The Jig is Up
One of Nicole Lee’s favourite routines is her weekly LGBTQ+ Irish dance class. Every Tuesday evening, the room fills with people wearing trainers and comfortable gender-affirming dance attire. They greet each other, chat about their weeks, the music starts, and they begin their warm-up routine. Read on to hear more about a refreshing and fun addition to queer social life.
I grew up taking ballet classes. As much as I love ballet, the atmosphere in class was competitive, nerve-wracking, incredibly gendered, and body conscious. I associate those classes with anxiety, tears, and body image struggles. I wonder how many LGBTQ+ dancers left their dance communities over exhaustion from feeling misunderstood? I wonder how my dancing would have evolved if the focus had been about the embodiment of the dance and less about our actual bodies?
By contrast, in this queer Irish dance class, I feel seen, respected, and free.
The class is taught in a fun, low pressure environment. Everyone is kind and welcoming and mindful of our respective queer identities. When we do partner dances there are no ‘men’ or ‘women’ roles. Instead, you can choose to be an X or an O and learn either or both parts.
Wayne Webster of Webster Irish Dance Academy, the instructor who started the dance program in Dublin, told me all about his own dance background, what made him decide to offer Irish dancing classes for queer adults, and how he manages to create such a fun and affirming environment in class.
“I started Irish dancing at the age of eight. At the time, I was the only guy in the class, so it was a bit daunting, but to be honest, I was quite happy. After two classes, the teacher said, ‘Oh I think you’d be a great dancer!’ So I kept dancing until the age of 17, and won some major titles and championships.
“When I danced, it was an expensive hobby- between your costumes and dance lessons - and my parents were on a pretty low income. You also had to wear a kilt, of course, there was a big stigma attached to that at the time- ‘Oh look at you wearing your mom’s skirt!’ Or, ‘Look at you with your girl’s dress!’ and all these horrible things.
“The worst thing was when I went into secondary school, they asked me what my hobbies were. My mom told them I was a Leinster champion and the principal was like, ‘Oh my god! That’s amazing! We’ll get you to dance at the school Christmas show!’ And that was one of the worst things ever. That’s when all the bullying started.
“You can imagine, in a Christian Brothers School full of boys, and of course here’s Wayne and another guy getting up and dancing in two kilts in front of the whole school. From that day on it was just a nightmare, so at the age of 17, I gave it up.
Wayne continued, “The year I gave up, that’s when Riverdance came into orbit. People were like, ‘Oh that was amazing!’ I said, ‘I did that for years and not one of you would applaud me for it’.
When it came to my nieces’ first Feis, they wanted their Uncle Wayne to come and have a look. Of course, I knew all the dancers that were there, and I was like-I regret that I never went on with it. Everyone kept saying to me, ‘Oh, why don’t you come back?’ I was like- ‘I’m too old now.’ But you’re never too old.”
Wayne elaborated on why he decided to offer the Beginner Irish Dancing class to the queer community and how he intentionally structured the class to make it LGBTQ+ friendly.
“I thought, ‘how can I establish myself as an LGBTQ+ teacher?’ So I contacted Outhouse to see if I could use their space for the venue. I was only expecting five people to turn up to the class, I was shocked with the amount who turned up on the first night.
“Knowing where I came from, I wanted it to be a safe place for people to come in and express themselves. Because I wore a kilt and I was gay and probably a bit more flamboyant than other boys in the class, I just never felt in place, so I thought, there’s probably tons of LGBTQ+ people who would love to come back into a dance course, whether it’s a hobby or you want to do the Géilí.
“I’m with a lovely organisation (World Irish Dance Association) where all the adults get on so well and support each other. Because we’re at that age that it’s hard to get back out onto the floor and to compete, just coming into the dance class is a big step.
“When there are two boys in a standard class, they aren’t able to dance together. In our LGBTQ+ class, I try to make everyone mix and match. If two boys want to dance together, if two girls want to dance together, we do it.
In all the traditional classes, there’s men and there’s women. Thankfully now we know that we’re in a world where there are multiple gender identities, there’s gender fluid, there’s non-binary, so I won’t say, ‘Now who’s going to be the man today? And who’s going to be the lady?’ No. We’re going to have the X’s and we’re going to have the O’s. And I never pinpoint or suggest who should take on which role based on their appearance.
“That’s the other good thing about the World Irish Dance Association. It’s not all about wearing the big pageant costumes. I can put you in tracksuits if I want. We judge on dancing, rather than someone’s appearance. You wear what you want to wear.
“Moving forward, it’s about friendships and community. Hopefully, we can try and get trips together. I would absolutely love it if people were interested in competing in a team event. I think it would be a great thing to bring to the federation… I’m hoping that with Pride, eventually we’d be able to get some sort of float to do dance. For next year, maybe we could do a Géilí in the St Patrick’s Day parade. We have a great community. It’s great fun, it’s a great workout, you’ll meet so many people through it.”
One thing I love about queer community is seeing people get to be their full selves, later in life.
While it can feel vulnerable to dance in front of a group, the community can attest that it’s a kind, supportive atmosphere. Dance is supposed to be about freedom of expression. Unfortunately, queer kids often have to navigate bullying and forced gendered experiences to participate. As adults, dance classes are often limited or cost prohibitive.
Wayne’s classes are affordable, accessible, inclusive, and fun, and there’s a sense of freedom and celebration in knowing you will never be the only queer person in the class. Here’s what some of the students have to say:
“The community here is absolutely second to none, we bonded instantly and became a great group. This class was so inclusive, my previous dance experiences were more female-based. It surprised me in the most positive way how I and others were so comfortable within the class and with each other, I can’t wait for the next term!”
“It gives off a safe atmosphere with most people being queer. I can be myself and people are lovely to be around. It’s great fun, it doubles as a cardio workout, the group is really friendly, and Wayne makes it a lot of fun and understandable. The thing that surprised me the most is the intensity of dancing! I never knew just how much of a workout it is since all the artists make it look so easy. If you’ve never tried Irish dancing, give it a go and don’t give up! While it’s very technical and takes time to get your head around, it’s just the best fun.”
“In general I’ve been very lucky to have been a part of inclusive and safe dancing environments, but the main difference I noticed here was the masculinity. Other times, I’ve seen guys who show the most radical aspects of their masculinity in order to detach from the traditional feminine dance class, but the grey area in between was everywhere in our class. My favourite thing about the class was the light mood and the people. Since the first moment, everyone felt so safe. It’s always refreshing and inspiring to find people who are openly themselves.”
“I think it is really cool to take part in cultural activities in other countries, and noticing that the info about the class explicitly stated that everyone was welcome made it even more appealing to me. The people were very friendly and I never felt uncomfortable or judged while dancing. It’s a great way to get to know not only the culture of Ireland better, but also get to know lovely people.”
The next four-week course begins on Tuesday, April 18 at the Fringe Lab Temple Bar on Sycamore Street. Improvers 7-8pm/Beginners 8-9pm. If interested, contact Wayne via instagram @websteririshdanceacademy or email firstname.lastname@example.org