How My Ballet Shoes Defined My Experience in Ireland

God bless late-night logic.

To say that I am not the best packer would be a strong understatement. My usual tactic is to stare at my suitcase for three straight days in complete denial of my impending departure.

One could say it’s less than productive.

Consequently, any time that I’m about to embark on some re-locating, I find myself burning my way through the midnight oil, numerous episodes of The Office, and, likely, some form of chocolate mere hours before I am meant to get on a plane. I spend all night convincing myself that I’m not freaking out about the multitude of things that could go wrong and praying I’ve remembered all the stuff I’m supposed to be bringing with me. This means that my packing decisions are, well, not always the most conventional.

Such was the case when I prepared to start my adventure as a participant in IFSA-Butler Ireland’s National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) program for the spring 2015 semester. As was expected, I assembled my luggage at the penultimate minute, stuffing as many warm dresses, sweaters, boots, socks, scarves, etc. as I could into my limited baggage. At the last moment, I had the urge to smoosh in two final things: a single black leotard and a pair of soft pink ballet shoes.

It didn’t make sense, and I had no explanation then, nor do I now, as to why I felt compelled to do this. When would those items possibly be of use to me as I studied literature and traipsed across bogs in the rain, hail, and cold? All I can say is: God bless late-night logic. Because my time abroad might have been drastically different had I left them behind.

Upon arrival in Ireland, the IFSA Ireland staff did an admirable job acclimating us green American students to the ways of the Irish university system and student culture. Something they emphasized was the opportunity we had to really make this experience our own by getting involved in the student-interest organizations—called either clubs (for sports) or societies, a.k.a. socs (for non-sports interests)—at our respective host universities. I didn’t think too much of this at the time, but I filed it away as a possible “to-do.”

Weeks later, I stumbled upon the Clubs & Socs Fair that NUIG hosts each semester: a massive hall filled to the brim with posters, tables, and people all showcasing their talents, hobbies, and passions. I quickly felt the instinct to become that kid. The one who signs up for more things than she can remember till she’s wandering around in a blissful haze of free goodies. But I reigned it in, telling myself I could only join three clubs or societies…or, okay, maybe five. Mountaineering Club and Baking Soc quickly made the list, and International Student Society was a no-brainer. As I was about to leave, I came upon a table I almost didn’t believe: Dance Society, affectionately called DanSoc NUIG.

I knew that I desperately wanted to be a part of this—I even, luckily, had the essential supplies. But I was hesitant.

The kind student officers told me all about their beloved society, how the students themselves organize weekly classes in a variety of dance styles, open to anyone who wants to join in. From curious beginners to near-professionals, DanSoc members unite in their love of this quasi-sport/quasi-art. It sounded like the stuff of dreams to me, because nothing like this exists at my home university. I knew that I desperately wanted to be a part of this—I even, luckily, had the essential supplies. But I was hesitant.

There were several things about getting involved with DanSoc NUIG that intimidated me. First of all, I am an introvert. Jumping into a highly social environment (as DanSoc proved to be) can be overwhelming, especially when abroad, so far from my cozy campus environment and well-established friendships. Finding the courage to go by myself to the weekly dance classes was no small task, either. I put on my big girl tights, though, and leaped. Soon, I found myself forking over the €2 per class to spend multiple evenings a week doing ballet and contemporary dance.

DanSoc NUIG Intervarsities 2015 Contemporary Routine

Before long, we were preparing for Dance Intervarsities, the national competition between dance societies from all the universities in Ireland, set to take place at the beginning of March. This brought new complications for me: though I have danced since I was three years old, I had never competed before. I knew how to handle performances, but competition was a wholly different beast. Preparation for intervarsities required immense dedication and quite a lot of time. By the last week before the competition, we were spending every available hour practicing. I went to sleep each night exhausted and with aching muscles, yet genuinely joyful.

When we arrived at the University of Limerick, host of the 2015 competition, we began a whirlwind of a weekend that, frankly, blends together in great swathes in my memory. From check-in we went straight to the stage for our technical rehearsal. To our great dismay, the marley floor—a special type of vinyl flooring favored by many dancers—we’d been promised was nowhere to be found. Nevertheless, we dove into the competition atmosphere with gusto, determined to demonstrate what our comparatively-small but mighty team could do. Again and again we ran through our routines, till the only difference between rehearsing backstage and performing for the crowd was the material beneath our feet.

After all the categories had been completed, all the universities represented, all the sweat and glitter swept from the stage, it was time. Breath bated, we hoped our name would get called; surely at least one of our routines had been worthy of award. But as each winner was announced, the likelihood of us walking away without a plaque became more and more real. Despite this, we cheered on our fellow dancers, congratulating them on their success. As we left, we joked about how we’d been overlooked, though without conviction. We did not need an award to know we’d spent our time well.

My time with DanSoc taught me, among other things, that it’s okay—even do-able—to insert yourself into a new community. Likely, they’ll be excited to share a common interest with you and get to know you. Furthermore, a little friendly competition doesn’t hurt. Seeing all the DanSoc students from around Ireland come together was incredible. Of course everyone hoped their team would walk away having placed, but we were much more interested in enjoying the experience and in challenging each other to be the best we can be. A trophy means little compared to the feel of pursuing your passions. Lastly, I learned that it’s absolutely worth it to give your time, your energy, and your body to something you love in order to create something lovely with similarly-focused people.

They promised us marley, and they did not provide. But that’s okay, because we had something better.

Whether you are reading this as a student considering study abroad, one who’s in the thick of it, or one reflecting on their past adventures, there’s something I want you to take from my experience. Perhaps you need a push to commit to studying abroad. Perhaps you’re worried about lonesomeness, homesickness, boredom, etc. along the way. Or perhaps you are trying to reconcile the time you spent abroad with the seemingly-infinite question marks you have ahead of you. Whatever the case, I want to tell you that study abroad is an opportunity for you to learn how to shape the experiences you have in this life, both now and for the rest of your life. Embrace that which scares you. Pursue that which matters to you. And bring along that which you know you shouldn’t leave behind.

Tracy Kinealy is an English major at the University of Tulsa and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at NUI Galway in Galway, Ireland.

Article by Tracy Kinealy