For performers, it's more than just a jig

A surge in popularity has students turning to Irish dancing for family, fun and fitness


The way Libby Green sees it, the recent history of Irish dancing can be divided into two distinct eras: pre-Riverdance and post-Riverdance.

"Shortly after Riverdance premiered, the Baltimore area had two Irish dance schools. Now, there are about 10," said Green, a Harford resident and former administrator for the Ryan School of Irish Dance in Bel Air.

Not only has the interest in Irish dancing surged in the decade since the popular theatrical show debuted 10 years ago, but demand for practitioners near St. Patrick's Day has shot up as well, say local dancers and instructors.

Students and alumni from Ryan will be among those performing in St. Patrick's Day parades today in Baltimore and Philadelphia. And school administrators say they typically receive numerous requests for "dance outs" - appearances at pubs, restaurants and places like nursing homes around the region.

"This is an intense but fun time of year," said Michelle Hammond, an Abingdon resident who has two daughters enrolled at the school. "The kids perform often, but it helps hone their dance skills for the upcoming competitions."

Modern Irish dancing got its biggest boost in recent years from Riverdance, which debuted in 1995 and showcased traditional Irish step dancing.

"Riverdance revealed to the world an art form that it did not know existed," said Mark Howard, the founder of the Trinity Academy of Irish Dance in Chicago, which refers to itself as the largest such school in the world. "As a result, [Irish dance] became a phenomenon and North America became the birthplace of progressive Irish dance. The art form has to have a place to live and breathe and move, and Riverdance has given it that."

The Ryan school was founded by Christina Ryan, a Pennsylvania resident who operates five branches of the school in three states. The Bel Air branch opened nine years ago with 12 students. Enrollment peaked at about 100 two years ago. About 60 students are currently enrolled, said Hammond, who is a parent coordinator at the school.

Ryan said her students like that the dance form is constantly evolving.

"There's always something new to learn in Irish dancing," she said. "Once you learn a reel, you add onto it the next year."

Another appeal is the opportunity to perform solo.

"And it's not like ballet or tap where you typically dance as a group," Ryan said. "Irish dancers get the spotlight on their own performance."

The school holds classes at Emmanuel Episcopal Church and sometimes performs at events there. The Rev. Paul Moser said the dancers personify the connection to the church's Celtic heritage.

"The dancers seem to belong here. ... They bring a lot of joy to us when they perform," Moser said.

Many Ryan students are following in the footsteps of older siblings. One extreme example is the Cahill family of Newark, Del., which has seven children - ages 6 to 16 - attending the Harford school.

"Irish dancing keeps us together," said Darlene Cahill, who travels an hour to take her children to the school each week. "It makes life so much easier when all seven kids do the same activity. When we go to a competition, everyone is there."

Cahill also likes that the activity keeps her kids active.

"Irish dance helps my kids stay fit," Darlene said. "It teaches them discipline and that hard work pays off."

Cahill's 15-year-old daughter Maria started dancing at age 6 after seeing a demonstration at the school. She said dancing teaches her discipline, patience.

"Irish dancing has taught me that it's up to me whether or not I do well," she said.

Meanwhile, Maria's 11-year-old brother Joseph has been practicing for the world championships in Ireland next month. It's his second trip: Last year, he placed 11th out of more than 40 dancers in his category.

As thrilling as that was, Joseph said he got a bigger thrill when he won first place at the regional competition in November in New York.

"I couldn't believe it at first," he said. "I was really dizzy when I stopped dancing."

Joseph said he's come a long way since he started learning Irish dance.

"When I was in second grade, the kids in my class thought my dancing was weird, like I was a ballerina or something," said Joseph. "Now they think it's all cool."

Hammond traveled to Seattle this weekend, where her daughters - Orly, 5, and Ariel, 3 - were competing in the Pacific Northwest Irish Dance Championship. It made for a hectic week, but Hammond knows that's the nature of the beast for Irish dancers this time of year.

"It's kind of a dance-til-they-drop thing," she said.

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