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A Step in a Different Direction

Local Irish Dancers Go for World Title

Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page C16

When 15-year-old Olivia Houck trains, she is all athlete: lifting weights, eating a high-protein diet, doing Pilates exercises to strengthen her back and stomach muscles.

When she suits up, though, Olivia looks more like a stage performer: zipping into a sparkly purple dress, pulling up lacy white knee socks and sweeping her hair into a graceful bun.

From left, Kelly Anne McGovern, 12; Kayle Borenstein, 14; Phillip Stacy, 14; Olivia Houck, 15; and Cierra O'Keefe, 10, strut their stuff. (Photos Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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But when Olivia and her fellow Irish dance students do their thing -- pounding the wooden floor so fast it sounds like machine-gun fire, sproinging so high they seem to defy gravity -- it's clear they are both artists and athletes.

"These kids are going to the World Irish Dance Championships and that's a whole 'nother thing -- it's like the NFL!" said their teacher, Sean Culkin. He is director of the Culkin School of Traditional Dance, based in Silver Spring and with classes elsewhere in the region.

Three Culkin School students (Olivia, who lives in McLean; Cierra O'Keefe, 10, of Sykesville; and Phillip Stacy, 14, of Silver Spring) will be going to the world competition next week in Ennis, Ireland. (About a dozen Washington-area students have qualified for the 2005 worlds.)

There will be lots of Irish dancing in the Washington area and elsewhere this week, with St. Patrick's Day coming up tomorrow. Olivia, Cierra and Phillip, along with other top Culkin dancers Kelly Anne McGovern and Kayle Borenstein, took time to explain their love of the centuries-old dance.

{grv} Step Lively

The way Cierra got hooked on Irish dancing is pretty much the way the other kids got into it: She remembers being 5 years old and watching a tape of the famous Irish dance show "Riverdance."

"It was the coolest thing I ever saw," Cierra said. "I said to myself, I want to do that!" What's cool about Irish dancing? It's fast, it's done to zippy accordion and fiddle music and the moves require lightning-fast feet, leaping ability and perfect posture.

Straighten Up, Dance Right!

The stiff, shoulders-back, arms-down posture is a key part of the style known as step dancing. Instructors get dancers to loop their arms back around a broomstick, or hold pieces of paper against their bodies with their arms to perfect the dance. To keep their hands scrunched in a fist, teachers have young dancers clutch pennies.

"That [stiff] stance was the hardest thing for me," said Phillip, one of 33 boys at the Culkin School. (The school has 475 students, from age 5 through adult.)

Once a dancer has learned to keep the body stiff, it can be a hard habit to kick, Olivia said. Once, in middle school, she realized she was running that way in PE. Olivia says her friends at McLean High School, especially the break dancers, think Irish dancing is cool. She has even tried Irish dancing to rap music. "All you need is a good beat!" she said.

Getting ready for the competition in Ireland has meant long practices. In addition, Cierra is looking for a little extra help. Under her pillow she has lucky Spanish "worry dolls" and a shamrock coin from her grandmother that says "May luck be with you."

As for next week's competition: "I'm a little nervous," said Cierra, "but mostly, I can't wait to show them what I've got."

-- Fern Shen

© 2005 The Washington Post Company