A young dancer warms up at the Feis Culkin traditional Irish dance competition this month in Boyds, Maryland. (Photos by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Black shoes flashing, Conor O’Siadhail, 9, leaps across a temporary stage at a large sports center in Boyds, Maryland.

On a nearby stage, a fiddler plays a lively tune while Mary Kate Songer, 11, hits the beat precisely with the heels and toes of her hard shoes. Dozens of crystals glitter on her turquoise dress

Dancers await their results at the Feis Culkin traditional Irish dance competition in Boyds, Maryland.


Conor and Mary Kate are competing in a local Irish dance feis (pronounced fesh), or competition, held by the Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance. It is helping them prepare for their biggest dance challenge of the year: the Southern regional competition, called Oireachtas (EER-ock-tus), which begins Friday in Orlando, Florida.

Oireachtas is an Irish word meaning “gathering,” and this is a huge gathering, indeed! Conor, Mary Kate and several hundred Irish dancers from the Washington area will be among 1,700 dancers, age 7 to adult, from 14 states and Mexico. Dancers who do well at this three-day competition can advance to the national and world championships next year.

“I really like to compete,” says Conor, who takes classes at the Culkin School in Silver Spring. “It helps you to get better, to get to the next level.”

Fast and fun

You may have seen Irish step dance in such shows as “Riverdance” or on television. It has lots of fancy footwork and rapid leg movements, but dancers keep the upper body and arms straight and still.

“I have to watch my posture,” says Mary Kate, a student at the Hurley School of Irish Dance in Laytonsville and Urbana, Maryland.

Megan Reese, 13, another Hurley dancer, is working on stamina. Irish dance is “so lively and upbeat,” she says, that it’s easy to run out of breath.

Catie Connolly, 13, of Silver Spring Maryland, checks out the competition at the Feis Culkin tradition Irish dance competition.

Irish dance has become increasingly popular all over the world, says Laureen O’Neill- James, the director of the O’Neill- James School of Irish Dancing in Arlington. When she came to America as a child from Scotland, there were no Irish dance schools or competitions in the Washington region. Her mother started a school in 1969, and O’Neill-James continues to run it. There are now 15 schools in this area.

And you don’t have to be Irish to join in the fun!

A blend of styles

Irish dance didn’t start with competitions. According to O’Neill-James, the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s brought about changes in native dances.

“The [Irish] men went off to fight but also saw polkas and mazurkas” and other dances in the countries they visited, she says. They taught these new steps to others when they came home.

Over time, these different styles blended into a group dance called a ceili (KAY-lee). Ceilis were often danced at weddings, funerals and even just at crossroads in rural Ireland. They were a “social event for the neighbors,” says Annie Hurley Morrison, director of the Hurley School.

Many Irish dance schools continue to teach these traditional group or team dances and to host gatherings where the whole family can dance. At Oireachtas, Mary Kate will be competing both as a solo dancer and on a team.

“On teams, you really become friends with the other girls,” she says.

Elle Pickard, 7, of Arlington, Emma Thurber, 10 of Odenton, Maryland, and Maeve Hartley, 8 of Herndon, Virginia, warm up at the Feis Culkin.

Aden Smigel, 12, and her sister Gigi, 9, preserve the close-knit spirit of Irish dance in another way. They sometimes perform as a team of three with their father. They even danced together in the Disney World parade.

According to Aden, their dad was inspired to take lessons when he saw what a good time his daughters were having at the O’Neill-James School.

Her hair and feet flying as Maria Franklin, 12, of Virginia Beach prepares for her performance.

Audrey Pickard, 9, of Alexandria laces up her shoes to compete.The shoes, called ghillies, are are worn for dancing the reel. Heavier shoes are used for jigs.
Ready to dance

The weeks before Oireachtas are filled with extra practices as the dancers fine-tune their steps. Judges will be looking at timing, foot placement, upper body control, and the grace and energy of the overall performance, Culkin says.

Dancers are also checking to make sure that their sparkly dance costumes and wigs are in good shape. (Many girls wear wigs instead of curling their hair like Irish competitors of the past.) And dancers are polishing the two pairs of shoes needed for different dances. Soft leather shoes, or ghillies (GIL-lees), help with the light, quick movements of the reel. With hard shoes, feet can “drum” to the beat of hornpipes and heavy jigs.

Everyone has a favorite dance.

“I love the rhythm of the hornpipe,” Aden says. But Gigi prefers the reel with its “jumpy steps.”

As the kids prepare to leave for the big competition, even champions feel the dancing of butterflies in their stomachs.

“I’m excited and nervous,” says Megan, about her eighth Oireachtas. “I want to do my best and hopefully qualify for worlds,” to be held in April in Montreal, Canada.

— Mary Quattlebaum

Irish dance glossary

Ceili (pronounced KAY-lee): Group or team dances. Means “visit” in Irish.

Feis (fesh): Irish dance competitions. Means “festival” in Irish.

Oireachtas (EER-rok-tus): Large Irish dance competitions. Means “gathering” in Irish.

Hornpipe: Hard-shoe dance, with rhythmic stomps and clicks.

Heavy jig: Also called a treble jig; it is danced in hard shoes.

Reel: Soft-shoe dance, with quick, intricate steps and lots of movement across the stage.

Take a class

Classes start in January, although schools are often flexible on allowing new students during the session. You can begin at any age, and most schools let you watch a class before signing up. Always ask a parent before going online.

Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance in Bethesda, Glen Echo, Kensington, Rockville and Silver Spring. Call 301-593-9600 or visit www.culkinschool.com.

Hurley School of Irish Dance
in Laytonsville and Urbana, Maryland. Call 301-367-4890 or visit www.hurleyirishdancers.com.

O’Neill-James School of Irish Dancing in Arlington. Call 703-241-1978 or visit www.oneilljamesschool.com.

More information: Check www.greenfeet-dc.com for other local Irish dance schools.