Irish dance is a reel workout for all ages

March 17, 2007|By Tim Swift | Tim Swift,Sun reporter

Jigging kids and adults will be as common as garish green sweaters this St. Patrick's Day, but while the bright Irish garb may go deep into the drawer when the day is done, the stepping doesn't have to stop.

Irish dancing classes have become more popular in recent years, surging with the popularity of the Riverdance shows. And although more children have gotten into the act than adults, the instruction is flexible often to accommodate a range of ages and skill levels.

"If you can walk, you can do Irish dancing," says Maureen Berry, an Irish dance instructor in Columbia and Timonium. "You just have to be able to walk really fast."

Children are more likely to enroll in classes that span the school year, but drop-in classes are available for adults. Many classes are weekly and last about an hour.

"There are no prerequisites. It's so unique to itself that you maybe better off not knowing anything," said Sean Culkin, an Irish dance teacher in Maryland. "Stamina is all you need."

This stamina has been an unexpected selling point of the classes. Many home-schooled students in Maryland use Irish dancing as physical eduction. Also, Berry taught a popular fitness-oriented class for adults last summer and plans to do so again this year.

"It's probably the most aerobic form of dancing, considering you are jumping up and down the whole time," Berry says. "It definitely gets your blood flowing."

Ellen Mackey of Ellicott City started taking Irish dancing classes to get in better shape after the birth of her fourth child. Her oldest daughter was taking classes, and her husband suggested she join in.

"At first you think, `Oh, it's for little kids.' But it's really not." Mackey says. "I definitely get a charge out of it."

With almost five years of classes under her belt, Mackey chooses not to compete but is very comfortable performing with friends in an Irish pub in Baltimore.

"It's a fabulous workout," she says, adding that it's also a good way to meet friends. "It's very satisfying when you learn how to do it."

Beginners usually start with soft shoes, which cost about $40, or even bare feet. Berry's fitness class students wore dance sneakers. More experienced dancers move on to hard shoes, which can cost more than $140.

Berry says students typically become very skilled after a year of classes, but Culkin points out that progress is noticeable as the weeks pass.

"Within one month, you'll have the basic movement, and within six months, you'll have the reel, the jig and slip jig," she says.

Like Mackey, more adults are joining in - sparked by their children's involvement.

Next Sunday, Berry's school, Teelin School of Irish Dance, will host a father-daughter dance at the Jim Rouse Theatre in Columbia. About 50 brave fathers have signed up to dance - and even model some Celtic fashions.

"Someone started a rumor that they had to wear kilts," Berry said. "Now everyone has one."

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