Irish Dancer Legs
Irish dancing is one of the oldest forms of dance, with some historians dating its beginnings from as far back as 1600 BC, and yet it is more popular today than ever, especially here in Southwest Florida. For many local families, Irish dance is more than just another afterschool activity. It’s their way of celebrating centuries’ old traditions and maintaining a connection to the past while forging new, lifelong friendships.
“When I started to dance, I danced to honor my grandmother,” says Patricia Oxx, who runs Tir Na Nog Academy of Irish Dance in Naples. “She was from Ireland and born on St. Patrick’s Day. As I got older, I began to understand the history of Ireland and the sacrifices that Irish Americans made to come here. Irish dance is part of that culture and something that needs to be continued for my generation and for future generations.”
“When I started Irish dance, it was just what you did as an Irish American,” says Michael O’Hare, director of Flanagan-O’Hare School of Irish Dance in Naples. “All four of my grandparents were from Ireland. On Saturday mornings, you went to the Irish club, and you learned the penny whistle and you learned to Irish dance. It was strictly a cultural thing.”
Says Claire Gorman, co-owner (along with sister Catherine Gorman) of Celtic Spirit School of Irish Dance in Naples, “You are carrying on a tradition. There are dance steps that have been passed down from generation to generation to generation.”
But you don’t need to be Irish to learn how to Irish dance. Even the oldest traditions change in time.
“Over the years, it’s evolved,” O’Hare says. “I have kids from every cultural and ethnic group taking lessons from me.”
The more modern version of Irish dance is what started Catherine and Claire Gorman, as well as many other boys and girls across the globe, on their dance careers.
According to Claire, her sister saw “Riverdance” on television when the Catherine was seven and Claire was five, and said “I want to do that!” The younger sister, of course, wanted to do the same as her older sister, and now, “We’ve been dancing our whole lives,” Claire says.
The traditional dance form of Ireland, Irish dancing is characterized by quick feet and leg movements, with the arms andbody usually kept straight and stationary. There are varying accounts of how this style developed. Some point to a belief among Catholic priests that hand movements in dance were evil, while others maintain that the small spaces available for dancing in Irish homes necessitated the limited upper body movements.
Children as young as four years old can start Irish dance lessons (the minimum age varies among schools). Dancers wear soft shoes, called grilles, which are soft leather (somewhat similar to ballet shoes) and progress to wearing hard shoes. Students learn both individual and group dances.
All of the Irish dance schools perform throughout the year — at festivals, weddings, assisted living facilities, etc. — but the busiest day of the year is, of course, St. Patrick’s Day. To meet the large demand from the community, schools divide students into teams, and tackle several performances on the day. “It’s hard work for those young kids, some who only five years old, to start at 5 p.m. and finish at 10 p.m. But they are loving every minute of it. It has become a competitive sport, and they train and practice as if they were doing any other sport,” O’Hare says. “St. Patrick’s Day is when you can relax and have fun with it.” His school is nearly booked up for next year.
“It’s a fun bonding time because there’s so much going on,” says Julia Lupu of Naples. Her daughter, Mina, is 10 years old and has been dancing for four years with Tir Na Nog, while her six-year-old son Taurin has been dancing for the past year. “You really get to know people during St. Patrick’s Day performances because you spend so much time together. You carpool together, help everyone into their dresses, eat together,” she says.“It’s also fun to see everyone in the community and their attachment to their Irish roots.”
Kimberly Knaub, artistic director and co-owner, along with sister Jami Knaub, of Kellyn Celtic Arts Irish Dance Academy refers to the St. Patrick’s dance season as “March Madness.” Rightly so, as her school tackles more than 10 performances on the day, and nearly 50 during the weeks leading up to and after March 17. “The kids love it,” she says. “It’s a bonding experience. It’s not like anything else, and we talk about it forever—the crazy things that happen as we go from fine dining establishments to dancing on grass to a pub and everything in between. It’s exhausting. It’s who we are, it’s what we do.”
Dancing toward the dress
When Pat Oxx started Tir Na Nog in 1998, she was the only Irish dance school in Collier County. Celtic Arts Irish Dance Academy followed in 2003, and in 2009, Celtic Spirit opened its doors. The most recent addition is Flanagan-O’Hare, which is startingits fourth year in Naples. With four schools in our community, families can decide if a performance-based school or competition-based school is the best fit for their children.
Tir Na Nog dancers focus on group performances, so rather than striving for medals, the (female) students’ goal is “the dress”. After progressing from soft shoes to hard, the female students know that the next step is being presented with one of the coveted purple velvet dresses to wear during performances. “The dresses are a rite of passage—and they are beautiful and traditional. It means a lot to the girls,” says Lupu.
The progression of individual students at Tir Na Nog “totally depends on whether they have taken other dance lessons, their age, their motor skill levels, and their determination and willingness to take on the challenge,” Oxx says. “Some students progress faster than others — we don’t hold back kids back who are moving at a faster pace. One of the benefits of having a performance-based school is moving at your own pace. The individual dances don’t have to be as strong but you can still feel successful.”
Kellyn Celtic Arts also is performance-based, “because we are more interested in the art form of the dance,” Knaub explains “But some dancers do compete. It’s a facet of the dance, but it’s just one of many facets, and I don’t think it should be exalted above the others. Competitions and performances are options, not requirements.”
What is a feis?
Flanagan-O’Hare students often can be found on weekends at an Irish dance competition, or
feis (pronounced fesh ), although O’Hare notes that some students choose not to compete. There are around 200 feiseanna (the plural of feis) held in the country each year. “People will travel extensively to the competitions,” he says. “Families tie a vacation to a feis or turn a feis into a vacation.”
Beginners often start with Flanagan-O’Hare in the fall, and progress to their first feis the following Memorial Day weekend. The top dancers compete at various qualifiers for the chance to go to the World Championships. One Flanagan-O’Hare dancer has already qualified for 2017 Worlds, and O’Hare expects several of his Naples dancers to qualify for the event.
“Although our school is young and new in Naples, we’ve really taken off and we really have a high standard,” O’Hare says.
Celtic Spirit students also compete (although some also choose not to). A feis is “a great life experience,” says Claire Gorman. “You typically compete on your own, but there is this wonderful camaraderie among the girls. Everyone is cheering for you. You build a dance family, without question. It’s great to have that support.”
Not just for girls
O’Hare notes that television shows such as Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance have boosted interest in all types of dance, especially among boys. “The stigma isn’t there with boy dancers any more,” he says.
“Irish dance has an athleticism that other types of dance doesn’t necessarily have,” explains Oxx. “If you watch a dance-off between two male dancers, you realize that it’s not something that just girls do. (Male dancers) have an ease about them — they make it look effortless and they make it look easy, and I know it’s not.”
Knaub notes, “It’s a very strong dance. It’s a very masculine dance. It provides that foot motion, that agility, that quickness that is essential for any sport. I would pit an Irish dancer against any athlete.”
Besides, she adds, “Girls like men who can dance. It’s good for the soul.”
Traditions and heritage aside, why are kids and parents in Southwest Florida turning Irish dance? A common thread is friendship, and the strong bonds that develop among dancers, as well as the dancers’ families.
“There is a sense of community amongst the parents, and a sense of something valuable being built through time. It means something when I see the older girls doing their dances, and how great they are. There’s continuity and a path to something great, and you can see it every time you are there. There’s a sense of family, caring, and community, and everyone is contributing to something worthwhile,” says Lupu.
“Irish dancing creates this bond that continues to hold through adulthood,” says Oxx. “I still have friends from Irish dancing that I grew up with. I thought it was an experience unique to me. But it’s not.” She notes that Tir Na Nog dancers who have gone off to college make a point of getting together when in Naples on breaks, and also often come back to visit rehearsals, or even perform with the group.
“The dancers form lifelong friendships,” O’Hare says. “Our kids come from Cape Coral, Marco Island, Miami—they are having sleepovers and taking trips together. The camaraderie is so important. It’s not all about winning a medal at a feis.”
And then there is the most basic reason of all for choosing Irish dance. As O’Hare points out, “Kids have lots of energy, and where else can you jump around, make lots of noise, and exercise all at the same time?”
Photos by Rachel Durik/Savor Photography