Kickin' it, Irish style

05:00 AM, Mar 17, 2013

Irish dancers perform in soft shoes called ghillies, which are made out of leather. (MARIE DE JESUS//STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)/

Written By Caurie Putnam

Bekah Leathersich was born on St. Patrick’s Day.

At 4 years old, her mother signed her up for Irish dancing lessons — and it stuck.

Now, the newly minted 17-year-old is a prize-winning competitive dancer with the McLaughlin-Goodwin-O’Shanecy Academy of Irish Dance in Rochester.

I think being born on St. Patrick’s Day gave my mom the idea to sign me up,” says Leathersich, of Brockport. “And we’re part Irish.”

Irish dancing is a group of traditional dance forms, including jigs, reels and hornpipes, which originated in ancient Ireland and grew over each century and foreign invasion of the Emerald Isle.

During most conquests, Irish dancing was outlawed. Yet, the people of Ireland could safely dance in their homes because traditional Irish dancing developed without arm movements — therefore if an enemy looked into their windows they would not be able to tell their legs were dancing.

Irish dance competitions began in 1893 with the formation of the Gaelic League to promote Irish culture. Irish immigrants brought their dancing with them, but it was not until the international Irish dance show Riverdance captivated the world in 1994 that Irish dance became widely visible and competitive here.

Irish dancing is strong in Rochester,” says Edward J. Murphy Jr., an adjunct lecturer of dance at The College at Brockport and founder of Drumcliffe School of Irish Dance in Rochester. “We regularly have strong contenders and dancers.”

The competitive lifestyle

Leathersich did not begin competing in Irish dance competitions, called Feiseanna, until she was 10.

She now is an open prize-winning dancer who competed in the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Oireachtas, or regional competitions, in Philadelphia.

When I first started dancing I didn’t want to compete because I thought it was scary,” Leathersich said. “Once I did I realized how much I liked it. There’s not competition within our school, and it’s fun getting to know people from other schools.”

Bailey Carter, 16, of Fairport also began dancing young, but chose to compete more quickly.

When I was 8 I danced in my first competition against my sister, and she beat me,” says Carter, who is an open dance champion with the Boland School of Irish Dance in Greece. “I didn’t like that feeling. I decided to work hard.”

Carter, who practices every day for two to three hours, is now on her way to the World Championships in Boston later this month.

This is her third time qualifying for the prestigious competition, where she previously placed in the top 50 in her age group.

Erin Buckley, 15, who started dancing with the Boland School at age 4, also has qualified for the World Championships several times since becoming an open dance champion — the highest level of competitive Irish dancing — since age 10.

My favorite thing about Irish dance is meeting new people and traveling to different competitions,” says Buckley, of Fairport. “I competed in Scotland for Worlds and it was a journey. I met dancers from Ireland, England, and all over the world.”

Rich with opportunities

In Rochester, Irish dancers like Leathersich, Carter and Buckley have lots of opportunities to study and to make their Irish dance experience as competitive or non-competitive as they want.

The diversity in competition levels is just one of the many attributes that make Rochester’s Irish dance community so rich, says Murphy, whose students regularly compete and win awards in national and international competitions.

Murphy founded Drumcliffe 25 years ago when there were only three other certified schools in Rochester — the Boland School, the Kathleen O’Keefe School and the Butler Academy of Irish Dance.

The community had a really big growth around the time of Riverdance, and all the schools grew quite a bit,” he says. “It was the beginning of the renaissance of Irish dance. Now the numbers have stabilized.”

There are currently five certified Irish dance schools headquartered in the greater Rochester area — Drumcliffe; Boland; McLaughlin-Goodwin-O’Shanecy; the Young School of Irish Dance (which has five locations in Rochester); and the McMahon School of Irish Dance.

Several others teach Irish dancing, but are not certified.

Compared to other upstate cities like Syracuse and Buffalo we do not have as many schools, but we have a large number of students,” Murphy said. “And our students are consistently strong.”

Murphy also has seen more male students in the past few decades and has personally taught several who went on to perform with Riverdance.

His school’s population is one-third male, high compared with most schools in the area, which have three or four boys for every 25 girls.

Murphy also believes that because Rochester has three current or former dance instructors who are adjudicators (or judges) certified by the Irish Dance Commission in Dublin, Ireland — himself, Barbara Boland and Kathleen O’Keefe — it elevates the city’s international reputation as a strong, competitive,Irish dance community.

Irish dancing of all sorts

One of Rochester’s newest Irish dance instructors — Amy Coppola, co-director of the fledgling Dunleavy Irish Dance Studio in East Rochester — sees the value of competition in the sport.

We leave it up to our families to get involved as they want in competitions,” says Coppola, who began Irish dancing when she was 6. “I do feel competition helps promote the culture, but it’s not mandatory.”

What is mandatory at the Dunleavy School, which is co-directed by Father Brian Frain — a teacher at McQuaid Jesuit High School and a certified Irish dance instructor — is an emphasis on the music and history of Irish dance.

There has been a rapid change in styles and modernization of Irish dance since Riverdance,” says Coppola, 27, of Penfield. “My objective is to keep the traditions and history alive.”

Students at the Dunleavy School learn to play traditional Irish instruments, like the tin whistle, and learn an ancient style of Irish dancing called brush broom dancing, which involves dancing over a broomstick.

Brush dancing is a dying form of Irish dancing that you rarely see anymore,” Coppola says. “Even though we don’t compete with it, we are one of the only schools in the country that teaches it.”

In Gates, Rince Na Saor is one of the few Irish dance schools that does not emphasize any competition.

Kathy Whitfield, a former competitive dancer, founded the school in 1997 for recreation.

Just like any sport there needs to be a spectrum and options for competitiveness,” Whitfield says. “Like any competitive sport, Irish dancing is very expensive, and I felt there should be an option for those who couldn’t afford it or just didn’t want to compete.”

Since founding the school, which was the first in Rochester to take adults with no Irish step dance experience, Whitfield’s enrollment has been consistent, she says.

In the end, Irish dance is not just about a type of dance, it’s about our culture,” Whitfield said.