The Bad Arm - Confessions of a Dodgy Irish Dancer
nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
August 14, 2011
On a recent PBS-TV Riverdance special, I learned that the dancers keep their arms stiff at their sides and move only their legs to keep the dancing prim and asexual. Unfortunately for Maire Clerkin, daughter of a popular Irish dance teacher, she had this misbehaving right arm that insisted on creeping up into a right angle. Maire (pronounced "Maura," though sometimes it sounds like "Moira") shares her coming-of-age story in her solo show The Bad Arm: Confessions of a Dodgy Irish Dancer, written by Clerkin, directed by Dan O'Connor. Clerkin offers her story as "the anti-Riverdance."
The audience got into the show from the first notes of the jaunty jig music, clapping along in rhythm. Maire, dressed in red and white, jumps out, arms stiff, legs kicking and jostling, body whirling. The right arm sneaks upward, and the music scratches like an interrupted LP. "I had a bad arm for dancing," she explains.
Using a wide screen at center stage, Maire lists the topics of the day, including attention, work, hornpipe, snogging ("French kissing"), and despair. Throughout the show she portrays several characters, including: mothers offstage cheering their children onstage; surly, horny boys at a carnival dance; a bigoted temping agent; and Maire's own popular, formidable mother Sheila: "There was Mrs. Clerkin...and then there was MOMMY (scary music)!" Entering her little students into a feis (pronounced "fesh"), an Irish dance competition, Sheila makes Maire lend her costume to a poorer girl, and Maire almost runs onstage in her underwear to accept her second-place medal. Curtain wrapped around her body, Maire watches Sheila hug the poor girl, who's won third place: "Josephine Cassidy's got my dress. She's got her medal. She's got my mommy. Bloody fat pig!" As Maire later explains, "Let me tell you about Irish dancing… The main emotion is jealousy."
As Maire grows through the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, the widescreen displays photos of her family and of the dancers. She explains growing up in cosmopolitan London ("where the Empire strikes back"), and visiting relatives in Ireland ("Are you the wee English girl?"). In the 1970s she discovers boys ("He's breathing hard and I'm hardly breathing!") and disco ("So creative!—not like Irish dancing, so repressed and so strict—you had to move your arms!") As a young adult, she joins a temp agency, facing ethnic stereotyping ("You don't sound Irish!"). Later she embraces a punk lifestyle of "sex and drugs and rock and roll", avoiding hard work ("Look what it did to my mother!"). Succumbing to her dancing roots and the need for spending money, she takes a job teaching dance to little girls, one of whom asks her, "Miss, are you a hippie, or just poor?" At age 30, she tries the dance adjudicator test, facing the Irish Dancing Institute, "a combination of the Vatican and the Gestapo"—testing after a night of hard drinking.
Excellent, lively dancing illustrates Maire's story: high-stepping Irish dance, of course, but she also mimes typing while tap dancing, and sways and gyrates to disco music until high kicks break out in the middle of "Rock Your Baby." ("Irish dancing was my shameful secret!")
The Bad Arm offers an entertaining, informative blend of storytelling, acting, comedy, a little song, and ethnic and interpretive dance. Maire's tale of her up-and-down relationship to Irish dancing, and to being London Irish, makes for a fine time of theater and dance as she struggles to master her body and make peace with her background.