Dancing for God
In a school auditorium in Springfield, Delaware County, nine women in simple black Irish dance outfits clasp hands together as their slipper-clad feet lightly skip across the floor. You can see the intense concentration in their faces as they rehearse traditional dances like “Shoe the Donkey” and “Bridge of Athlone.” Led by their instructor Kathleen Madigan, they count aloud:
Learning traditional Irish dance can be a test for anybody. For Madigan’s “ladies,” as she fondly calls them, developing all the fancy footwork and consigning it to muscle memory is an especially daunting task. They’re the Rainbow Irish Step Dancers, an enthusiastic troupe of developmentally challenged women from Divine Providence Village, a cottage-style community operated by Catholic Social Services. This Sunday will mark their debut in the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Parade. You’ll recognize them by the pretty rainbow sash they proudly wear across their backs.
The idea for the Rainbow Dancers began over a year ago at a Christmas show at Divine Providence, which Madigan, a former nutritionist at the facility and a student at the Irish Stars Parker School of Irish Dance in Hellertown, attended. When the chorus began to sing “Jingle Bell
Rock,” Madigan recalls, “all the ladies got up and started dancing like crazy. Well, when you think about it, ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ actually fits a light jig. It was then that I realized: They could do this.”
Starting last February, Madigan started running an every-other-Saturday Irish dance class, and every resident of the village who wants to can come and dance. And that’s all it was ever going to be—an opportunity for a couple dozen residents to socialize and have fun. But after a month or two, Madigan realized that there was a core group who could, with coaching, perform publicly.
“These ladies really stood out. They were just so happy when they danced, I thought we could teach them, and they could help each other learn steps. A little over a year later, and we’re still going strong.”
Madigan herself has only been dancing for four years, having started at age 50, so coaching the Divine Providence dancers is a way to bolster her own skills. But more than that, seeing her dancers’ excitement and knowing how hard they have to work, gives her joy.
“Kathy in our group is almost totally blind,” she says. “Eleanor holds her hand so she can dance. Diane is in a brace. There are a lot of physical and mental obstacles to overcome so they can do this, but it gives them a sense of belonging to a team. They know they are the Irish dancers. They just feel special.”
Unlike other dancers, Madigan adds, the Rainbow ladies dance simply for the love it. And it shows. They possess a childlike purity of purpose. “They don’t face competition,” Madigan says. “They don’t have to come in first. They’re just there for each other. And they’ll readily tell you that they dance for God.”