Stepping out


DANCING DUO Social dancing teacher Eunice Moran encourages Anne-Marie Flynn and John Joyce as they practise some dance moves at the Station House Hotel in Ballina. Pic: James Wright Photography

We sent Anne-Marie Flynn along to sample the popular social dancing scene

“Quick question for you,” says the message from The Mayo News. “How do you like the idea of doing a piece on … social dancing?”
Social dancing … as in dancing to country and western music? Irish country and western?  Hmmm. I feel a bit … young for this.
“It’s taken off big time in Mayo, in all age groups,” they reassure me. “It’ll be a nice, fun piece,” they persuasively suggest. “Kinda fish-out-of-water style.” Never a truer word spoken.
And that is how I, along with my two left feet, suddenly find myself trying to keep time with ‘Pick a Bale of Cotton’ and an enthusiastic bunch of line dancers in Ballina’s Station House Hotel, and wondering what on earth I’ve gotten myself into.  
I’ve roped in a partner for this experiment, partly for company, and partly in the hope that having someone equally clueless opposite me will make for a more forgiving experience. Always game for an adventure, he is quite enthusiastic. I, meanwhile, am full of quiet dread. But I resolve with grim determination to give it my best shot.  
Mayo is no stranger to Eunice Moran. Singer, broadcaster, compère, entertainer, dancer and now dance teacher, she leads the class with infectious energy. She tells the group I’m here to do a feature. Everyone turns to look. “So if you fall over, get up quick before the camera catches you, or no-one will come back!” They laugh. I resolve with even grimmer determination to not be the one to fall over.
Challenging my preconceptions, the group is mixed, with all ages present. There is an equal gender mix. I am not the youngest, not by a long shot. Everyone is very friendly and no-one is wearing cowboy boots. Already the night is looking up.
One hundred and thirty people turned up at Eunice’s first class in Ballina, she tells me. While after the initial burst, numbers dropped off slightly, they’ve remained steady since, and she’s even run a second term due to the demand. What’s the secret? “I want people when they come along to feel comfortable, and not like they have to be perfect,” she says. “I don’t want them to be afraid to make mistakes.”

Plaid shirts and Wranglers
We warm up with some basic line-dancing. Having embraced the movement in the mid-nineties, I manage to hold my own. All I’m missing are the plaid shirts and Wranglers of my early teens. Ten minutes in and everyone is sweating. Who needs the gym? We grab a glass of water – there’s no bar - before the next dance. So far, so good.
Eunice includes a variety of dances in her classes; over the course of two hours we waltz, quickstep, foxtrot and jive as well as line-dance. Each style gets equal time, which is good.
I feel confident taking on the waltz, having been taught as a child by my granny, no wallflower herself. It turns out my technique needs a bit of work. We manage to get the rhythm right, but the movement – ‘always anti-clockwise around the floor’ – is an issue and we cause a few minor collisions before stepping off the circuit. I can see the photographer trying to keep a straight face. But as we move on to the quickstep, I start to think we might have some potential.  
Eunice is hands-on, working the room and spending time with dancers individually where intervention is needed. Clear and methodical, she’s a born teacher blessed with a warm way, though sometimes her feet move a bit too quickly for my brain.

Jive like a superstar
I’ve always wanted to know how to properly jive. From being spun around the floor by my dad at family weddings, to marvelling at the moves on Strictly Come Dancing, it’s been a secret dream of mine to one day jive like a superstar and catch people’s attention on the dance floor - for the right reasons. But while my dance partner comes into his own, my feet take on a life of their own. He gets into the swing of it right away; I just get more confused. Eunice comes over to help. We spin around, up on our toes, under arms and back again. She instructs him to make sure to ‘drop the hand on three’ which to me sounds like a practical dance instruction, but sends him and most of the room into fits of laughter.  She reminds me that when I spin one way, I have to make the return journey. “When you go out, Anne-Marie, you have to come home!” Valuable life lessons, right there.
Along with dropping the hand, partner-swapping is also a common feature of social dancing events. Who knew? Eunice explains that dancing with different partners not only puts the ‘social’ in social dancing, but it helps you develop and learn as a dancer, as does lots of practice. I hope no-one expects to learn anything from me. As we move around the floor, Brendan, Johnny and Kieran are all in turn subjected to my lack of co-ordination. All three are remarkably patient, good-natured and well able to move. I find it hard to believe that some of them have only been dancing for a few weeks. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.
By the end, I can see just why social dancing is so popular. It’s just great fun. Eunice remarks that as the weeks progress, she can see people grow in confidence, not just on the dance floor but in their interactions with the group. It’s also laid-back – there really is no pressure to be as good as the rest. People are just out for the craic, and it’s a new way to socialise. A dance floor is a great leveller too; anyone can excel. In fact, it’s the people you might least expect that are lightest and most graceful on their feet. As we wave goodbye to our new friends, we’re asked more than once “Will ye come back again?”
You know, I think we just might.