Recently I took my kids to their very first feis, an Irish dance competition. Irish dance is a sport that has little appeal to feminists. With its thousand dollar dance dresses and almost exclusively female population, on the surface it looks very sexist. I’ve been somewhat disdainful of expensive dance dresses and pretty princesses in ghillies and curly wigs myself but the feis taught me some important lessons about empowering girls.
In the evening they had a costume dance. There was an older teen girl, about sixteen or seventeen, whose costume was red fishnet hose, a plaid micro-mini and a tee shirt. Off the dance floor, she was showing off and acting sexy, swinging her hips and flipping her skirt around. I thought it was a pretty good indictment of what too much makup and curly wigs leads to– a sense that we as women need to dress to please the boys. And then this girl went out to dance hard shoe with her girlfriends.
When the girl in the short skirt went out to dance, she was a different kid. Every bit of come hither, skirt flipping, "look at me, I'm the sexy" attitude evaporated and in its place was a girl who danced with amazing, powerful energy. There was a huge line of teen girls, for the most part in boy’s tank tops and shorts, drowning out the amplified band and rocking the glassware with their hard shoes. The really awesome thing about this is they were dancing for themselves at this point, not for boys (an extremely rare commodity at these events) or parents or judges or yet another award.
Kids who had been dancing competitively all day were vying for places in the step-about line and turning what is supposed to be “dance your one or two steps, walk politely back and let the next person dance” into what the announcer/host called bedlam. We had a mob of girls dancing like dueling street gangs from West Side Story done Irish style, or some sort of wild Irish mosh pit.
This is what lurks behind the silly curly wigs and ornate clothes—young wild women who seem determined to stomp the hotel down, still dancing at 10:00 pm after being on their feet since early morning. They were dancing with all their souls, with every boy there viewed as a rival, not a potential date. This is a kind of girl power we rarely see. Recently I read a book about how our materialistic culture trivializes girl's lives, turning them into fashion automatons. The suggested cure, along with not letting your girl paint her nails or worry about her weight, had to do with getting girls to do "boy" things, from playing traditionally "boy" instruments in band at school (tuba, not flute, because flute is too pretty princess) to playing boys' sports instead of silly girls' sports, like dance.
To dismiss the things that some girls love simply because they're "girl" things is itself a misogynist attitude. Irish dance is hard work, and much of it is work that is more suited to a female body than a male body. Why should it only count to be good at soccer or baseball or rugby, to be good at the "boy" things? Why should being a great hard shoe dancer be less valuable than being a great shortstop? If you ever get to see some girls stomp the floor just because they can, and the instant transformation of a girl from trying to be sexy to knowing that she's strong and powerful, you might change your mind about what girl power really is. Sometimes it's not about winning at the boys' games. Sometimes it's about excelling at things that many boys are afraid to try.