A Cultural Step Forward


Forget "Riverdance"--the lords and ladies of Irish dance can be found right here in Southern California. Every day or night, in church halls, school rooms and studios, children and adults gather to rehearse intricate dance movements or perform at local competitions called feises (pronounced "feshes").

Irish dancing is both social fun and a strict discipline--it's an art form rooted in traditional music, complicated footwork and colorful costumes that reflect the rich history of the Emerald Isle. The movements are as graceful as a Baryshnikov ballet and as lively and athletic as a Gene Kelly tap routine.

Both young and old are also drawn to the dance for the long-term friendships and camaraderie found in the moments between the hours of practice and performing.

"It is a wonderful experience, especially for kids," said Ventura instructor Moire O'Connell. "Other than great exercise, they learn self-esteem, and that's something they can take with them for the rest of their lives."

Even kids with no Irish roots are signing up for classes. "What binds us all is the love of the music, the rhythm and the way the dance makes us feel light," says Irvine instructor Doireanne Maoileidigh, who has taught students from age 3 to 75.

There are waiting lists to get into some classes in the Los Angeles area--classes have doubled and even tripled over the years, despite the fact more accredited instructors are teaching. To keep up with the demand, instructors have established satellite studios, traveling far distances to hold classes. Also, local feises are drawing hundreds more participants, thus sending organizers scrambling.

High school junior Maura McCartan of Lakewood travels weekly to North Hollywood for classes, but what she really enjoys is going to feises--she has been competing on championship levels since she was 9. "Competitions are a lot of fun, meeting people from so many schools, seeing my friends again," she said. The only downside to the event, she explains, is the tradition of having to tightly curl her hair the night before the feis.

Students don't have to compete in feises, but many do. The thrill of the dance is heightened at competitions, where drama, spectacle and adventure are rolled into one afternoon--thousands of medals can be given out in as many as 500 categories. Pick any month, and somewhere in the Southland a feis is being held.

"Our first feis had only 50 students; now we have almost 800 competitors," said Thousand Oaks instructor Bella Yerina, who's been teaching for 35 years in Southern California. Yerina credits the interest to the enduring charm of the dance as a family affair. "Students I had when they were 10 years old are now coming back as adults to keep dancing," she says. "Soon they will bring their kids."

Feises have only been around since the 1950s, when Irish organizers began to sponsor official competitions. Today, a commission in Ireland provides rules and guidelines for teaching and competition worldwide, with teachers and judges passing stringent qualification exams.

Briefly, Irish dances are divided into two main categories--set and Ceili. Ceilis are informal folk dances with long histories behind them, while set dances are relatively modern inventions. Descending from a variety of influences (including the French Quadrilles of the late 18th and early 19th centuries), set dances have more physicality and complicated footwork--they're the dances usually performed at competitions.

Most students compete for fun but there are serious competitors. "There's plenty of room for both kinds in Irish dance," said Ellen Coudray of Oakview, mother of 9-year-old Tiana, who is the current North American champion dancer and, next year, plans to travel to Ireland to compete in the world championships. Coudray advises parents to encourage their children only as far as they want to go. "Make sure it's their commitment, not yours," she said.

Irish dance after all is a joyous celebration of culture, a testimony of tradition and musical experience to be shared and savored. Either watching or performing, whether young or old, the spirit of the dance always seems to get everyone's toes a-tappin'.

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