The tile walls of the gym reverberate to a pounding techno rhythm, filling the warm, brightly lit room with sound.
Also bouncing, but also in a rhythmic way, are about a dozen young women—and one young man. All wear the black T-shirts of the university’s Irish Dance Team, an entirely student-run troupe founded in 2006. The team develops all of its own music and choreography.
Yes, at a university steeped in the proud tradition of sports teams, this is a very different kind of team, but perhaps not so surprising for an institution also well known for its highly regarded Irish studies. And for a student of a particular background, the Irish Dance Team is a definite draw.
Senior Mattie Rowan is the co-captain of the team. She’s from Albany, N.Y., majoring in political science and Arab & Islamic Studies. LIke many out on the gym floor, she had a background in Irish dance before coming to Villanova, though she didn’t attend a traditional Irish dance school, as others did. “I’m from a small town,” she says. “We just had a dancer doing Irish dance in a studio in the town. I think that just shows the range of dancers we have. The primary aspect I was looking for when I was looking at colleges was religion, but also if there was a dance club. That was a definite plus for me.”
Other dancers, she says, decided on ‘Nova for the same reason. “A lot of people want to keep dancing, so they seek out dance groups. There are other schools that do offer it, but I think we’re very reachable. We have a Facebook page, a Twitter page, and we have our own Villanova page. We are known to people who are looking to keep dancing.”
One of those who considered the presence of an Irish dance team a plus was sophomore civil engineering major Rory Beglane, a lean, long-time dancer, a competitor at the world level, and the sole male. He became co-captain this year, an unexpected honor.
“I’ve been dancing for 14 years,” Rory explains. “For me, it was a deciding factor. I wasn’t willing to give up Irish dancing after years of practice.”
Members of the team have plenty of opportunities to put their practice to good use. There’s plenty of the traditional stuff, with ghillies and hard shoes—a gray plastic tarp is there primarily to shield the gym floor from the latter. But the tecktonik dance the team is practicing—with decidedly non-traditional moves—provides an accessible entree to Irish dance for students who aren’t familiar with it.
“We dance to it for basketball games, typically,” says Mattie. “We do it at halftime, and students are more likely to take an interest in it with the type of music we use. We still dance to traditional music in the beginning, but then we go into the contemporary.” Additionally, the team has performed for many other events, including the university’s day of service, the Special Olympics, and, two years ago, the Celtic Festival in Disneyland Paris.
This year, says Mattie, the team is going to add a challenging new twist. “We’re trying to do an intercollegiate competition. There isn’t one in North America that’s ever been done, so Villanova is starting it. It will be in late November. It’s just a way for people who have never competed to compete, and for those who are still competing, it’s good practice.”
The Villanova group tends to draw members from throughout the country—most with experience, but some without. Freshman Gabriella Berman is a good example. A dancer for 12 years, she’s from Joliet, Illinois. When it came to Irish dance, she says, “I was looking for it. I wouldn’t have made my choice on that completely, but I was really happy they had it.”
One dancer, freshman Brenna Fallows, is local. She’s from Moorestown, N.J., and she danced, off and on, with the Gibson School for nine years. Like many local dancers, she has performed in area competitions, and she was all too familiar with the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade. She, too, chose Villanova for its Irish dance team. “I knew about it when I was deciding between schools. For me it was a really nice bonus. It was the icing on the cake.”