Lively fiddle music, haunting tin whistles, and the measured tap of soft- or hard-heeled shoes. Irish dancing has been around for generations. And although its mainstream popularity soared 25 years ago with the stage show Riverdance, for traditional Irish families around the Hudson Valley, it’s simply a way of life.
“It’s my life, and my livelihood,” said Ellen Riordan Ross, who owns and teaches at the Verlin School of Irish Dance in West Nyack. Ross was the senior Irish dancing champion at the Verlin School, dancing there for about 12 years, and then took the reins after the school’s founder, Kenny Verlin, passed away more than 32 years ago.
Enrollment may not be as high as when Riverdance was at its peak, but Irish dancing is still popular. About 75 students now practice and compete through the Verlin School, and it’s a rigorous sport. Students can begin at 4 years old; second-years and up can practice as much as four times a week, and dancers training for world competition practice seven days a week. Ross teaches three types of dance: soft shoe, hard shoe, and céili dancing, which includes social dances like the Siege of Ennis and 4- and 8-hand reels.
LuAnn O’Rourke-Boyd is an adjudicator (dance judge) and teacher with Doherty-Petri Irish Dance in Valhalla, which boasts regional, national, and world medal-holders. She started Irish dance lessons at age 6, danced for 23 years, and is now in her 25th year of teaching. She loves Irish dance because, she says, it brings together different forms of dance: for example, the soft-shoe Irish dance relates to ballet, and the hard-shoe dances are similar to tap.
Traced back to as early as the 15th century in Ireland and the United Kingdom, Irish dance is distinct as much for its beautifully embroidered dresses as it is for the unique, straight-armed stance taken by the dancers. The intricate costumes for solo competitors at area festivals, or “feiseanna,” can cost upwards of $3,000. Most are branded according to the dance school: for example, Verlin School soloists wear costumes with a stylized Celtic “V.” The dancers work their way up through regional, national, and worldwide competitions.
Ross stresses, however, that Irish dance is more than just trophies. “The friendships for the children, and their parents as well, are more important than the competition.”