Tracing the Growing Popularity of Irish Dance

Mar 15, 2013

This is the time of year, with its St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, that you may see Irish dancers, doing their elaborate kicking and stomping. The tradition goes back hundreds of years. Its popularity here is relatively new, although it continues thriving.

Rince Nia dancers at Irish Fest, wearing the trademark colorful dresses and curly wigs of Irish dance.

It usually starts with kids. Sean Beglan says once they begin Irish dancing, many are hooked. Beglan owns and teaches at Rince Nia Academy of Irish Dance in Glendale and Cedarburg.

“There’s something about Irish music that just lights something up inside the kid. They start dancing to music, then they’re dancing with their friends, and all of the sudden they’re dancing at Irish Fest, and they get that buzz of the thousands of people clapping for them at the end, and I think they just can’t get enough of it.”

Beglan speaks from experience. The Irishman stumbled into his native dance and never quit.

“My sister danced, I went off to dance with her, and I took to it quite quickly. And I never was one for outdoor sports, so I just happened to stick with Irish dance. Then, lo and behold, Riverdance came along, and I was like, ‘I wouldn’t mind doing that.’”

Riverdance is the touring Irish dance and music show that burst onto the scene in the 1990s, along with Lord of the Dance. Beglan became good enough to join the Riverdance troupe, and eventually became its lead.

This evening, students at his Glendale studio are leaping and stepping their way across the floor. Some take lessons for fun. Others perform with troupes. Then there are those who compete, locally – even globally.

Eight-year-old Eleanor Potter has been taking Irish dance classes since she was five. She describes the steps in “the reel,” the first routine she learned. Eleanor says the instructions run through her head when she’s dancing, and admits she even practices the footwork, under her desk, at school.

“I love to challenge myself and learn new steps, and even though it’s hard to do it, I look at the other dancers and have them help me.”

One of the older dancers here tonight is 21-year-old Chelsea Holloway. She’s been at it 14 years, and will compete this month in the World Irish Dancing Championships.

Holloway says she loves the challenge of Irish dance, even though some people who watch it don’t grasp the difficulty.

“They’re like, ‘oh, your legs really move fast,’ but they don’t realize how much stamina it takes for us to actually do what we do. Especially the difference between performing and actual competition. Like, the performance stuff is easy – I shouldn’t say easy, because that involves stamina, too -- but competition is twice as hard and twice the technique. It’s so much harder.”

In the last 15 years, Americans have made inroads in international competitions. They now stand toe-to-toe with dancers from Ireland and England, according to longtime Irish dance teacher, Dolores Taaffe. She recalls the first time she saw U.S. dancers from Trinity Academy of Irish Dance compete, in the 1998 world championships. Taaffe says they captivated the audience, and won accolades from judges.

“I remember in the middle, something that I’d never seen in dancing before. They went into this extremely, extremely fast movement -- never been seen in Irish dancing before -- and the audience actually stood on their feet. People were applauding and cheering and clapping while the Trinity dancers were actually performing on stage, and that is a very vivid memory. It’s something that wouldn’t have been the norm in Irish dance, when people would sit and watch the dance to the end, and then they would show their appreciation.”

Taaffe now teaches at Trinity. The Irish dance powerhouse has seven studios in the Chicago area and 11 in Wisconsin.

Mark Howard founded the school 30 years ago. He says Irish dance has become big in this part of the world, even among non-Irish people. In fact, Howard recalls one of the first Milwaukee teams he took to an international competition.

“There wasn’t a Murphy in there, or an O’Donnell – all German and polish names, all 16 dancers going there -- and they won, right out of the gate.”

Howard says what’s helped pushed Irish dance here to new levels is the Midwestern work ethic. He finds the can-do attitude especially strong in Milwaukee.

“Early on, when I wanted to go to the world championships in the mid-‘80s, in Chicago, I would sometimes have people say, ‘well, tell us how it goes, and maybe we’ll go next year.’ In Milwaukee, people would say, ‘seriously -- we could go to the world championships of Irish dancing? What do we have to do? How do we fund raise? Whether it’s a fish fry, a fashion show at the Pfister, you know, let’s get it done.’”

Howard says Irish dance first took root in the Midwest nearly 100 years ago, when a well-known teacher settled in Chicago. He says since then, many students who’ve competed at high levels or toured in shows have returned to teach.

If the pattern continues, these teenage girls at Rince Nia in Glendale may one day pass along the tradition.