The Irish World’s John Egan on the growth of Irish Dancing
From the mid-18th century the teaching of Irish dancing was the province of travelling dancing masters, all of whom were male. In the late 19th century in Ireland a Celtic revival resulted in a growing interest in Irish dancing and dance schools came into being all over the country to satisfy the demand for lessons and by the early 20th century dancing masters were gradually replaced by these new dance schools.
This development saw the emergence of female teachers, and the rest as they say, is history. Female teachers outnumber their male colleagues in all of today’s many Irish dance organisations.
The number of schools increased but possibly reached a plateau about the middle of the century.
And then, as we all know, Riverdance burst onto the scene in 1994 at the interval of the Eurovision Song Contest, and the worldwide multi-million audience took Irish dancing to their hearts. Very few of that audience will remember what ditty won the song contest but all will remember the amazing dance performance of Butler and Flatley.
Since that time the unprecedented demand for Irish dance lessons has continued unabated and new schools have ‘grow’d and grow’d like Topsy’.
Over the years my straw polls indicate that the networking of parents of new recruits to Irish dancing is rarely informed of the diverse nature of its organisation, and Mum’s choice of school therefore, hinges on proximity to home address and not necessarily on the organisation to which the school belongs.
After all, who wants to travel long evening journeys to a dance school several times weekly with children whose other priorities include school homework. I decided to take an in-depth peak at some of these dance schools, across possibly all of the organisations. A recent news item in this newspaper drew my attention to the Mary Drake School of Irish Dancing and I decided to pay a quick visit to one of their midweek evening lessons.
The class was very much in progress when I arrived to find a group of young beginners being taken through their steps by teachers Claire Theobald and Vicki Kerridge. I watched as they coached, cajoled, corrected and cultivated steps and movements that were recognisable as traditional Irish dance steps that I see at feis competitions.
The hall rang out with shouts of ‘arms straight’, ‘back straight’, ‘shoulders back’, ‘turn out those feet’, ‘kick that bum’, ‘point your toes’ etc. Yes we know that Michael Flatley liked to flail his arms and swagger his half-naked torso but these are No-No’s in competitive Irish dancing where adjudicators will crucify a slouched shoulder, an arm bent at the elbow or an outstretched Flamenco Nuevo arm from a bare-chested male dancer.
Cousins Claire and Vicki started dancing aged four and six with local teacher Fiona McMahon and her An Coimisiún school. It wasn’t until some years later when their teacher announced the school was moving to An Comhdháil that they realised there were other dance organisations.
They both well recall their first feis in their new body. The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming, and the icing on the cake was being able to take home their first Comhdhail trophies and medals.
Three years later when their teacher retired to Ireland they were keen to continue in their love of Irish dancing and travelled over 30 miles to the nearest Comhdháil school, before deciding to dance more locally with the Kerry School in Northampton in an open platform environment, mainly of CAID (Celtic Association of Irish Dancing). This opened up another world in which they met many new friends in the various open platform schools.
Throughout their dancing years in three different organisations they were very much encouraged by their beloved maternal grandmother Mary Drake who hailed from Cork. She was immensely proud of her grandchildren’s achievements and their love for this part of her Irish culture meant a lot to her.
Sadly after she passed away in 2006, Claire’s passion for competing diminished especially as she no longer had her adoring Nana to proudly show her trophy wins to. Although plagued with injuries she was determined to stick to Irish dancing and in 2007 she set up her own dance school and called it Mary Drake School in loving memory of her grandmother. She was accepted as an Associate Teacher by An Comhdháil and this enabled her to successfully complete her TCRG teacher studies in 2010 whilst running her school at the same time.
At this time Vicki joined the school as a pupil and in 2015 she too gained TCRG certification. Vicki now teaches alongside Claire in a school named after their dear grandmother and it is clear that the dynamics of this cousin duo work well in class.
Looking back on their achievements Claire told me ‘Our proudest moment together was in 2010 when Vicki as my pupil won the All England Championships for the first time. She retained the title in 2011, which was an amazing feat. She also placed highly at the world championships (then called the All Ireland and International Championships) in 2009, achieving 14th place.
We have entered the world championships every year since I started the school and we have never come away without a medal for someone. Although Vicki very much misses competing she now experiences the delight of seeing pupils achieve something that we have worked hard for, whether it’s their first jump two three or another world medal’.
When asked what aspects of Irish dancing she liked best Claire told me, ‘I love to see the traditional set dances. It gives you an insight into how Irish dancing once was. Steps now are much faster paced and higher energy. I like to see it stripped bare and taken back to traditional steps. Without fail we dance traditional set dances in every lesson. Nevertheless I also recognise how athletic Irish Dancing has become. Dancers don’t come to lessons just to dance. They have fitness exercises and diet plans to follow and their physiques are more athletic than ever. The power they have nowadays is something else’.
She described as excellent the school’s relationship with the MK Irish Centre where classes are held. ‘They’re always happy to advertise our school and write about our achievements in their newsletter. Each year they hold a St Patrick’s Day parade and invite our dancers to take part. We then perform back at the Irish Centre alongside the other two schools in Milton Keynes. There is a strong local Irish presence and the Irish Centre is a great place to go socially.
“We have roughly 50 pupils aged five to 46, and most of these have Irish connections. But we also have pupils with no such connections and no doubt Riverdance and Michael Flatley have had an influence there”.
With a family of three young girls, Leah age 7, Cerys age 2 and Orlaith age 18 months, and a dance school to manage, it is not surprising that Claire gave up her day job. Typical of the school’s dancers are Irish second generation Connie and Tilly Byrne whose parents are Stephen and Joanne.
Stephen’s parents Tom and Bridget are from Kilkenny and Cork. He loves to make regular visits to Kilkenny where his father now lives. Both Claire and Vicki are very much involved in the committee work of the regional branch of An Comhdháil, the London and Home Counties Branch.
They are also involved in their new venture to organise their first Feis MK in September and were keen that its title should include a reference to their hometown, of which they are proud. They told me “there is great excitement about this new feis and much interest has been expressed by colleagues in England, Scotland and Ireland, and we are very much looking forward to welcoming everyone to our lovely town”.