By John Egan
Our frequent drive via the M1 to Coventry is one where we are able to dispense with satnav.
The Cardinal Wiseman School, home to the Coventry Celtic Championships, must surely be the national centre of gravity for feiseanna as it also hosts the Kildare Feis and Wolverhampton Feis each year.
Like many other English cities Coventry has undergone a sea change since the end of WWII, but in this case the driver for redevelopment was provided courtesy of Luftwaffe firebombing.
But now the city is known as the ‘city of peace and reconciliation’ and is twinned, first of all with Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) and subsequently with several other cities worldwide.
Indeed one of its twins is our own city of Cork. A certain somebody might say ‘Not a lot of people know that’.
I suspect that the Cork dancers who had made the journey over to this feis might not have known of this connection either.
Organised by the Matthews Academy under the direction of Jenny Wilson-Flowers and her TCRG teacher colleagues, this is one of the most popular and well attended feiseanna in the Midlands dance calendar.
I guess one of the reasons for attracting high numbers is that it provides a good run-out for those aiming for honours at the Great Britain Championships in Brighton next month.
Indeed in recognition of dancers’ need for a comprehensive realtime dance practice before this national event, all championship competitors were given the opportunity to perform and hone their set dances and to benefit from the feedback of the panel of adjudicators and from audience reaction.
It is no wonder that national champion wannabees flocked here from every UK region as well as a sizeable Ireland contingent.
We arrived to set up our photo studio on the evening before the day when dancing commenced, and once again we were pleased to be located in the sports hall in clear view of the younger performers, many of whom would be taking their first tentative steps in a dance competition. For some of the youngest beginners it would be their first feis attendance.
Arrival on the evening before is also an education in the organisation and planning behind each feis.
We were able to witness the arrival of the army of teachers, dancers and parent helpers of the Matthews Academy, after their school and day jobs, to convert the school’s accommodation from a place of learning to a competitive dancing arena that would reverberate with the sound of hard shoes, harmonising with the almost nonstop dance music, throughout the weekend.
We were able to watch the youngest of dancers, presumably from four years old, taking their very first competition steps, such as the five new dancers that we met from the Matthews Academy.
These are typical of the seed corn that we see week in and week out. Some will lose interest as age progresses but many will carry on and eventually compete in national and world championships in the senior ladies’ and senior men’s events.
The evidence for this ongoing interest was there in this very school. In the hall adjacent to the youngest cohorts there were championship dancers whom I had photographed almost 20 years earlier.
Indeed there were also teachers and adjudicators present who had been in costume at the end of my lens as much as two generations earlier.
Some of these senior dancers are undoubtedly the sons and daughters of former dancers that I had watched when they excitedly accepted their trophies at world championships in Dublin, Killarney, Limerick, Belfast, Glasgow and even Philadelphia.
And the relative acceleration of time for us Oldies will be here all too soon when today’s young un’s will be tomorrow’s podium climbers.