IRISH DANCE PICKS UP THE PACE.
Last month, Darrah Carr described the intense competition circuit of Irish dancing that produces highly trained performers and is an important force in the evolution of its intricate steps. Winners of the Oireachtas--regional competitions held nationwide--maintain heavy practice schedules and face increased pressure as returning champions, due to the higher standards for competition that have developed in the last five to ten years. While some observers have postulated that Broadway shows featuring Irish dance have challenged existing standards of technical proficiency, others claim that the artistry was already there; the difference is in Irish dance's newfound exposure and accessibility.
At the 2000 Eastern Regional Oireachtas in Philadelphia last November, many dancers, teachers and adjudicators maintained that the steps done by an individual competitor are more complex than those done by the line of dancers in Riverdance or Lord of the Dance. One reason for this is that dancers in a show must execute steps in perfect unison, hence the sequences are more repetitive. The powerful effect of unison movement and the speed with which show steps are performed makes the choreography visually exciting to the audience. Mary Lou Schade, the founder of the Schade Academy in New York, explains, "Audiences appreciate faster feet. Even when we do school performances, we speed up the music. In Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, the music is very fast, so it makes the steps look very difficult. In competitive dancing, on the other hand, there are regulated tempi. For example, the hornpipe must be danced between 112 and 116 [beats per minute]. At that speed, you can fit more intricate material into a bar of music."
Thus, in competitive dancing, tempi stay the same while the material escalates in difficulty. Karen Petri, co-founder of the New York-based Petri School, describes this tendency as "an inevitable competitive evolution," and explains, "If you look back in time, you can trace the escalation of the technique. Fifty to seventy-five years ago, they used to dance low to the floor, and they didn't stand as stiffly, either." Mary Kay Henegan, founder of the Rince Na Tiarna School of Irish Dance in Buffalo, New York (whose team dancers won an amazing thirteen first places, two second places and one third place in the sixteen competitions they entered), also attributes this noticeable escalation to the nature of competition in general. "Once you make dance competitive, you have to consider what to do to make your dancer stand out," Henegan said. "There is the sense of keeping up with the Joneses, which applies to both the increase in technical difficulty of the steps as well as the increasingly elaborate costumes."
Fifteen-year-old Meghan Reilly, a five-time Oireachtas winner from the Peter Smith School in New Jersey, echoes Henegan's sentiments and notes the parallels between step development and costume design. She remarks, "The demand of winning pushes teachers to think of something new, so the steps are constantly evolving. It's the same thing with the costumes. You never would have seen a fluorescent-yellow dress before. Everything has become more eye-catching." Theresa Wall, a 21-year-old dancer from the New York-based Verlin School who has won the Oireachtas six times, agrees: "Times change; things become more modern and more elaborate. Before, my mom would've just made my costume!" (Dancers who win in their age category typically speak of "winning the Oireachtas," though they haven't won the whole event.)
As the pressure and the practice hours have increased, costumes have become ever more elaborate--and expensive. A female costume replete with embroidered Celtic designs can cost up to $1,500, while a pair of hard shoes costs over $100. Furthermore, beyond the regional Oireachtas there exists an entire international competition circuit that attracts many of these champion dancers. It is not uncommon for dancers at the top levels to attend one or more of the following annual events: the Nationals, the All Scotlands, the All Irelands, the Great Britains, the British Nationals and the World Championships.
In May another competition will be introduced to the circuit, the European Step Dance Championships, this year in Barcelona, Spain. Donny Golden, founder of the Golden School in New York, explains the importance of obtaining results: "Today, there are so many more options for kids to pursue that if one is going to put time and money into Irish dance, one wants to see progress. Before, when Irish dance was more of a social and cultural activity, it was like your religion--you had to go; it wasn't about if you chose to go or not."
Today, more people than ever before are choosing to attend Irish dance class. In the past five years, schools across the board have enjoyed huge jumps in enrollment since Riverdance and Lord of the Dance catapulted Irish dance to the forefront of public attention. Increased public awareness and appreciation of the form have also led to a diversification of the ethnic backgrounds of Irish dance's practitioners. Christina Ryan, founder of the Ryan School in Pennsylvania, estimates that up to two-thirds of her students aren't of Irish descent.
The sharp spike in enrollment has somewhat tapered off, however. Patsy McLoughlin, co-founder of the McLoughlin School in New York and New Jersey, explains, "Some of the new students might have come in and thought they would automatically look like the Irish dancers on television. When they realized this would take years to occur, they lost interest."
Nevertheless, for many others the televised programs have served as a large motivational factor. Mary Kay Henegan remarks, "Riverdance has put a picture in a kid's mind of what he or she could be. Now a child can pop in a video and watch incredible world champions fly around the stage, and say: That is what it should look like. It is a very powerful visual image. The term `Riverdancing' has become its own genre, like `Xeroxing.'"
Regardless of whether these newcomers become champion dancers or not, they will still receive all of the benefits that the study of Irish dance brings. The first-place winners that I spoke to, whom one might expect to have nothing but tunnel vision for trophies, were actually very quick to point out the multiple ways in which Irish dance has greatly enriched their lives: the deep friendships, travel opportunities, personal discipline and connection to their Irish heritage.
Twenty-two-year-old Joseph Seletski of the Golden School in New York, who has won the Oireachtas for the past three years in a row, believes "Irish dancing has made me much more professional and responsible at work. Plus, I've done so much traveling with it. If it weren't for Irish dancing, I probably never would have left my own backyard."
Many of the champions I spoke with shared Seletski's healthy perspective on competition and gave similar advice. Twelve-year-old Kaitlin West from the McLoughlin school said, "I'm just glad I got the chance to experience winning. If it happens again, great. If not, it gives me something to look forward to the following year." Siobhan Mackin, a 19-year-old dancer from the New Jersey-based De Nogla School and another three-time Oireachtas winner, counsels, "When you walk onstage, put your heart into it. Then, when you walk off, you can say, `OK, that is how I danced. I can't change it, because I can't change time, but at least I know I gave it my best because my heart was in it.' Also, set goals for yourself that are not too high. As you work up to it and reach your goal, set your next one. It is like a flight of stairs; you take one step at time until you finally reach the top."
For many dancers, the goals they set for themselves along the way stem from very personal motivations. When 18-year-old Tim Kochka, of the New Jersey- and Pennsylvania-based Davis Academy, won second place in the Worlds last year, it was especially poignant because the competition was held in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He danced and won in the city that his grandparents came from and had the added support of many relatives who still live in Belfast. Or take the case of 12-year-old Sean Tierney from the Inishfree School in New York, who has won the Oireachtas three times, as well as the All Irelands on the flute. Sean's late grandfather, John Dillon, was an excellent step dancer from County Clare. Not only does Sean bear the Gaelic version of his grandfather's name, but his family claims that he was "given granddad's feet." His mother explains, "Now Sean wants to win the Worlds in memory of my father. So there is a bit of determination there."
This sense of legacy pervades the Irish dance world. Christina Ryan, one of the chairs of this year's Oireachtas, describes the moment when her own daughter, Maura, won second in the Under-10 category, "I was thinking of the people who taught me, thinking that I was an extension of them. Then, when my own little one got second, not only did I feel proud, but I felt that this win was for my teachers, too." In a sweet coincidence, Kevin Broesler, the other chair of the Oireachtas, experienced a similar joy when his own son, Ryan, won first place in the Under-8 category. For the Broesler family, teacher legacy and family history are even more intertwined. Kevin studied first under Jerry Mulvihill and then under Donny Golden. He met his wife, Catherine Jennings Broesler, through the Irish dancing scene. She was a dancer for the Verlin School and won the Oireachtas herself at the age of 9. Incidentally, Catherine's brother, John Jennings, is a World Champion dancer who currently teaches as well.
There are numerous examples of families in the Eastern Region with multiple
siblings who are currently teaching or competing. Patsy McLoughlin has been teaching in New Jersey and New York for thirty-two years. Her brother James Early, sister Karen Conway and daughter Deirdre all teach as well. In addition, her son Chris plays music for com petitions. Mary Lou Schade has also been teaching in New York for thirty-two years. Her daughter Mary Ann now teaches for the school at a New Jersey location. Both the Petri School of New York and the De Nogla School of New Jersey are run by sister teams, Lisa and Karen and Alison and Jennifer, respectively. Donald and Sheila Hunt, on the other hand, run their Long Island-based school as a brother-sister team.
The family dimension softens the edges of and strengthens the loyalties within a competitive world that could otherwise feel very intense. Even dancers without immediate family involved in Irish dancing discover that the feeling of family becomes projected onto their dancing school. Amy Siegel describes the Peter Smith School as "one big family, my surrogate family," while Joe Seletski says, "Going to the Oireachtas is like going to a mini-family reunion. I've been involved with this organization from the ages of 4 to 22 and have made so many close friends through it."
Darrah Carr is a New York City-based writer and choreographer who recently completed her MFA at New York University.