Showcasing Irish Dance

Showcasing Irish Dance

Sarah Hirsch, Writer

Sophomores Meghan and Moira Henderson lace up their shoes, adjust their wigs, and run through the dance routines in their heads during the last few seconds before facing the audience. As they step out onto the stage with the rest of their Irish dancing group, a warm, inviting collection of shouts and cheers comes from the Irish Festival crowd, folks of all ages who are eager to experience authentic Irish culture and classic entertainment.

Henderson and Moira have been preparing for the past month, as they have every August for the past six years. This event is bigger than their usual St. Patrick’s Day nursing home performances, so preparation is slightly more intense. Practice consists of stretching, muscle-building routines, constant repetition, and ancient dance techniques.

“Leading up to [the Irish Festival], it’s fun practicing performances because you’re learning dances and you get to put in your input,” said Henderson. “But before the performance, like, that week, you’re like, ‘I hate this,’ because it’s every night and you’re working hard.  During and after the performances, it’s a lot of fun.”

According to the Hendersons, they performed several traditional dances, such as the St. Patrick’s Day dance, at the Irish Festival. These sets and routines have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries without changing. However, expressive freedom is not inhibited. The Hendersons have helped organize personal dances and put modern twists on the sport, such as incorporating new-age music into their dance.

“We’re trying to mix in popular music, like popular Irish music from the Red Hot Chili Pipers and Sprang Session,” said Henderson. “We’re trying to do it with bands that come to the Irish Festival, like, we danced live on stage with Sprang Session on Saturday night. It was really fun.”

According to Henderson, back when the British controlled Ireland, they restricted entertainment among the Irish natives. That didn’t stop the Irish from finding ways around the rules, Henderson said. They would gather in buildings and keep the top half of the divided door open and the bottom half shut. This way, they could keep their arms stationary while their legs danced rapidly.

“Irish dancing at the festival not only showcases our dancing style; it shows our culture,” said Henderson. “It’s also just, like, to entertain and get little kids to join. Like, our concert, when we danced with Sprang Session, there were little kids out in the crowd who came up afterward and were like ‘We want to start Irish dancing,’ so that’s kind of the main goal, to get more students, so that when we leave, there’s more kids to take our spots.”

After seven years of dance, Henderson and Moira have grown to appreciate the things that set Irish dance apart from mainstream dances, such as tap and ballet. The floppy wigs, traditional Irish garb, whimsical music, and lack of arm movement all work together to keep the unique culture alive.

“[Irish dance is] more of, like, a sport,” Moira said. “It’s more of, like, how much strength and stamina you have instead of how dainty and graceful you are.”

Henderson and Moira’s mother, Colleen Henderson, is grateful for the lessons Irish dance has taught them.

“I think it made [Meghan and Moira] more thick-skinned,” said Colleen. “Now they can handle [anything life throws] at them. That was a good thing to learn.”

According to Henderson, they look back and find humor in their previous teacher’s strict approach to Irish culture and how the teaching style greatly contrasts with what they have now.

“[The teacher] told Moira one time that she was dancing like trash,” Henderson said. “So she had her go dance by the trash can.”

According to Moira, her and her sister are more laid-back about Irish dance and are grateful to have switched from a very competitive school, O’Riada-McCarty-Manning Academy of Irish Dance, to their current one, Driscoll School of Irish Dance, which has a more friendly and fun approach to the art form.

“The bad side of [Irish dance] is that it’s kind of like a cult,” Colleen said. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because there are good cults, you know, but still.”

As the Irish tune fades in their ears and is replaced by applause, the Hendersons take a step back and feel a warm wave of relief rush over themselves. Even though this festival is nothing new, it still brings about a sense of belonging and familiarity. They are home.