Brigid Howes took Irish step dancing lessons when she was 7 years old, in her native County Mayo, Ireland. Sixty years later, she sits in the cafeteria at Sandymount Elementary School on Saturday afternoons, watching her granddaughter learn Irish step dancing.
The dances have changed a bit in the past half century, Mrs. Howes said. For example, the hop has a higher kick. But the basic steps remain the same and she is able to help 5-year-old Sarah "Sadie" Howes practice. "Are you going to teach me tonight what you learned?" Mrs. Howes asked as Sadie finished her lesson.
Serendipity brought the first ethnic dancing in Carroll County Recreation Council history to Sandymount.
"I wish I could say it was planning," said Pamela Malkin, Sandymount Recreation Council community coordinator.
The Sandymount council was looking for new programs in the fall of 1994. A neighbor of council President Jody Ledford mentioned that her sister-in-law taught Irish dancing. Did Ms. Ledford think anyone would be interested?
"I said, 'Let's put it out and see,' " Ms. Ledford recalled.
The first class in September attracted 10 students from as far as Columbia. Instructor Linda M. McHale has eight students enrolled for the current eight-week session in two classes, beginner and intermediate beginner.
Students are getting started the way Ms. McHale got started 25 years ago. She wanted to dance, but not ballet, jazz or tap. Ms. McHale's mother, a native of County Mayo, took her to classes conducted by Baltimore's Gohagan School of Irish Dancing when she was 9. "It's one of those things that your parents enroll you in and you're either going to love it or hate it," Ms. McHale said.
She loved it.
"Dancing to me is a release, like people go to the gym and work out," she said. "But it's also an emotional escape. You just get tranced between the music and your feet, and escape."
Ms. McHale teaches weekly children's step (individual) dancing classes in Overlea and Sandymount and three evening ceili (group) dancing classes for adults. The children's classes usually are filled by youngsters of Irish descent whose parents want them to learn about their cultural heritage, Ms. McHale said.
Heritage prompted Dawn Ryan of Union Mills to bring her daughter Ceili, 5, to the dance classes. "My husband is nouveau Irish -- he's found his roots," she said.
Each Irish dancing school has its own costume and colors. Female students in Ms. McHale's Innis Na Glas (Island of Green) School of Irish Dancing wear short teal A-line dresses hand embroidered with Celtic designs. Male students usually wear walking shorts with dress shirts and black velvet ties.
Male dancers traditionally wore knickers, Ms. McHale said. Some now wear kilts in competition, but elementary and middle school boys generally aren't eager to put on kilts, so she decided on with walking shorts. Ms. McHale's students perform for the Maryland General Assembly each year shortly before St. Patrick's Day.
They also dance at Baltimore's annual Irish festival, in nursing homes and at family reunions. They march in Baltimore's annual St. Patrick's Day parade, but dancing during the parade would be too much.
"We'd all be in coronary care," Ms. McHale said.
Ms. McHale's students are eligible to compete in feis (dance competitions) because she is a certified teacher, having passed the rigorous Irish Dancing Commission three-day exam in January 1994.
The instructor has mixed feelings about competitions.
"It's really good for the child and helps the child work, but it's also very difficult for a child to go into competition with 30 other kids and they give three prizes," she said.