There is no mistaking Caitlin Crockard’s love of Irish dance. The Canadian-born dance teacher – who is of Northern Irish and German descent – has participated in the artform since she was 11 years old.
“I was actually considered a late starter at the time,” she tells Celtic Life International via email. “My friend Nuala – whose father was from Ireland – started Irish dancing. I had no idea what it was, but I think my parents asked me if I wanted to try it because I wouldn’t stop putting on made-up dance performances in the backyard. This gave me a structured outlet. My friend didn’t keep dancing for very long – but I sure did!”
Crockard continued to pursue her vocation throughout her teenage years, picking up Ottawa Valley-style step dancing in her 20s and Highland dance in her 30s.
“I started just on a lark, really. But I loved it immediately – the quick-footed and complex steps, and the balance between lighter soft shoe moves and the rhythm of hard shoe.
“These days, I love digging deeper – finding the connections between different Celtic dance forms, playing around with style, and still honoring tradition by learning more and more about where the steps came from and how they evolved. I no longer dance in the rigid, athletic competitive style of any of the dance forms I study – I just can’t train my body in that way anymore as my knees feel the literal impact of all those years of jumping around. I am not as sharp as I used to be, and my style has changed. As a result, I have adapted to a looser form that is actually more traditional in some ways – closer to, say, the sean nos style of Irish dance than the contemporary style.”
Although now retired from competitive dance, the 42-year-old continues to work as both an Irish dance teacher and choreographer with her company, the Celtic Cross Dancers.
“I started teaching like I started dancing – on a lark. A local teacher of a dance class stepped down, and I thought, ‘I could do that.’ And over the past 15 years or so, I learned a lot about teaching and how to adapt and grow with my students. I get immense pride from watching a little four-year-old finally get her first steps, or a teenager I have coached place at a competition, or an adult beginner finally start to get the rhythm of their first hard shoe dance.
“I love Celtic culture so much and I love sharing it. And more than that, I feel a responsibility to make sure Irish dance is taught safely. It has become more athletic over the years, and teachers in the past have had little fitness or injury-prevention training. I am happy to say that is slowly changing, and I have made it a priority to make sure I teach both effectively and safely – if only to prevent one person from ending up with wrecked knees like mine!”
The Celtic Cross Dancers – which welcomes a variety of students – blends Crockard’s three disciplines of dance, what she calls the “Celtic trifecta.”
And while she has many highlights from her competitive career, the work that she has done with her students remains her most cherished.
“We have had some unique gigs, including being a part of NYC’s Tartan Day parade, participating in the first-ever NYC Tattoo under the direction of world Highland champion Rachel McLagan, performing for the Queen at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, dancing for runners at Perth’s Kilt Run, and many more.”
Crockard has little fear about the future of Irish and Highland dance, noting the high volume of children who join her classes.
“We never seem to have a shortage of kids. The popularity of Celtic culture generally does seem to ebb and flow, but never dips too low to be forgotten. I think in a country like Canada, in particular – where many people are from somewhere else – there is always a keen interest in other cultures, including Celtic culture. And there are a lot of young musicians and dancers doing very exciting things these days on TikTok, Instagram, and other forms of social media. So, it is being shared more broadly.”
With the uncertainty of COVID-19 still looming in Canada, Crockard admits that she is uncertain what the next several months will hold.
“I am just hoping to actually start dance again. Things are slowly opening up where I am, in Ontario, and we will shortly be allowed to gather together in a dance studio again. I can’t wait to see my students and co-performers in person. We have all got to brush up on our technique, get back in shape, and then look forward to the resumption of regular performances. The pandemic has made me realize just how important dance is a part of my life. It is like returning to meet an old friend.”