In Step With Tradition

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As a 10-year-old, Mary Robbins was a champion Irish step-dancer. The traditional dance nudged her closer to her heritage, and her family made several trips to Ireland, where youngsters "take dancing the way we take PE," she says.

As a wife and mother, the one-time top competitor had been relegated to performances in the kitchen of her La Canada home, with an audience of two wide-eyed children named James and Katie Liz.

This weekend, Robbins will relive the glory days of competition at the 26th annual Irish Fair and Music Festival, at Woodley Park in Encino. But it will be Katie Liz, now 7, who is pounding the stage in "hard shoes," a type of traditional footwear that resembles a cross between tap shoes and army boots.

"It's in the blood," Robbins says proudly as her daughter prepares for the Irish Fair's slip jig and figure (team) dancing competitions at Le Studio in Pasadena, with other children ages 4 and up.

In class, the dancers stand tall in a line-dance formation, with arms straight at their sides. They lift their knees high while pointing a foot from side to side, whacking the floor with loud taps, in a motion that teacher Maggie Cleary insists is easier than it looks. "If you can walk, you can dance," is Cleary's mantra.

Other highlights over the weekend include a reenactment area, "similar to the Renaissance Fair but Irish," explains fair founder Terry Anderson. Also dotting the landscape will be Irish arts and crafts vendors, caber tossing and other Celtic games, the Abbey Theater, rides and games for children, a food pavilion and, of course, Irish pubs.

Numerous Irish performers are slated to keep the entertainment going on three stages, including Danu, a popular young group from Ireland; the Fenians Red Hot and Irish, veterans of the House of Blues, and Hal Roach, billed as "Ireland's King of Blarney."

Each morning at 11, the Grand Parade of the Irish Show will march into the Shamrock Bowl, a tented area that seats 2,500. Bagpipe bands, equestrians, Irish dancers and others will offer what Anderson describes as "a magical show of music, bands and warriors."

More Than Competition at the Irish Fair

For the Irish step-dancers, the Irish Fair is more exciting than a typical competition, says Sandy Larson, whose daughter Kirsten is a dancer. "They have an audience at the Irish Fair, not just the parents," Larson explains. And even though the kids sometimes compete against each other, "there's a real camaraderie, especially when they figure dance."

James Robbins, 9, who doesn't step-dance but accompanies his mom and sister to practice, has slightly different priorities this weekend: "I like going on the rides and looking at my sister's medals."

Indeed, the prospects for ribbons and medals for Le Studio dancers are pretty good, even though more than 1,000 contestants are expected for the annual Father's Day event. Cleary, the Le Studio teacher, is not only the organizer of the Irish Fair step-dance competition but also a former world champion and "one of the best teachers in the country," says Anderson.

Cleary, whose accent is as Irish as her name, came to the United States in 1984 with a business degree but started teaching Irish step-dancing when someone discovered her background as a dancer and an international judge. When her daughter, Katie Dean, turned 3 in 1993, she began instructing children too.

'Riverdance' Helps Spark Interest

The popularity of "Riverdance" and "Michael Flatley's Lord of the Dance" really got business booming, says Cleary, who teaches classes in Pasadena, North Hollywood and Santa Monica. While "Riverdance" and "Lord of the Dance" represent more of a freestyle dance than traditional Irish step-dancing, "the basic steps they do are the same," she says.

It was "Riverdance" that finally got Michael Finch into hard shoes. The 11-year-old watched his older sister, Kristie, take step-dancing lessons for a couple of years before he decided to join.

"She looked like she was having a really fun time," says Michael, dressed to dance in dark pants, a long-sleeved white shirt and tie. "Then I saw 'Riverdance.' "

Cleary says the popular shows have also drawn more spectators to the Irish step-dancing competitions over the years, adding that it is among the most authentic attractions at the "feis," an Irish term for large gathering.

The whole Robbins family, which also includes dad Craig, has their weekend all planned, says Mary: "We focus on the dance; once that's over, we focus on the fun."

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* Irish Fair and Music Festival, Woodley Park, Burbank and Victory boulevards, Encino. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. both days. $16 adults; $13 seniors; free to 14 and younger. Information: (818) 503-2511 or http://www.irishfair.org.

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