Dancing to the beat of our Irish forebears

Laden with my harp case on my back, a basket in one hand, and my button accordion case in the other, I wandered down the school hall fragrant with floor polish. Snowflake cutouts danced on the windows of the rooms as I searched for the door to the class of third- and fourth-graders. The day before, a teacher from this small church-related school had called to ask me to come and speak to her class about homesteading skills.

"Talk about making things by hand," she'd said. "Bring a few artifacts."

Her comment about artifacts had made me feel ancient, but I filled a basket with handspun yarn, writing quills made from my geese's feathers, and other objects that I could share.

Eager faces turned toward me as I opened the door, and the handful of students stowed their papers and books. While I set out the "artifacts" I had chosen, a couple of first- and second-graders joined us. The more the merrier, I thought.

"What all have you studied?" I asked my bright-eyed audience, garbed in their school uniforms.

"We read 'The Oxcart Man,' " one boy replied. "About the olden days."

I pulled out a large book full of photographs of oxen and told about training our young oxen, building yokes, and how the ground rumbles beneath the feet of a fully-grown team. The door opened, and more students tiptoed in with their chairs.

"We wanted to join you," the teacher of the fifth- and sixth-graders explained. Everyone pushed their chairs closer.

I passed around a lump of beeswax, a candle mold and wicking, butter paddles, and butter molds. Besides outlining how to use the items, I reminded the students that often it was the grandparents who passed down these skills to their grandchildren, because parents were so busy caring for younger siblings. The children sniffed and fingered the items and plied me with questions.

"Did people take showers?"

"How did you make soft soap?"

"How did the beekeeper take the wax from the bees?"

"How did you slip the candles from the mold in neat pairs?"

Though a cold wind blew off Lake Michigan and over this school, these young minds whirled and warmed the room with their energy.

"And when the sun went down, how do you think they entertained themselves?" I asked.

"Shadow puppets in the candlelight?" a boy answered.

"Good answer," I said. "And they told stories, sang songs, and played music. Again, while parents might have been occupied with sewing or mending tools, grandparents usually had more free time and patience to teach an instrument or play a tune. This is the way traditional music was passed on before tape recorders, records, and CDs were invented."

I pulled out my button accordion and played a reel. The door flew open and a gaggle of girls rushed in, along with their teacher and the principal of the school.

"We just had to come listen," their teacher said. They clustered along the back wall.

While running through a few jigs and a hornpipe, I noticed a gray-haired woman wearing an apron slip in and stand by the door. As I closed the bellows of the accordion, she marched to the front of the room.

"Play me a jig," she commanded in an accent that was a mix of Ireland and Brooklyn. "I'll dance for them."

Her feet drummed the beat as I played a jig. The small feet of the students in their black shoes tapped along as they picked up the rhythm.

"Everyone up!" the older woman ordered. "This is your heritage! You must learn to dance."

A rush of white blouses and blue-plaid skirts danced across the room. Even the lads in their neckties matched their steps with the movement of this energetic grandmother.

Panting, our dance leader halted. "I need to go back to my cooking," she said. "But you need to learn to dance." Out the door the cook strode, flying back to her kitchen.

"I suppose I had better go home, too. I've already taken more time than I was supposed to." No one moved. "It's time for your lunch, right?" Solemn faces and quiet feet were the only response.

"I don't think they want you to leave," one of the teachers said.

Thinking a few harp tunes would quiet them down, I played my encore and promised to return to celebrate St. Patrick's Day with them. As the whole school left the room, they offered me many thanks for sharing with them.

"That was cool," one girl said, as she danced away, following the rhythm of the music that had taken root in her feet.

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