Sunlight streamed through the holes in the tent roof. It bathed the gold medal I held, making it appear almost liquid in my sweating palm. I earned the medal for performing the hornpipe, a difficult solo step, at an Irish Step Dance competition. The sun rays warmed my body on that cold September day in Estes Park, Colorado. There was no need, however, of an external heating source for my soul. The happiness and pride I felt at this accomplishment flowed from my heart to the corners of my mouth and produced a grin that easily could have been on the face of a small child unwrapping Christmas presents.
I wanted to enjoy the moment. I wanted to remember it forever. I also was determined to never forget what it took to get there and the odds against a fifty-year-old woman taking this trophy. Even though I was delighted, I could not help replaying the unkind words and laughter some of my friends delivered when I told them of my dream, several years earlier, to learn this art form. Their words initially stung. Once I judged their opinions invalid, I assigned their voices to a category of challenge. I was determined to meet and overcome that challenge. It was as if they had thrown down a gauntlet. I chose to pick up that gauntlet and run, actually dance, with it.
When I discovered my passion for Irish Dance, in my mid-forties, I sought out resources for learning everything I could about it. I took classes, practiced every day, paid for private lessons from a personal coach, went to workshops, and listened to music for competitions and shows constantly. Frankly, I never liked competitions. But, they forced me to practice and elevate technical merit. Over the years, I accumulated a few silver and bronze medals. And that day, I held the gold.
For the most part, medals were a source of pride; they validated the hard work. But on this particular occasion, winning a medal provided an avenue for learning a valuable lesson about art and heart.
At the end of the competition, while I stood in the dancer tent admiring my medal, a pair of Irish dance shoes went flying past my head. The shoes were not intentionally aimed in my direction. But the words of an angry fellow competitor were.
“You have no right to that medal, Padgett. You are way too old to be dancing, competing or even thinking about performing an art this demanding and athletic. Even if you were of an appropriate age to enter this level of competition, I should have won. I am so much better at technique, timing, and all around dancing than you will ever be,” she yelled before exiting the tent.
I did not know what to say. I felt all the words of those who did not believe in or support my little dream were resurrected and flung at me through an invisible, high-powered sound system. While trying to regain my emotional balance, in the face of the insult, I felt a hand rest gently on my shoulder. An unfamiliar voice asked, “Do you believe her?”
I turned to face the judge who moments ago had awarded me the gold.
“Yes ma’am. She has better technique and sense of musical timing. She is just all around better than me,” I admitted.
“No, she isn’t,” the adjudicator told me. “Do you know the difference between the silver and gold? Do you know why you were awarded this medal today?” she asked.
I dropped my gaze from hers and shook my head.
She lifted my chin, looked into my teary eyes and said, “You reflected hours of practice and honing of your craft, just like many others. You managed to keep the beat and execute a difficult step, like many others. Your posture was straight, and you demonstrated ability to remember the intricacies required. You were up against some tough competition out there today, and you gave a flawless performance. From a judge’s point of view, it can be difficult to select one dancer over another when awarding medals.
“But, if mechanics and technical merit are equal, the decision will fall to the one who dances her heart. Some do the dance; others are the dance. Today, you were the dance. And that, my friend, is gold.”
That was my last Irish Dance competition, not because I feared decapitation as the result of airborne footwear. It was because the calendar does not lie. My years of hard, competitive Irish dancing were over. I entered the contest carrying that reality before me.
I am not prone to melancholy over things out of my control – like the passage of time that brings aging of body and mind. And I honestly cannot say I spend a lot of time looking at dance medals accumulated over the years. Truthfully, there are not many uses for my little treasures beyond evoking smiles from a face that carries wrinkles fashioned by determination.
Nonetheless, the medals do come in handy once in a while. For example when someone tells me they cannot realize a dream because of age, perceived inabilities or opinions of critics, I extend this invitation, “Would you come to my house for tea, please? I want to show you something.”