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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.

Dance

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.”

Dance

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.”

Dance, Music

Festival Time Is Just Around the Corner

Nuala Kennedy

Nuala Kennedy

We’re just a year away from the 40th anniversary of the Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival. What started out as a one-day outdoor event at Fischer’s Pool, above Lansdale, is now a three-day celebration of Irish music, dance and culture headquartered at that most Irish of Philadelphia places, the Commodore Barry Club at Carpenter and Emlen in the city’s Mount Airy neighborhood.

We recently chatted with the Ceili Group’s Anne McNiff, to find out what to expect at this year’s festival.

Is it hard for you to believe this is the 39th anniversary?

No, I guess not for me. I’ve only been around for a couple of them. Some of my fellow board members are more generationally tied to it. It might be harder for them to believe. Fischer’s Pool was a big, sprawling property, and it was all outside. That must have been logistically interesting!

What’s new this year?

This year, one of the big changes is that we’re going to have, running currently with the ceili back in the ballroom is a “rambling house” in the Fireside Room in the front of the house. In past years we’ve had a concert on that night, but it just has never taken off the way we would have liked it to. We wanted to have another option for people on Friday night. The rambling house is a little less formal than a concert. Gabriel Donohue is hosting it, and he’s a great entertainer all by himself. He’s hosted the singers’ night in the past, so we know what a good host he is. He’ll invite people to come up and give a song or a recitation. He’ll have the opportunity to invite different musicians to come up and play, maybe along with him, maybe by themselves.

It’s a huge plus that he has relationships with many musicians, not just here in New York, but in New York. He’s gotten Joanie Madden to come here as a guest. She’s certainly going to be a draw. It will be much less formal than what a regular concert would be. That is a big change.

It seems like you have always favorites, some sure-fire hits, like (singer) Matt Ward.

Matt Ward is really a perennial favorite. We get a lot of comments about Matt; he doesn’t sing locally a lot. Frank Malley (longtime festival chairman) was the first to bring him on board. It’s become a tradition for Matt to be invited to come by on Singers’ Night. (Thursday the 12th.) People say they don’t get to see him, except at this place and this time.

Looks like the Saturday workshops are free for Ceili Group members.

Last year we had the lovely opportunity to offer our workshops for free. That aspect of the festival was being funded by a grant. We had such a great response to that. We used it as a way to attract people to the festival, and to get them to commit to membership. It was such a positive thing that, when we talked about what to do differently, we agreed that we wanted to carry that on again this year.

This year we have a couple of new workshops, including an Irish calligraphy workshop. Also very cool and a little bit of a departure, we have local author Kenneth Milano, who will be doing a workshop from 3:30 to 5:30 on the Philadelphia nativist riots.

This year for your Saturday night concert, you have Tony DeMarco’s band, and (singer and flutist) Nuala Kennedy. That’s an interesting pairing.

Tony, of course, has played at Philadelphia Ceili Group events before, so he has to be an old favorite. Nuala Kennedy, on the other hand … she’s new. She’s not played a lot in Philadelphia. She has a big following in Europe, and I believe in New York, I know she tours a lot. She is all over the place.

I saw her some time ago at Gene Shay’s Song Salon. He was hosting it in a small venue that had all kinds of eclectic acts, and Nuala Kennedy was one of them. She and I got to talking. I told her that we do a big festival, and I asked her, is this something you’d be interested in, and she was. Recently, we got back in contact. I found out she tours not just with (guitarist) John Doyle but also with (guitarist, bouzouki player and singer) Eamon O’Leary. I just love the idea of introducing her to a broader Philadelphia audience. People are going to love her.

Want to learn more? Click here for the full lineup.

Dance

A Hot Night of Dancing

John Shields gives Irish jive dancing a whirl.

John Shields gives Irish jive dancing a whirl.

The air conditioning in the Philadelphia Irish Center ballroom was having a hard time tamping down the heat and humidity, but no one out of the 40 or so students who showed up last Friday to learn the basic steps of Irish jive dancing with instructor Colette Glynn seemed to mind at all. Now and again, they’d pause for a quick break to mop the sweat off their faces or take a long, cold drink of ice water, but after that, it was back out on the hardwood floor for more whirling and twirling.

The sound system cranked out swingy old tunes like “Please Release Me” and “She’s Not You” as Glynn went from couple to couple to observe their steps, and occasionally demonstrate jive dancing’s unique back-and-forth arm motion, kind of like a piston rod on an old steam locomotive.
At first, some of the dancers seemed a little shy, but local Irish dance instructor John Shields, who is anything but shy, grabbed the microphone to offer a bit of humorous encouragement. “Grab somebody, for God’s sake,” he implored. “You’re not marrying them. You’re not taking them home.”
That seemed to be enough encouragement for even the most reluctant dancers. Virtually everyone took to the floor, and aside from the occasional water break, didn’t leave it all night long.
We have some photos from the class. Check them out, above.
Dance

Jive Talkin’

Taking to the floor at the Irish Center.

Taking to the floor at the Irish Center.

Colette Glynn recalls one of the first times someone asked her onto the floor as an Irish jive dance partner, when she was 14 or 15 years old.

It wasn’t good.

“He said, ‘You’re useless,’ and he left me,” Glynn laughs. “I swore at that moment that no one would ever call me ‘useless’ again, and I would learn how to jive.”

If you haven’t heard of Irish jive, don’t think Riverdance. Think more like—but not exactly— Texas two-step.

“It’s a two-person dance,” Glynn explains, “and it’s kind of like swing dancing, but your feet never leave the ground. It’s pretty fast. There’s a lot of turning, and you’re pretty much moving all the time. Essentially it’s a man and a woman, or sometimes two women, and there is always a leader. That one is the one who is making the woman do all the turning and the fancy parts. The leader is kind of telling the woman what to do, and it’s the woman doing all the work.”

This Friday (July 19) Glynn is going to prove to anyone who cares to know that she long ago ditched the “useless” reputation. She’ll be teaching Irish jive in a workshop at the Philadelphia Irish Center/Commodore Barry Club in Mount Airy. Class starts at 7:30, and the cost is just $15.

Glynn, of Pompton Plains, N.J., came to Irish jive with a traditional Irish dance background, and with her parents’ encouragement, she went to had been going to Irish jiving socials, but she obviously didn’t take to it right away. After that less than flattering assessment of her jiving skills, Glenn embarked upon an unorthodox course of self-teaching.

“I tied a rope to a door handle, and I practiced turning to the beat. I did this on and off for about four months.” She had more to learn, of course—a living, breathing partner being a more complete experience than anything you might gain with a rope and a door handle. But there was no question she had improved greatly, as that previous partner conceded, with some degree of astonishment, the next time he and she took to the floor.

“He said, ‘Whoa, what happened?’ I’m now one of the only jiving teachers out there. I’ve been jiving for 30 years. Any time I see him now, he says, ‘I hope I get recognition for this.'”

So what kind of music lends itself to Irish jive? Surprisingly, perhaps, American country music works very well. Glynn’s brother decided he wanted Irish jive as the first dance at his wedding reception. Glynn taught the members of the wedding party. “You can use some traditional Irish music, but jive is about songs and words, not tunes. For the wedding, we chose Randy Travis’s ‘I’m Going to Love You Forever and Ever.'”

Though it might sound like a relatively new twist on Irish music and dance, jive has actually been around for a while. “It came from the old days in Ireland,” Glynn says.

Older jive dancers would recall strutting their stiff to tunes like “Four Country Roads,” performed by a band called Big Tom and the Travelers.

“You mention Big Tom to the older generation, like my parents and grandparents, and their eyes light up, because they know who he is.”

You can learn some of the basic steps, and maybe your eyes will light up, too.

If you’re going to the workshop, Glynn says, wear shoes with leather soles. “You need to be able to glide. Sneakers don’t have any ‘give’.”

Lessons will take place in the ballroom. There’s an Irish music concert in the front of the building the same night, so use the ballroom entrance. For more information contact John Shields at johngshields@comcast.net.

Arts, Dance, Music

Hammerstep’s Got Talent

Hammerstep, photo by Kristine Helliesen

Hammerstep, photo by Kristine Helliesen

It’s not every day that an Irish-Hip Hop dance troupe makes it through the auditions of “America’s Got Talent,” especially with these words of blessing from judge Howard Stern: “Your skill level is so high that you’re are too talented to ignore.” But that’s exactly how it happened on the June 25th episode of the NBC series, when Hammerstep got put through to Las Vegas.

Performing their routine garbed all in black and wearing gas masks, the group danced to “Exodus,” an original composition co-produced by Hammerstep and Pat and Sean Mangan. Riverdance, it’s not— although the two co-founders of Hammerstep, Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus, are both Riverdance alums.

“We started conceptualizing Hammerstep back in 2009. Jason and I had met touring with Riverdance, and we were actually off tour at that point. We were both working 9 to 5 jobs—not dead-end, but not really fulfilling work. We were pretty miserable, and realized we had similar visions for putting together a large-scale touring production. We found we had a lot of similarities and parallels in how we viewed the world and what we wanted to do with Irish dance,” Garrett Coleman explained.

What both dancers had in mind involved taking Irish dance beyond the mainstream, at the same time incorporating other genres that had been born out of oppressive cultures.

“It kind of started out as an experiment in melding these dance forms; a lot of people wonder why we chose the dance forms we chose to integrate. We’re both trained in traditional Irish dance, so that was our base. But we noticed that the art form had remained pretty stagnant since Riverdance launched; the same choreography, nothing really changed. And that was great in its own right—obviously we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for people like Michael Flatley. But it was due for an infusion of something more socially relevant, something that would resonate with a younger audience.

“We saw the parallels from where the many dance forms come from as being a really strong thematic thread through all of them…Jason and I both come from similar backgrounds and upbringings in urban environments [Garrett is from Pittsburgh, PA, and Jason hails from Sydney, Australia]; we’re both huge fans of hip hop and urban culture. So, we took our social interests and tried to bring that into our dance and artistic and creative interests. We drew from tap and hip hop, and African stepping and body percussion. And the reason for choosing some of those is not just for the fact that they rhythmically work really well together, but also for the fact they’re all born out of previously oppressive social circumstances. Like Irish dancing arose as part of an Irish cultural resurgence in response to oppression by the British. And hip hop obviously was a huge unifier for impoverished communities in the Bronx and the other five boroughs of New York. It was a statement for the youth to come together around culture rather than being divided along gang lines and poverty.

“We have a heck of a lot of people from different backgrounds all coming together behind this project, and that was the basis for the piece with the gas masks—having a sense of anonymity throughout that piece, and then taking the masks off at the end of the piece and revealing people from different racial backgrounds, different genders, different dance styles. And then having that solidarity once we put the masks on, symbolizing a unification of cultures.”

The fusion that has taken root in their dance routines, and their ever expanding choreography, is only the tip of the iceberg for the larger mission of Hammerstep. They want to tell their stories, and the stories of the people they’ve surrounded themselves with, as part of a project with a much more socially significant message.

“The Hammerstep initiative,” Garrett defined, “is kind of like the umbrella organization that we’d like to launch a variety of things through. We have a Hammerstep Headquarters here in Brooklyn; it’s part living, part office, part dance studio—a massive dance studio that actually converts from a living room into a rehearsal space. The crew comes over here for the majority of our dance rehearsals, and we’re just getting into holding some community events here. We’re going to be launching a Hammerstep radio broadcast from here as well. Through the website, we’ll have a podcast/live stream of things that are happening here, like video footage of rehearsals. It’s a very creative space where there’s a lot of collaboration.”

Ultimately, they’d like to have a production company where they’d produce their own shows. The dancers work closely with musicians who like the idea of collaborating to make Hammerstep into a larger social movement, one that would include a Hammerstep foundation from which they’d launch outreach projects and dance workshops internationally.

“We know what dance has done for our own lives and what it can do for other people who don’t necessarily have access to it or who haven’t been introduced to it,” Garrett added.

It’s the continuing cross-cultural partnerships engaged in by the group that breathe new dimensions into their Irish dance base; while presenting workshops in Soweto, South Africa, recently, they learned as much as they taught.

“Whether it’s in Soweto, or Dayton, Ohio, wherever we do these residencies, the kids that we work with teach us a lot of their own cultural understandings of the world. We try to incorporate that into the choreography and into Hammerstep as a whole as we move forward. So, for instance, in Soweto, the African gumboot dance is very similar to what you’d see in the African American tradition of stepping here in the U.S. It was a response to the oppressive circumstances in the mining industry over in Soweto; it was used as a form of communication for people working in the mines. And they taught us this dance. It’s kind of a simple dance form but rhythmically, it grabs a hold of people and it fits very nicely with the Irish style as well. The language barrier was pretty significant, but that universal language of rhythm that everyone always talks about, it’s very true how powerful that is.”

With so much going on, the group is in the middle of seeing the hard work of the past 4 years take them into the next phase of Hammerstep.

“The ‘America’s Got Talent’ thing is the most exciting thing on the horizon. We’ve had to turn down some work to participate in that. And we’re working on a music video style production with some cutting edge choreography and concepts. It’s an exciting time.”

That excitement was on full display on “America’s Got Talent.” Among the dancers who are performing with the group for the television show is Jonathon Srour, who we here at Irish Philadelphia consider a home-town talent (he’s from York County). Jonathon is part of the musical Srour family who perform as Irish Blessing, along with Cushla, Josh and Jim. When Jonathon made the move to Brooklyn, he joined up with the Hammerstep crew, and they started training him in. The other members of the troupe behind the gas masks—in addition to Garrett, Jason and Jonathon—are Scott “Swag” Pilgrim, Ronald “Shadow” Simmons, Nicole Zepcevski and Meghan Lucey. And Garrett’s younger brother Conor Coleman, on summer break from his studies at LaSalle University, is also training to join the troupe.

If you haven’t caught the clip from their appearance on “America’s Got Talent,” you can watch it on YouTube.

And, to keep up with everything Hammerstep, Like them on Facebook. They have a website that is still under construction; you can check it out at this link.

Dance, News

A Dance Extravaganza At Penn’s Landing

Dancer Moira Cahill of the Coyle School. She' s also the reigning Philadelphia Mary from Dungloe.

Dancer Moira Cahill of the Coyle School. She’ s also the reigning Philadelphia Mary from Dungloe.

There were so many Irish dancers–representing most if not all of the dance schools in the Philadelphia region–that they didn’t fit in the area beneath the stage at the Irish Festival on Penn’s Landing on Sunday. So, some of them did their big number on the stairways that lead up through the ampitheater seating which was packed with festival goers.

It was all for Jane Richard. The 7-year-old Irish dancer from Massachusetts captured the hearts of Irish dancers everywhere. Jane’s brother, Martin, was killed in the Boston Marathon bombing in April. Her parents were also injured and Jane lost her leg. A local fund has been set up to collect money for the Richard family. The specially designed “Philadelphia Loves Boston” t-shirts that all the dancers were wearing on Sunday–and which were moving off the sale table faster than the hot dogs and beer–have been making a sizeable contribution to the fund.

We caught some of the action at the Sunday afternoon event, which followed a Mass and flag-raising ceremony at the Irish Memorial. Here are just some of the photos we took.

And a neat little video below.