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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.

Dance, News

Sending Their Love To Jane

Colleen, Tessa, and Caroline Crossed

Colleen, Tessa, and Caroline Crossed

It was 2 PM on Sunday at the Marple Sports Center, the air was filled with slip jig tunes, and there were so many girls in their sparkling feis dresses you almost needed sunglasses indoors. But the most popular spot at the annual Four Provinces Feis, which drew 1,000 competitors from the east coast, wasn’t around the dance arenas. It was a table where kids could write a get-well card for Jane.

“Except for the really little ones,” said Marg King, who was overseeing the card-signing, all the dancers knew about 7-year-old Jane Richard, the little Irish dancer from Milton, MA, who lost a leg in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing. Jane’s brother, Martin, 8, was killed in the blast as they stood at the finish line with their parents and another brother, who was uninjured. Their mother, Denise, was also hurt.

On Sunday, the dancers and their parents were buying so many of the Philadelphia Loves Boston t-shirts, hastily made up for the occasion, that there were no more small and medium sizes to be had. “They’re gone, sold out,” said King, obviously happy.

They were snapped up by people like Colleen Crossed of West Chester, whose two daughters, Tessa and Caroline, were competing. “I ran the Boston Marathon three times and remember it well,” Crossed said. “My kids were there at the finish line, just like those kids. It’s hard to imagine.” She shook her head. “But this is so nice,” she said, nodding toward the t-shirt table. “Really nice. You feel like you can do something.”

More than 100 individuals and organizations apparently feel the same way. They’ve signed on to support the “Philadelphia Loves Boston” campaign, founded by McDade Cara School of Irish Dance owner Sheila McGrory Sweeney, along with St. Patrick’s Day Parade Director Michael Bradley and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 business manager John Dougherty. The proceeds from the sale of the t-shirts will go to the Richard Family Fund, as will the entry fees from Sunday’s Charity Treble Reel Competition (which was won by McDade Cara dancers, wearing their Jane t-shirts).

“I sent out an email last week to everyone on my list and within 24 hours we had more than 100 respond to say they wanted to support this,” said Bradley, who hustled the t-shirts into production within 24 hours too.

One of the first to respond “in about 3 seconds.” said Bradley, was Ken Casey, front man for Boston’s premier Celtic rock band, the Dropkick Murphy’s, and founder of The Claddagh Fund, which raises money for under-funded nonprofits in Boston and Philadelphia, where the DKMs have a huge fan base. The band has already raised more than $100,000 for the Richard Family Fund, to help defray their medical costs. “He got back to me and said, we’’ll do whatever you need,” said Bradley.

While the t-shirts aren’t available by mail, you can pick yours up on June 2 at the Irish Festival at Penn’s Landing, where dancers from all the Irish dancing schools will be there to perform en masse as a tribute to Jane. You can also donate to the Richard Family Fund. Checks made out to the Richard Family Fund can be sent to PO Box 477, Paoli, PA 19301.

Dance, News

Act 2: Dancing Like a Star

Dance-Like-a-StarA father of four from County Cavan and a mother of five (including eight-year-old quadruplets!) were the winning couple in the Delco Gael’s “Dancing Like a Star” fundraiser on Friday, February 22.

Eight amateur couples competed in this second annual event, which drew 700 people—a sellout crowd—to the ballroom of the Springfield Country Club in Springfield, Delaware County. Martin Fay of Havertown, whose daughters play with the Delco Gaels, and Geana Morris of South Philadelphia, whose dancing was influenced, she said, by movie musicals and 12 years with the Mummers, were named the winners at the end of the evening, after a comical star turn as the Blues Brothers.

The judges, who included Wayne Saint David, jazz department head at the University of the Arts; Carole Orlandi Barr, of the Orlandi School of Dance, and Barr’s granddaughter, Jenna Rose Pepe, who teaches at Orlandi and competes herself as a dancer, chose Sean Brady and Kathy Konieczny as their top dancers of the night.

It was a tough call. The couples, who performed two Latin dances and whose individual dances called to mind everything from “The Honeymooners” (Mary Patrick and Joe Roan, who many of the dancers thought were the biggest competition going into the evening) to the ‘50s Beatnik era (Cecelia Quarino and John Kildea) to the Sinatra years (Mary Kay Bowden and Hank Clinton), learned their lessons well from choreographers Jennifer Cleary and Lisa Oster. They also practiced for more than 6 weeks.

One competitor, Sinead Bourke, a 21-year-old psychology major at West Chester University, followed her father, Pat, into the dance contest—he was a crowd hit last year. Her partner was Brian Anderson, a roofer from Ridley Township whose personal note in the program read, “Where the hell am I and how did I get here?

There was at least one experienced dancer in the group: Maureen Heather Lisowski, the daugher of the late Maureen McDade McGrory, founder of the McDade School of Irish Dance, is a teacher at McDade and also instructs the Second Street Irish Society dancers. Her partner was Stevie Robinson, formerly of County Derry, who plays Gaelic football for the St. Patrick’s team in Philadelphia.

And Fred Rigsby, a manager at Market Intelligence and Corporate Research, got to mimic his idol, Michael Jackson, in the number he did with his partner, Eileen Reavy, from Havertown, a math teacher who is now a stay-at-home mom.

The Delco Gaels is the largest and longest established Gaelic youth club in Pennsylvania. Hundreds of children ages 4 to 17 participate in Gaelic football, hurling, and camogie both indoors and outdoors throughout the year. They regularly compete in the Feile Peil na nOg, or Feile, a national festival of Gaelic football for boys and girls under 14, held annually in a host county in Ireland. The proceeds from “Dancing Like a Star” helps fund that trip and other things the club needs.

The organizing committee comprises Carmel Bradley, Una McDaid, Fionnuala McBrearty, Lorna Corr, Leigh Anne McCabe, Trish Daly, Anne Bourke, Aisling Travers, Anna Bonner, and Ethel McGarvey. Louie Bradley is the chairperson of the Delco Gaels.

This year’s host for the evening was Fox TV’s Jennaphr Frederick.

Dance, News

Act 2: Dancing Like a Star

Dance Like a Star
A father of four from County Cavan and a mother of five (including eight-year-old quadruplets!) were the winning couple in the Delco Gael’s “Dancing Like a Star” fundraiser on Friday, February 22.

Eight amateur couples competed in this second annual event, which drew 700 people—a sellout crowd—to the ballroom of the Springfield Country Club in Springfield, Delaware County. Martin Fay of Havertown, whose daughters play with the Delco Gaels, and Geana Morris of South Philadelphia, whose dancing was influenced, she said, by movie musicals and 12 years with the Mummers, were named the winners at the end of the evening, after a comical star turn as the Blues Brothers.

The judges, who included Wayne Saint David, jazz department head at the University of the Arts; Carole Orlandi Barr, of the Orlandi School of Dance, and Barr’s granddaughter, Jenna Rose Pepe, who teaches at Orlandi and competes herself as a dancer, chose Sean Brady and Kathy Konieczny as their top dancers of the night.

It was a tough call. The couples, who performed two Latin dances and whose individual dances called to mind everything from “The Honeymooners” (Mary Patrick and Joe Roan, who many of the dancers thought were the biggest competition going into the evening) to the ‘50s Beatnik era (Cecelia Quarino and John Kildea) to the Sinatra years (Mary Kay Bowden and Hank Clinton), learned their lessons well from choreographers Jennifer Cleary and Lisa Oster. They also practiced for more than 6 weeks.

One competitor, Sinead Bourke, a 21-year-old psychology major at West Chester University, followed her father, Pat, into the dance contest—he was a crowd hit last year. Her partner was Brian Anderson, a roofer from Ridley Township whose personal note in the program read, “Where the hell am I and how did I get here?

There was at least one experienced dancer in the group: Maureen Heather Lisowski, the daugher of the late Maureen McDade McGrory, founder of the McDade School of Irish Dance, is a teacher at McDade and also instructs the Second Street Irish Society dancers. Her partner was Stevie Robinson, formerly of County Derry, who plays Gaelic football for the St. Patrick’s team in Philadelphia.

And Fred Rigsby, a manager at Market Intelligence and Corporate Research, got to mimic his idol, Michael Jackson, in the number he did with his partner, Eileen Reavy, from Havertown, a math teacher who is now a stay-at-home mom.

The Delco Gaels is the largest and longest established Gaelic youth club in Pennsylvania. Hundreds of children ages 4 to 17 participate in Gaelic football, hurling, and camogie both indoors and outdoors throughout the year. They regularly compete in the Feile Peil na nOg, or Feile, a national festival of Gaelic football for boys and girls under 14, held annually in a host county in Ireland. The proceeds from “Dancing Like a Star” helps fund that trip and other things the club needs.

The organizing committee comprises Carmel Bradley, Una McDaid, Fionnuala McBrearty, Lorna Corr, Leigh Anne McCabe, Trish Daly, Anne Bourke, Aisling Travers, Anna Bonner, and Ethel McGarvey. Louie Bradley is the chairperson of the Delco Gaels.

This year’s host for the evening was Fox TV’s Jennaphr Frederick.

Dance, People

Dancing to the Spirit of Christmas

Colleen and Noreen soak up the applause after their duet.

Before the show started, Kathleen Madigan, dressed in her dark green velvet Irish dance costume, made the announcement. The audience had to be patient. Some of the dancers needed a little extra time to get into place.

The audience was more than patient as the Divine Providence Village Rainbow Irish Dancers, a group of developmentally disabled women at the Catholic Charities-supported community, joined with the Irish Stars Parker School of Irish Dance from Hellertown for their first Christmas recital. They were enthralled–and maybe, at some points, a little bit teary eyed.

The dancers performed a dozen numbers, this little group that started less than two years ago, the offshoot of an every-other-Saturday Irish dance class that Madigan was teaching. The troupe was born when Madigan, former nutritionist at Divine Providence and a student at the Parker School, realized that some of the women were pretty good dancers–and terrific performers.  Their first recital followed their first-ever appearance at the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade last March, where they earned the Mary Theresa Dougherty Award for the outstanding organization dedicated to serving God’s people in the community. The women also performed on the field during  Irish Heritage Night at the Phillies in June. They’ve learned many more dances since then, says Madigan. Enough to have a holiday recital.

The Christmas Show was held at the Cardinal Krol Center in Springfield, Montgomery County, on Sunday, December 2. Proceeds from the show will go toward buying the dancers logo jackets to wear at the parade.