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Summer Camp for Irish Dancers

Noreen Donohue McAleer offers a few pointers on toe pointing.

Noreen Donohue McAleer offers a few pointers on toe pointing.

When there were no jigs and reels playing, the Irish Center’s cavernous ballroom echoed with little girl giggles. Last week, the Cummins School dancers were having their summer camp—a lot of dancing, which also served last-minute cramming for the five Cummins dancers heading to the national championships in Montreal next week, and, for the littlest ones, crafts involving glue and glitter and tie-dyed socks. Oh, and ice cream sundaes, the only thing that brought dead silence to the room.

The Cummins School has been teaching kids to step dance in this ballroom for the last 12 years; a second class, mainly for the youngest, is held at the VFW post in Glenside.

“We’ve been so lucky,” says Frances Cummins Donohue, who runs the school with her daughter, Noreen Donohue McAleer. Donohue started dancing herself when she was an 11-year-old in Dublin and scored a second in the All-Irelands. “Dancing was my life and I loved it and when I came over here, I instilled that in my girls, Kerri and Noreen,” she says.

The Cummins students learn more than beats, cuts, lifts and sevens. “Because we’re in the Irish Center, we’re also exposing kids to the Irish culture,” says Donohue. “The bagpipers [The Emerald Society Pipe Band] are here on Wednesdays and they love that. Then John Shields is in here with his ceili dancers and they enjoy that too. This space is amazing. We’d miss it terrible, we really would.”

Donohue is talking about the current financial crisis facing the Irish Center, a combination of an increased tax burden brought on by Philadelphia’s citywide reassessment last year and kitchen upgrades required by the city’s board of health—expenses estimated to total $100,000 or more over the next two years.

Cummins dancers will be participating in a fundraiser on July 19 at Maloney’s Pub of Ardmore in an effort to save their home.

But this week, it was all fun and games—except for the extra dance instruction from Donohue, McAleer, and teachers Brittany Kelly and Theresa McElhill. We stopped by on Thursday and took some photos of the fun.

Dance, Music

Just Singing AFTER the Rain

Fiddler Maura Dwyer of the John Byrne Band ... surprise!

Fiddler Maura Dwyer of the John Byrne Band … surprise!

It was the Philadelphia Fleadh that almost didn’t happen.

Last Friday, Pennypack Park in the Northeast—the site of Philly’s huge festival of music, dance and culture, scheduled for the very next day—was a waterlogged mess. The Pennypack Creek, which winds through the park, had overflowed its banks after a week’s worth of heavy rain.

C.J. Mills is a partner, with Frank Daly, in American Paddy’s Productions, which put on the festival. It was the second. Mills summed up the situation in a nutshell:  “There was mud and water everywhere.

”At that point, Mills and Daly knew they had their work cut out for them.

“If this festival had been one day earlier,” said Daly, “I don’t know if we could have pulled it off.”

For one thing, he said, the stage surrounding the main stage—right on the banks of the Pennypack—was a sea of shoe-sucking mud. It’s hard to dance in mud.

City workers with heavy equipment—along with Mills, Daly, family and Fleadh volunteers—labored all day Friday in the muck, trying to get the park ready for the hundreds of visitors expected to flood into the festival, so to speak, on Saturday.

Through it all, Daly and Mills kept the faith.

“We put in a request about six months ago,” Mills said. “We had no doubt that it was going to be sunny and 73. Weather insurance is expensive, so we prayed a lot.”

All that praying worked. Saturday dawned sunny and clear, and you’d never have guessed that there’d ever been a problem. And the second Philadelphia Fleadh went on right on schedule. (Massive amount of photos, below.)

Walking down the winding path into the park, you could hear the music pounding out of the Ed Kelly Amphitheatre all day—The Mahones, The John Byrne Band, The Birmingham Six, Burning Bridget Cleary, The Shantys, and we could go on—14 bands in all, compared to nine last year.

And there were plenty of people strolling, and in some cases dancing, down that path. Daly and Mills weren’t sure precisely how many, but early afternoon they were certain that the second Fleadh was turning out to be a bigger draw than the first. “Attendance is definitely higher than last year at this time,” said Daly. “Last year, we had 3,000, and we think we’re going to do more this year. And we’re running on schedule—which is a shock.”

A new feature this year probably boosted attendance this year, Mills said. A Feis—an Irish dance competition hosted by the Celtic Flame School of Irish Dance—drew about 120 dancers, but also a host of family, friends and fans. Kids, mostly girls of all ages in curls and sparkly dresses, took to the stage in a sunlit meadow surrounded by tall trees. So much nicer than a musty hall somewhere.

More bands played in their very own sunlit meadow just across a wooden bridge from the Feis. No amphitheater in this case, just a stage, but that meadow was filled with folks in lawn chairs—and more than a few up on their feet, dancing away.

Traditional musicians churned out their own brand of Irish music in an overheated tent, but no one seemed to mind the temperature.

Ten vendors peddled their T-shirts, hats, jewelry, kilts, glassware, gifts and more throughout the grounds, and if you wanted great food or, say, a cold brew—no problem. There was plenty to go around.

The whole show ended with an 8 p.m. show featuring lead fiddler Mills’ and lead singer Daly’s own band, Jamison.

Getting a good cross-section of the Irish community in on the act was a priority this year, says Mills.

“You have the Philadelphia Ceili Group, you have punk rock,” he said. “Every aspect of Philly Irish, we tried to hit it. We wanted to get all of those groups in here today, including parts of the Philly Irish-American world that I’m not a part of.”

It was a lot to manage, but the whole operation went off with clockwork efficiency. Calls over their walkie-talkies kept them running, but Daly and Mills actually seemed relaxed.

“We have a ton of volunteers. By the second year, it’s become a machine, already wound up,” said Daly. We learned everything last year. We felt then like we were making something out of nothing. We learned every part of it—dealing with bands, dealing with volunteers, dealing with public relations. Other people saw what we did, and they wanted to jump at it this year.00

“This is bigger than C.J. and me now. This year, other people are running us.”

Dance, Food & Drink, Music

2014 Mid-Winter Scottish & Irish Festival

Our pal Jamesie Johnston of Albannach

Our pal Jamesie Johnston of Albannach

Every year we say it was the best yet. Even that year when wind storms knocked out the lights, and the bands played on in the darkness. Actually, that was pretty cool.

But, OK, we’re going to say it again: This year’s Mid-Winter Scottish & Irish Festival out at the Valley Forge Casino and Resort was the best yet.

Large crowds flocked to the festival over the weekend.

If you were in the mood for tunes to make you forget all the snow and ice, you were in luck. Most of our favorite bands were there. We don’t want to accidentally leave anyone out, so we’ll leave it to you to peruse our huge photo essay. We guarantee you’ll see a lot of familiar faces there.

We renewed our acquaintance with John the Scottish Juggler, who’s always on hand to keep the kids entertained. The adults love him, too. The Washington Memorial Pipe Band stepped out from time to time, and they never fail to impress. The Campbell School Highland Dancers were there, and our Irish dance friend Rosemarie Timoney led ceili dancing.

We cruised the vendor area, and found one or two things we’d never seen before. And a thing or two we wish we had never seen at all. Extra Special Haggis Sauce comes to mind.

The air was filled with the aroma of cooking oil—which can only mean one thing: fish and chips. To be accompanied, of course, by bracing brews from those cold islands—and a wee bit of whiskey, perhaps.

And if you happened to be sporting a kilt, a sword—or even a pirate hat—no one would give you a second glance. What more could you ask?

So if you didn’t brave the wind and the snow this past weekend, pull up a chair and let our photos warm the cockles of your hearts.

Whatever cockles are.

Dance, Music

Tribute to the Wren

Little Timoney dancers entertained.

Little Timoney dancers entertained.

One of the critical parts of taking photographs for Irish Philadelphia is capturing the mood of the moment–when people are smiling, laughing, rapt, or sad. But at this year’s Comhaltas Wren Party, held at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Glenside, there was so much laughing, smiling, and s good cheer that it was a cinch.

Here, see for yourself, in our photo essay.


Dance, People

“Quite a Weekend” for Móira Cahill

Moira Cahill

Moira Cahill

On Saturday night at the Donegal Ball, Móira Cahill ended her one-year reign as the Philadelphia Donegal Association’s Mary from Dungloe, with grace and poise—and an infectious grin that never seemed to leave her face all evening. At the end of the night, when Kelly Devine, her good friend from the Coyle School of Irish Dance, became the 2014 Mary, there was cause for even more joy.

Still, a lot of people didn’t know—at least, not before the Donegal Ball—that Cahill had won the Ladies Under 20 competition Friday at the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Oireachtas. The Oireachtas (ERR-uhk-tuhss) is a major Irish dance championship, held each year over the Thanksgiving holiday in Center City.

“I danced hornpipes and reels, and if you’re recalled, you do a contemporary set dance. I performed ’The Blackthorn Stick’,” Cahill recalled as the evening’s festivities at the Philadelphia Irish Center wound down. “I danced hard shoe and soft shoe. My whole competition was on Friday.”

Cahill, 20, has been dancing for 15 years, and competing for 14. She has always been a very good dancer, as evidenced by her 4th place finish at the Oireachtas two years ago, and her second place last year. But none of her success has come easily. It has required seriously hard work and dedication.

“It takes a lot of practice. I was going to practice four to five times a week,” Cahill said, tiara and heels off, kicking back in a lounge off the Irish Center ballroom—finally taking a well-earned break. “It also takes a lot of mental preparation.”

As a result of her first-place finish, Cahill is qualified to compete at the 2014 North American Irish Dance Championships in Montréal in July, which she said she is likely to attend.

For now, though, it’s a time to briefly sit back and take it all in. And it’s a lot to take in, Cahill said, again with the smile. “It’s been quite a weekend.”


Irish Dance Fever at Villanova

Villanova Irish dancer Rory Beglane

Villanova Irish dancer Rory Beglane

They came from all over, 16 college and university Irish dance teams, to compete in the first Intercollegiate Irish Dance Festival last Saturday at Villanova’s Jake Nevin Fieldhouse. It wasn’t exactly a Wildcats basketball game, but if you could have bottled up all the excitement of the dancers, parents and grandparents, university students and just plain Irish dance fans, it would have come pretty close.

Compared to the Mid-Atlantic Region Oireachtas—something like a marathon of Irish dance, drawing hundreds of dancers from throughout the region to Philadelphia over the Thanksgiving holidays—the Villanova event was relatively modest. And while the Oireachtas dancers will wear glitzy and expensive costumes, with flowing curly wigs, the dancers from Catholic University of America, the University of Dayton, Boston College and all the other schools wore outfits that probably didn’t cost their parents a month’s salary. Here and there, yes, dashes of sparkles and glitter, but otherwise subdued by comparison. No tiaras. No wigs.

The Villanova dance team was perhaps the best example of the lean and clean approach. They wore plain black slacks with black T-shirts, the team’s logo splashed across the front.

Like other Irish dance competitions, this one featured many of the traditional categories, such as four-hand dance, eight-hand dance and treble reel. But the highlight was the exhibition piece competition, in which each team showed off its unique routine, the innovative dance sets they’d typically perform during university athletic events. Some teams stuck to tried-and-true traditional. One team drew whoops and cheers when they combined Irish dance steps with C&C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now.”

The team from the University of Dayton won that event, with Villanova coming in second, trailed by Boston College at number 3.

We have dozens and dozens of photos from the day. With luck, there will be another distinctly ‘Nova Irish dance competition next year. And every year thereafter.


Villanova Hosts First Intercollegiate Irish Dance Festival

The Villanova Irish Dance Team at practice.

The Villanova Irish Dance Team at practice.

The idea started small, but soon got pretty big. More than just big. It’s apparently a first.

Villanova’s Irish Dance Team will host an Intercollegiate Irish Dance Festival Saturday from 10 a.m to 4 p.m. at the university’s Jake Nevin Fieldhouse. Nine college and university dance teams from around the country will strut their stuff in a sanctioned competition.

When they first started talking about an Irish dance competition last semester, members of the Villanova team first thought such an event might be confined to Irish dancers who attend the university.

Then they thought: let’s really go for it.

“We wanted to do something different,” says senior Mattie Rowan, co-captain of the team from Albany, N.Y., and a double major in poli sci and Arab & Islamic Studies. “We started getting the idea in motion over the summer, and we really got going with it at the beginning of this semester. We are fairly certain that this is the first intercollegiate dance festival within North America. There are still competitions where individual dancers can compete, but in terms of university teams, this is the first of its kind.”

Turns out the Villanova dancers weren’t the only ones who thought an intercollegiate festival would be a good idea. In addition to the Villanova troupe, teams are coming from Georgetown, the Catholic University of America, the University of Dayton, Fordham, Boston College, the University of Rochester, Temple University and West Virginia University—more than 100 dancers. Says Rowan, “We have a pretty good mix.”

The university’s Irish Studies department also provided tremendous support, Rowan says.

Throughout the day, the teams will compete in four different events: the treble reel, four-hand, eight-hand, and what the organizers are calling a “fun number”—an opportunity for the teams to show off the unique routines they perform for university sporting events and other activities.

“It can be an original choreographed piece, or an adapted piece from a show like “Riverdance” or “Lord of the Dance,” Rowan says. “It should be something that you’ve made your own, modernized, and you can have free rein with it. Just have fun with it and show the versatility that can be found in Irish dance.”

Later that day, starting at 7:30, Villanova will host a Grand Irish Show, featuring RUNA and performances by the dance teams. Each of the teams will get a chance to perform.

For Rowan and all the other Villanova dancers, the first Intercollegiate Festival is more than just a chance to test their mettle—it’s an opportunity to mingle with other university-level dancers.

“Some of the dancers definitely do know each other from competing against each other, but there are also those of us who haven’t competed,” says Rowan. “You usually don’t get to interact with university dance teams. We’re really excited to meet other people who have continued their passion in college.”


In Step With the Villanova Irish Dance Team

Co-captain Rory Beglane leads dancers through their steps.

Co-captain Rory Beglane leads dancers through their steps.

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.”