On a sunny October afternoon in a basement dance studio on Capitol Hill, young dancers shuffle, kick and swing each other around. Still in their school clothes, they laugh and smile and swirl to a jaunty tune played by their dance teacher, Shannon Dunne. She taps her feet and sways while she plays a concertina, a small instrument similar to an accordion.
The dancers, most of them fifth- and sixth-graders who live in the neighborhood, come to learn two kinds of traditional Irish dance. One is set dancing, which involves four or eight people dancing in patterns. They also do sean-nos (pronounced SHANE-ohs) dancing, a free-form dance style handed down through generations. Dunne, who began studying sean-nos on trips to Ireland in 2005, is one of the few people to teach the style in the United States.
The style requires dancers to add their own personal flair.
"You're by yourself, and there are different moves to go with the beat," says 9-year-old sean-nos dancer Madeline Stevenson, "and you can express your true self."
That expression comes through the feet hitting the floor in a spontaneous mix-and-match of heel-toe taps, shuffles, stamps, kicks and the loud noise their leather-bottom shoes make when they strike the dance floor.
In August, Madeline and 18 fellow students traveled with their teacher to Ennis, Ireland, to compete at the All Ireland Music and Dance Competition. Evie Corr and her family traveled early so the 10-year-old could attend a week-long dance class in Ireland.
"There were a bunch of Irish girls," Evie says. "It was fun to meet them and learn about their culture. But really, they were just 10-year-old girls, just like me."
The kids danced and sang their way through Ennis before and after the competition, even busking, or dancing on the street with a hat on the ground to accept coins from passing strangers who enjoy the entertainment. "Participating in a culture that's not our own but that we were accepted into was really special," Dunne says, "and I think the kids really got that."
But competing in a foreign country in front of several hundred people can be nerve-racking. Madeline says that when you start doing what you love, you forget what you're afraid of and do it for utter joy.
"I just kind of made myself dance," Madeline says, "and then it got so much easier."
Kai Sage, 11, had his Irish grandparents watching when he competed in a "half set," which involved four dancers, including Madeline.
Even though the kids didn't rank high in the 18-and-under competition, a judge awarded them a special medal because she loved the performance. She told them it reminded her of her childhood in Ireland when her grandparents would visit from the remote Aran Islands and her family would dance in the old style.
Kai says he felt "almost too flattered" that she liked their dance and welcomed them so warmly.
Back in the Washington area, the young dancers perform every month or so at concerts, fundraisers and festivals. This weekend, they'll perform at the Maryland Irish Festival.
"The thing that I love about this type of dance is that you're expected to be yourself," Dunne says. "If you're a kid doing it, you have to learn the steps, but you also have to put your own style into it."
The main requirement, she says, is having fun.
"When I hear the music, I just love to correspond with it," Madeline says. "Sometimes I just tap my feet. It's hard to resist."
What: The Maryland Irish Festival
When: Friday 6 to 11 p.m., Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 6 p.m.
Where: Maryland State Fairgrounds, 2200 York Road, Timonium, Maryland. (You'll find Shannon Dunne Dance students on the Tullamore Dew Stage of South Hall on Saturday at 1:15 p.m.)
How much: Under 17, free; adults $15-$20.