read: North Carolina’s stricter coronavirus precautions), the Oireachtas was moved to the COVID capital of the United States: Florida. Although masks will be required in dancing spaces, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed an order that opened restaurants and bars to full capacity, and practically nullified any consequences for mask ordinances by refusing to allow local governments to levy fines on people in violation. Yes, they’re taking precautions at the Oireachtas and competitions will be run very differently than most years, but it’s not just about the event itself; it’s considering the geographical location with respect to the health of its participants and their loved ones.

As eyes turn towards qualifiers, one has to wonder if that decision has really been thought through to its terminus. There’s a host of travel restrictions making an international competition impractical or impossible, depending on where participants live:

  • The US-Canadian border is closed to “non-essential travel” in both directions. Before the NAIDC was officially cancelled, IDTANA was essentially going to hold an event when Canadians could not travel to their own major.
  • The US-Mexico land border is closed to “non-essential travel”. Flights are available both directions for citizens of both countries, but with COVID-19 ramping up in Mexico City, like Canada, it would not be unthinkable that dancers may be barred from traveling to their own qualifier in two months.
  • The UK and Ireland require a 14-day self-isolation when traveling from the United States, which would be an onerous burden for families traveling to a major in those countries.
  • The European Union will generally not allow non-EU citizens to enter their member countries at this time.
  • Australia will not accept tourists and most Aussie citizens are barred from traveling overseas.
  • Likewise, New Zealand is completely shut to tourism.

All of this is subject to change. By the time you’re reading this — or by the time I hit “publish” on this story — restrictions may be lifted/instituted/changed completely. Many places with Irish dancing are going through the dreaded “second wave”, including Northern Ireland going into partial lockdown and England and Europe likely to follow. It’s like trying to hit a moving target.

Completely leaving out legal obstacles, then there’s the qualifier rules. The rule as it stands is that every WQ must dance at their own oireachtas to retain their spot, except in extreme cases. So what does this mean for the people who qualified for the 2020 Worlds? Does that mean they either have to dance or lose their spot (for a 2021 Worlds that probably won’t even be held)? What if your regionals is outright cancelled (as is the case in at least one region now?) Could you apply for an exemption as if you were injured? What more extreme case is there than a worldwide pandemic? The fact that CLRG is making people choose between a shot at a lifelong dream (that again, may not even happen) and their own health, or the health of their loved ones, is sad and irresponsible.

It’s estimated that half of all Americans have a pre-existing condition, and many judges and musicians are in the age brackets that are most vulnerable to the virus. On top of all that, we don’t really know the long-term effects of this disease yet, but some of it might affect brain function. Young, healthy people can also get COVID-19, but I really shouldn’t have to point that out in order to get others to care about people who are more susceptible to the virus.

The statement provided by CLRG essentially said “we’re trying to work with Irish officials to let us do things as normal, but no luck”. The chorus for opening up is always “we can’t hide in our homes forever!” No, we can’t. Which is why new ideas and creative solutions are required. There’s been seven months to strategize and adapt instead of pushing the fantasy that we’ll be able to flip a switch and everything will be exactly as it was before, no matter how much CLRG wants it to be.

So what can be done? There will be no “CLRG Bubble” as the NBA had. The bottom line is that in-person competition at the usual scale is just not feasible or safe at this time. Let’s look (I mean really look, not dismiss out of hand) at how dancers might compete online. Let’s offer grade exams via Zoom or similar platforms. If the concern is with music or surfaces, figure out some guidance to standardize it. The NBA had digital fans in the “seats” during the season — could you imagine if this finally pushed Irish dancing into livestreaming? Let’s figure out how to do things as they’ve never been done before, because the old way is not coming back anytime soon.

As of this piece’s publication, the New England Regional Oireachtas, even with its postponed February date, has been cancelled. What this means for other qualifiers remains to be seen. CLRG is still an organization mainly for the benefit of teachers, not dancers, but it seems so counterintuitive when what’s good for dancers can be just as good for teachers. Keeping dancers engaged and informed is vital, because being opaque during such a critical time doesn’t serve anyone, much less CLRG leadership.

The old guard is digging their heels in while the world changes rapidly around them. It’s time to reevaluate a lot of what isn’t working in CLRG, and not just the resistance to the reality of our current situation. There’s a new and energetic generation of young teachers who want to bring the organization into the 21st century, who care about the future of the art form, and who want to see Irish dancing thrive, even in the most dire circumstances. They deserve a chance to see that carried out.

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4th generation Houstonian, cat mom, trivia maven, retired Irish dancer, mental health professional in training. MSW ‘22

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Danielle Stillman

Danielle Stillman

4th generation Houstonian, cat mom, trivia maven, retired Irish dancer, mental health professional in training. MSW ‘22

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