Hula-hooping, the Wild West, cooking, singing, training the Jedi way - you don't need 'ologies' to get the most out of the huge range of night classes now available writes Fionola Meredith
'YOU CAN'T think how to hula-hoop," says Maryke del Castillo, circus skills tutor at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast. "You've just got to feel it."
Easier said than done: no matter how enthusiastically I gyrate my hips, my glittery purple hula-hoop keeps on clattering to the floor. I haven't tried hula-hooping since I was eight years old, and I seem to remember I was terrible at it then as well. Still, despite the sweaty indignity of it all, it's curiously addictive. And I'm not alone. There are eight other women in the class, all gamely squatting, shimmying and swivelling their hips alongside me - and exchanging rueful giggles when it all goes wrong.
Sociable, challenging, something a bit different - it's the quintessential evening-class experience. Of course, autumn is the traditional time to enrol, and over the next few weeks, hundreds of colleges, universities and educational institutions will be opening their doors to the public. Darkening evenings and lingering memories of the new school year - the pleasures of freshly sharpened pencils and pristine notebooks - put many people in mind of a return to the classroom.
Although some attend accredited night classes to gain extra qualifications - especially since the economic downturn - others sign up purely for pleasure. And it's here that the evening class really comes into its own, opening up an extraordinary variety of quirky, unexpected and colourful disciplines that often reflect the consuming passions of the course tutors. Yes, of course, all the usual suspects are here, and if you fancy learning holiday Italian, brushing up on your wine-tasting or first-aid skills, or trying your hand at aromatherapy massage, you'll be spoilt for choice. But why not go off the beaten track and take a course on Gothic architecture, or post-colonial literature, or bee-keeping, or the American Wild West?
The idea of learning for learning's sake may be disappearing in the mainstream, qualification- oriented educational sphere, but it's alive and flourishing in the evening-class world.
"Love of learning is the backbone of what we do, that wonderful spirit of enjoyment for it's own sake," says Tess Maginess, who directs the open learning programme at Queen's University Belfast. "There's a luxury in spending two hours talking about one poem."
Evening classes tend to be democratic places, too. As Maginess says: "You don't need 'ologies' or prior qualifications, these classes are open to any person who wants to learn."
What's more, there's often an impressively wide age range among the participants, from teenagers to pensioners, and that can add an extra dynamic to the group. When Sean, a television producer, signed up for a men-only cookery class, he was motivated by "a desire to move beyond the staple diet of baked beans on toast and having the microwave as your best friend". He left with an increased confidence in his culinary abilities, but it's the people he met there that really made an impression.
"Two guys cooked at the bench opposite me: Brian was a 66-year-old widower and Adam was a 17-year-old learning how to cook before he went to university, where he reckoned he'd be a hit. Every week they left the classroom carrying their pots and chatting about life, but separated by nearly 50 years. For me, that's the real genius of the evening course," he says.
RACHEL DEMPSEY, an ethnomusicologist and singer who runs a course called Global Harmonies at the Carmelite Community Centre in Dublin, welcomes a widely diverse group of students to her inter-cultural class, from jaded choristers to asylum seekers. It's open to everyone, regardless of whether they consider themselves good singers or not.
"It's the equivalent of going to Mass," she says. "People come for the healing power of voice and sound, and it's an exciting opportunity to sing with those from other cultures."
Dempsey introduces her students to songs and chants from all over the world, especially Latin American and reggae rhythms, and there is plenty of vocal improvisation (Dempsey starts the group off with a phrase or a tune, then everyone comes in with their own variation on the theme). Later in the evening, there is the opportunity to take part in a "primal hum", in which participants enter "a deep state of consciousness through chant".
Meanwhile, back at Queen's, Dr Allen Baird is preparing a workshop in a very different vein of personal development. In November, he will deliver a one-day course called Feel the Force: How to Train the Jedi Way. Evidently there's no need to travel to a galaxy far, far away to learn about Star Warsphilosophy. Baird encourages prospective students to "battle your dark side . . . and begin your own hero quest", and he promises an insight into the "real-life psychological techniques behind Jedi mind-tricks: mindfulness, instinct, serenity, empathy, influence, flow".
As the only Jedi course in the UK and Ireland, Baird's initiative has already received an enormous amount of attention: "I was on Danish radio talking about it, and they wanted to know if I would be teaching mind control."
Young men - not usually willing participants in personal development courses - are the target here, and Baird hopes that his imaginative approach will introduce them to the joys of lifelong learning. (He admits that light sabres will not be included in the enrolment fee.)
One evening class where you would expect to see plenty of young men signing up is the traditional motorcycle maintenance course. But it turns out that such classes are pretty thin on the ground these days, and where they do happen, it's just as likely to be women who are wielding the greasy spanners.
Donal Digan, director of adult education at Pobalscoil Rosmini in Dublin, which offers a bike maintenance course, says that with traffic congestion worsening in recent years, many people, both men and women, have opted for the nippier motorbike, and they are keen to learn how to keep it running smoothly. Course tutor Martin Cummins talks them through the spark plugs, chains and sprockets.
"The girls are better at it than the fellows - they really get their sleeves rolled up," he says.
SURELY A CONTENDER for the most popular leisure course in Ireland, and something of a cultural phenomenon in its own right, is 82-year-old Edith Devlin's weekly class on world literature at Queen's University Belfast. Now in its 40th year, the course involves between 300 and 400 students, and 350 are already signed up for next year's course. What's her secret?
"I'm the only one offering the real classics," says Devlin. "That's why so many people come back year after year. Two come up from Dublin, 10 come from Derry and one person comes from Sligo. This term we're doing Rousseau and Augustine, and I try to show how great literature is just as relevant today as it ever was."
Devlin taught her first extra-mural class in world literature back in 1968.
"It was called Love and the Woman Novelist," she says. "I remember I included Edna O'Brien and someone asked me if I was teaching a dirty books class."
Firm friendships have grown between the students and the tutor, and together the class has taken literary and cultural trips to the Middle East, South Africa and Namibia.
Despite her age, Devlin has no intention of retiring any time soon. "You can keep this on till you drop," she quips. That's the true spirit of lifelong learning.
Fight clubs and star-gazingEvening class acts
If you fancy trying a spot of theatrical violence, why not sign up for a course in stage combat at the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin? Taught by Equity fight director Paul Burke, the course is open to all and covers rapier, sword, dagger and unarmed combat (www.gaietyschool.com).
Or, for those who prefer an insight into the real thing, University College Cork is offering a course called The Criminal Mind. An introduction to forensic and criminal psychology, it will include offender profiling and crime scene analysis (www.ucc.ie).
A gentler option would be the grow your own mushrooms course, at the Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co Leitrim, where you can also take classes in home-made remedies for the winter months, or try your hand at felt-making (www.theorganiccentre.ie).
Meanwhile, budding star-gazers can sign up for one of Astronomy Ireland's courses in Letterkenny, Tralee, Limerick and other venues across the country (www.astronomy.ie).
For something completely different, the Open Learning programme at Queen's University Belfast offers So You Want to be President?, an analysis of post-war US presidential elections that will reveal the best way to get into the White House (www.qub.ac.uk/edu).
For general information on evening classes, go to;