Bad arm, bitter pill: Ex-Irish dancer tells all

Private dancer: Maire Clerkin comes clean, in “The Bad Arm.” Photo by John Funk

She finds redemption though retrospection

BY SCOTT STIFFLER  |  Those artful jigs. Those brilliantly executed hornpipes. Those tapping toes. Those long, high-flying legs. Sweet, hardworking, skilled little Maire Clerkin would be the very picture of Irish dancing’s graceful ideal…if it weren’t for that one protruding, silhouette-destroying arm. That bad, bad arm. Poor thing. She’ll never grow up to hoof it in “Riverdance” — let alone win the approval of her gifted, stern, dance teacher/mother.

In the cutthroat world of competitive Irish dancing (as with so many other things in life), the line between utter perfection and a piss-poor second place effort is as razor-thin as is it subjective. No doubt about it, though — nobody gives out trophies (or even tepid compliments) to little girls who can’t keep that flailing, rouge right arm under control.

Good thing for us, though, that when it comes to the quest for validation by way of an audience’s applause, Maire Clerkin simply refused to be denied. “The Bad Arm: Confessions of a Dodgy Irish Dancer” is her way of setting the record straight, getting even and reclaiming the glory that was (and still is!) so obviously hers. Every well-deserved laugh this perennial runner-up gets registers on her face as both sweet victory and cold revenge — and although it fails to erase completely the bitterness that comes with clinging to decades-old slights, we love her for it.

Maybe that’s because Clerkin’s tale is so recognizable. Ever pine for approval from a parent for whom great wasn’t good enough? Clerkin’s got a tale for you. Ever want to be good at something you knew you didn’t have the capacity for? Clerkin’s got you beat there. Ever drink a priest under the table the night before your big Irish Dance Judge’s Exam, then vomit the next morning in front of a packed dance hall full of parents, children and peers?

Hey, we’ve all been there. The difference between Clerkin’s life journey and ours, of course, is that she had the savvy (and the drive) to put it all down on paper — then find a fine Irish director (Dan O’Connor) — then rehearse, then book the show into FringeNYC, then make the arduous journey to Gotham, then proceed to win our hearts by dancing and emoting for sixty breathless minutes.

Clearly, this is a formidable woman who can get what she wants when she decides to go for it…except when it comes to controlling that bad arm that just won’t sit still (an essential skill, since Irish dancing requires a flurry of activity beneath the waist and absolute stillness above it). Perhaps that’s why, in a moment of weakness, a scrappy young Clerkin heeds the advice of a helpful rival and pins that bad arm to her dress. Having tamed her fatal flaw, Clerkin easily wins first place. Her guilty trip up the aisle — followed by her inability to reach out for that trophy — is a high water mark in a show filled with moments of clarity, insight, loose morals and moral victories.

All solo shows should be so lucky to end as this one does — with a frenzied Irish dance montage which tells the previous hour’s narrative. That brilliant conceit — placing the overture right before the final curtain — makes the final moments of this classic underdog tale a bittersweet joy to watch.

THE BAD ARM: CONFESSIONS OF A DODGY IRISH DANCER FringeNYC shows run through Aug. 28, 2pm-midnight weekdays and noon-midnight on weekends. Tickets: $15 in advance at FringeNYC.org or 866-468-7619; $18 at the door. Discount passes for multiple shows. For show dates, times and venue info, visit FringeNYC.org.