Having fun taking part in the Irish Performing Arts Festival

by Breda Holohan PA to the CEO of Muiríosa Foundation/SCJMS

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The date was Tuesday, 16 June 2009, a glorious summer’s day. On my entrance into the main building at Moore Abbey, I couldn’t help but notice the flurry of people and the air of buzz/excitement that filled the baronial hall. D-Day, all the preparation, hours of practicing, a certain level of frustration at times, would hopefully pay off as we prepared to embark on our journey to the city of Cork to partake in the Irish Performing Arts Festival (IPAF). Eoin Nash, the Artistic Director at COPE Foundation, initiated a new national festival to provide opportunities for people with an intellectual disability to showcase their artistic talents at a national level. The Dixie Dancers were ready to showcase their talents at this prestigious event.

The Background

Since 2007, my friend Frances Dalton and I have been teaching a number of women (8 in total) the basic art of line dancing for one and a half hours on Tuesday evenings. Our objective was to teach basic skills in line dancing which would transfer easily to similar community-based activities. Until the Dixie Dancers’ performance at the IPAF in Cork, the extent of performances had been limited to SCJMS/MF functions such as Christmas concerts, garden parties, and the Bealtaine Festival of 2008.

The Dixies had no hesitation in responding positively to the invitation to participate in the Cork Festival. A plan was quickly put in place which involved setting up an organising committee (led by Lavinia) to make arrangements for the event which would see a number of performers from SCJMS/MF take to the stage in the categories of Drama, Song and Dance. The organising committee was inclusive of all involved. Various members of the committee took on responsibility for sourcing accommodation, organising transport, and liaising with the team at COPE Foundation. Participation in the Festival would not have been possible without the support of many volunteers who willingly gave their time. The committee organised a cake sale to raise funds. It was a resounding success – a big thank you to all involved!

Diary of events 16 June we finally set out for Cork (25 people in total), a convoy of 7-seaters and one wheelchair bus. Everyone was in good spirits as we sprinted down the motorway to Cork, in the company of Johnnie Cash blasting from the CD player, compliments of Jill Kelly, intermittently tuning back to the airwaves to cater for all tastes. After the usual pit stops, we arrived safe and sound at our destination, but not without taking a roundabout route through Cork city. We were the last to arrive…unfortunately there was no sat nav in our vehicle!

At Edenhall, student accommodation adjacent to Cork Institute of Technology, where we stayed, we were given a hearty welcome by the proprietors. The accommodation had been sussed out a few weeks before our arrival by the boys (Jack Loughman, Leonard McEvoy, Ger Moore) and given the thumbs-up. The amenities available at the Edenhall complex included leisure centre, tennis courts, spa facilities, and McCarthy’s Bar & Bistro which offered a great range of food and soft drinks! A welcoming party from COPE Foundation appeared shortly after our arrival to offer any assistance the group required and to take the props for the performances to the relevant venues.

The meeting point for all involved in the IPAF staying at Edenhall took place that evening in McCarthy’s Bar. Jack (guitar in tow), Leonard and Ger provided ‘live entertainment’, with renditions of various Irish ballads and lively music on the night. An air of frivolity, joviality and happiness bounced around the lounge as people mingled and danced the night away.

The next morning Wednesday 17 June, we awakened at 7.30a.m., dressed, had breakfast, and quickly scurried down the stairs to be picked up by the transport which COPE Foundation provided between Edenhall and the Cork City Hall. On arrival at Cork City Hall, we were left in no doubt as to where to go as droves of volunteers and staff from COPE Foundation were available to assist in every way. At the ‘meet and greet’ area, when registering the full group in the various categories, I was looked after personally by the CEO of COPE Foundation, Maura Nash, who along with staff and volunteers partook in the organising and running of events. Every participant received a ‘goody bag’ which included name tag, itinerary of events—with a map of Cork City with the various venues for the performances clearly marked—brochures with details of visitor attractions in Cork, a key-ring, bookmark, sweets, drink and fruit. We were quickly requested to take our seats in the impressive auditorium for the opening event, a colourful display of music and dance. The RTÉ cameras were at the ready as Mary Kennedy, in all her glory, gave details of the event to the Irish nation. Again, an atmosphere of pure joy prevailed as the entertainment got underway. Maura Nash, Eoin Nash and the newly appointed Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr Dara Murphy, added to the atmosphere with the opening words of inspiration and encouragement in their welcoming addresses.

The festival was run in conjunction with another local festival to promote inclusion and awareness. Each day public street performances took place on the Grand Parade from 12–3.00p.m.
We left City Hall to make way for the rehearsals of those due to perform in the song competition which was to take place on that evening.

The Dixie Dancers took a quick stroll through the streets of Cork City as we had to make our way back to the Cork School of Music for rehearsals. As we arrived, Mary Kennedy and her crew were filming outside. We duly made our way in to be greeted by very friendly volunteers. From the moment we entered this state-of-the-art building, the planning and smooth-running organisation of the whole event were clearly evident.

With sharp intakes of breath, we were shown to the waiting area behind the auditorium before going on stage where the performance would take place. After quick formalities of greeting and welcoming, the MC announced our arrival on stage and we proceeded to rehearse….stop…some positive critique from the co-ordinator of the dance category… ‘we are seeing the backs of people a lot of the time, is there any way we can rectify this?’ We changed course, but because it was not the way we had been practising all along, to coin a phrase, ‘we were all over the shop.’ ‘Stop! Don’t panic, we are running a little ahead of schedule so we have a bit of time to try and sort this out.’ Tensions and emotions were beginning to run high. However, we did manage a quick half-way run through our dance routine before we had to exit the stage to allow the next performers on. We were experiencing what I can only imagine professional artists are subjected to prior to a performance…all the lights, camera, and action stuff…extremely professional and somewhat daunting.

We returned to the accommodation feeling a little deflated! However, we heard from a number of others that their rehearsals had gone somewhat awry too. Quick showers, something to eat and we were back on the road again, making our way through the busy evening traffic to Cork City Hall to watch the song contest where Leonard, Ger and Jack were due to perform. The hall was packed to capacity. Each performance (individual and groups) was accompanied by a full orchestra. The acoustics in the hall was outstanding, as were the quality and calibre of the performances. Leonard, Ger and Jack gave their best rendition of Red is the rose. The evening ended with a performance from the Voices of Cork.

Thursday 18 June. Having donned our cowgirl hats, shirts, jeans and boots, we made our way to the Cork School of Music for the performance. Again, the professionalism of those involved in the dance section, from arrival to departure, gave each act their undivided attention and created a real feel-good factor for all involved. All the performances were televised, adding to the tension for the performers aiming to get it right first time! This was it, we were due to go on. Adrenaline pumping, excitement mounting, nerves slightly shattered, we were introduced and made our way on to the stage to a rapturous applause. The music filled the air, Frances counted us in, 5,6,7,8—it was all or nothing. The noise levels in the auditorium of loud music, lights blaring, hands clapping, feet tapping, the atmosphere was truly electric. We all seemed to relax once we took our place on stage.

Approximately six minutes later, we made our way off the stage—eventually. Some of the performers delirious with the attention from the audience and caught up in the moment of fame proceeded to do a lap of honour, hands waving in the air. It was over, once outside, there were high hand claps, emotional outbursts, followed by a group hug, all in all spirits were high partly due to the relief that the performance was over, that it had gone well, but also for the sense of achievement and pride of being involved in this amazing, uplifting event.

We had the added pleasure of making our way down to the spectator’s area just in time to watch the group from St Mary’s, Delvin, give a colourful performance of movement and music to their dance routine entitled Garden of the daisies.

When the winner of the dance section was announced, the elated Brian McSweeney (a graceful solo performer representing the Brothers of Charity Services, South East, Waterford) was presented with his trophy.

Meanwhile, our colleagues performing a scene from the musical Cats in the Drama Section were busy purr-fecting their performance at Firkin Crane. Unfortunately, the drama and dance performance times clashed, so we were unable to offer support to each other. But by all accounts the furry car seat covers doubling as costumes for the cats were considered quite a stroke of genius!

On the evening of 18 June, the men in smart attire, the women dressed to impress made their way to the finale of the event, an Awards Ceremony and dinner dance at the Silver Spring Moran Hotel. The evening began with entertainment, followed by dinner, the award ceremony and ended with dancing to a trendy jazz band until after midnight.

I recently spoke with Majella Smith, COPE Foundation, the liaison person for the dance section, who informed me that the adjudicators were honoured and privileged and felt humbled by the performers. The adjudicators had come willingly to give of their skills, but they left overwhelmed by the high calibre of the performances.

Friday 19 June came around all too quickly. An early rise, tired and weary after the events of the night before, the lifts at Edenhall were laden with people carting luggage for their homeward journey. Fond farewells to new-found friends, a barrage of voices echoed from the corridors and car parks—‘See ye next year!’

For me, the focus of this event was on the ability of all those involved. Splendid performances, incredible delivery and the brilliant direction made this a truly memorable event. A few final words to Simon Cowell & Co—WATCH THIS SPACE!, if you want to know how to do it right go to COPE Foundation, Cork.

Dixie Dancers
l-r back row: Breda Holohan, Marion Foley, Grainne Lee, Eileen Mullen, Theresa Mulligan, Frances Dalton.
l-r front row: Frances Dalton Jnr., Sandra Moran, Anne-Marie McDermott, Jill Kelly.

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