Maureen Gately's Teelin School of Irish Dance in Columbia… (Brendan Cavanaugh // For…)
Thunderous and rhythmic pounding of many pairs of synchronized feet is what characterizes Irish step dancing, yet its dual personality might be what sets it apart.
While dancers stomped loudly and kicked swiftly to traditional music blaring in a studio in Columbia last week, their upper bodies remained rigid and arms hung motionless. The highly choreographed dance is a contradiction in body language that collides at the hips.
"Sometimes I really feel it when you're moving the floor," Maureen Gately said to her troupe at Wednesday's rehearsal as she thumped a fist to her chest. "Other times, you're too light on your feet. It's got to be heavier."
How often does a director give an order like that?
But the number being fine-tuned at that moment was "Bogged Down," and Gately, 34, owner and director of the Teelin School of Irish Dance, knew what she was looking for. Further, as a first-generation Irish-American, she knows when it's right.
"Maureen is a force of nature," said Tom Fridrich, director of performing arts at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis, where Gately will bring her fifth annual "Portraits of Ireland" dance show Saturday for the first time.
"She makes Irish dance accessible to everyone," he said. "Dance as an art form is not an easy ticket to sell, but sales for this event have been very strong."
"Portraits of Ireland" is a multimedia show with ever-changing widescreen photographic images serving as the performers' backdrop. Professional photographer and Teelin parent Robert Burke took the high-definition shots.
Pure energy propels the dance company through various vignettes, such as "Kitchen Jam," with its frying pans and metal spoons, and "Gaol," with its jail bars on wheels and eerie white masks. Live music accompanies some of the numbers.
She conceived the show in 2005, at the same time she opened her dance school on Red Branch Road - a long way from her years growing up in New Jersey as one of the Berry Sisters. (She was born Maureen Berry.)
She played the button accordion and, with her two siblings, Eileen and Kathleen, sang traditional Irish songs with their father's band. Gately said her love of performing, especially dancing, has never waned.
Gately came to Maryland in 1993 on a partial scholarship to study dance at Towson University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1997. She expected to end up in a modern dance company after graduating, she said, but instead joined Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble in Millersville and toured the globe with them for eight years, the last three on a part-time basis.
"I'm Maureen's biggest fan, and she is one of the biggest talents to ever come through our company," said Footworks' founding director, Eileen Carson Schatz.
"Her school is incredible, with its focus on creative choreography and giving students a performance experience," she said. "Maureen has elevated Irish dance and given it more cachet."
After years of touring, Gately decided to settle down and make the leap to opening her own school, "a singularly hard thing to do," said Fridrich. Teelin, the name of the small fishing village in Ireland where Gately's mother was born, now boasts a student roster crammed with 350 names.
"We own Howard County," Gately said, laughing. "There's a low turnover of students here, and we are a close-knit community." Aside from the main studio in Columbia, lessons are also offered in Millersville and Timonium.
With both her sisters involved in Teelin, the school is very much a family affair.
"Growing up, we didn't even make play dates because we had each other, and we are still that close," said Gately. Their Irish-born parents, Michael and Brigid Berry, attend everything Teelin produces - from the professional show this month to the school's spring program in April for all students, ages 4 and up.
"Maureen's love for her Irish culture is contagious," said Jill Reese of Ellicott City, whose three daughters will all dance in Saturday's show. Mollie started taking lessons from Gately nine years ago as a first-grader, well before the school opened, and Bridget and Megan followed in her footsteps.
"She has such amazing energy that her passion becomes addicting to the rest of us," said Reese, who added that one daughter even decided to take up fiddle lessons after falling in love with Irish music.
Gately might have started out with natural talent, but after earning her degree she also got her TCRG designation, which is a Gaelic acronym that means she is a commission-certified Irish dance teacher. The exhausting three-day TCRG exam is to dance what the bar exam is to law, she said.
While teaching has overtaken performing as her main interest, Gately takes part in 10 of the 22 numbers in the program, which runs just short of two hours, with intermission.
Her creative inspiration comes from all kinds of places, she said, including the TV show, "So You Think You Can Dance." Music from the award-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire" even backs up a duet in which she performs.
"Irish dancing is as much a lifestyle as it is an art," said Gately, as she set her students back in motion to practice another number. "We form strong friendships - lifelong friendships. We are all one big family."
If you go What:
"Portraits of Ireland" dance show
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis
Tickets: 410-280-5640 or email@example.com