By: Onnie Middendorf
Annie and Onnie, Celtic Festival 2011

“Annie and Onnie Celtic Festival 2011” These are close ups of the school dresses and headbands that Erickson Academy of Irish Dance wear. Each school has their own colors and designs that set them apart from other dance schools. These are worn by less experienced dancers and dancers doing traditional ceili dances.

Just like Saint Patrick’s Day is enjoyed by most who consider themselves Irish-American and those who just enjoy the festivities on March 17th, Irish Dancing is enjoyed by people with and without Irish ancestry all around the world.  Here in the United States, names like O’Brien and Sheehan appear on feis lists, but there are also names like Mueller and Kraemer and other non-Irish names.  A feis is an Irish Dance competition, and they typically have a list of all of the dancers competing as well as the dance school they attend.  One of my neighbors told me about a time when she went to see her niece dance and referred to it as a “Shirley Temple” convention because of all of the wigs.  Everyone is welcome to compete, and welcome to learn as well.  Irish Dance instructors are dedicated to preserving the Irish-American cultural tradition of Irish Dance by teaching it to people from all backgrounds, from curly Irish redheads to people like me without any Irish Heritage at all, and everyone in between. 

“Queen City Feis 2011” This is a solo dress, which is a dress worn by a dancer after advancing to a certain level (it differs from school to school) or after receiving certain places at competitions.  Many girls will rent or borrow their dress, because they get very expensive.  Mine was borrowed from my cousin’s girlfriend who used to dance for McGing.  This photo was taken at a feis, and though it’s hard to see, it shows the typical set up for a large feis.  It takes place in a large area, such as a gym or convention center, and has stages set up around the room.  The stages are made of plywood and has a curtain erected at the back to enable the judges, who sit at a table in front of the stage, to see the dancers better.  The dancers walk on in a line and take turns dancing in pairs.  A musician sits to the side of the judge at one of the front corners of the stage.  The judge writes down your numbers and takes notes as you dance.  After the judge finishes for that group (for example, Hornpipe girls in the novice category for those under 16), they will post the top scores on a huge wall and you can get your individual score sheets with the comments on it.

“Queen City Feis 2011”
This is a solo dress, which is a dress worn by a dancer after advancing to a certain level (it differs from school to school) or after receiving certain places at competitions. Many girls will rent or borrow their dress, because they get very expensive. Mine was borrowed from my cousin’s girlfriend who used to dance for McGing. This photo was taken at a feis, and though it’s hard to see, it shows the typical set up for a large feis. It takes place in a large area, such as a gym or convention center, and has stages set up around the room. The stages are made of plywood and has a curtain erected at the back to enable the judges, who sit at a table in front of the stage, to see the dancers better. The dancers walk on in a line and take turns dancing in pairs. A musician sits to the side of the judge at one of the front corners of the stage. The judge writes down your numbers and takes notes as you dance. After the judge finishes for that group (for example, Hornpipe girls in the novice category for those under 16), they will post the top scores on a huge wall and you can get your individual score sheets with the comments on it.

If you are part Irish, your parents might sign you up for dance lessons once you reach five years old, which was common with many of the dancers at the school I attended.  Many girls (and boys) had older siblings who danced, or their mom danced when she was a girl, and so it was just a given that they would too.  Those who aren’t Irish typically discover it a bit later on.  Some get hooked when Irish Dancers perform at their local library or at their grade school, or others see “Riverdance” or “Lord of the Dance” and fall in love.  Others hear about it from their friends who dance, or they see their friend messing around or practicing one day and decide they want to try it out.

For me, I saw “Riverdance” when I was in early grade school and thought it was really cool, but didn’t think to ask my mom if I could do it because I didn’t know that was “a thing.”  I started in seventh grade, which is really late by most standards.  Our grade school’s soccer team was a complete flop (as in we were in an eighth grade league and we had to have fifth graders play because there were so few of us), and my friend Kathleen taught us a Ceili she had made up for a performance on Mercy Day in honor of Catherine McCauley (Catherine McCauley founded the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland).  A Ceili is a group dance.  There are traditional Ceili dances that are the same around the world and have been danced the same for generations, and then there are others that are choreographed and new.  I really enjoyed it and so I decided that I wanted to do it too.  I signed up at Erickson Academy of Irish Dance (where Kathleen danced) and started partway through the 2007-2008 school year.

“Cincinnati Celtic Festival 2012” This photo, taken at the Cincinnati Celtic Festival in 2012, shows the school dresses, the, the solo dresses, and the choreography costumes as well.  Choreography costumes are neither school dresses nor solo dresses, and are worn when doing non-traditional Ceili/choreographed dances, and, even sometimes when doing traditional ceili dances.

“Cincinnati Celtic Festival 2012”
This photo, taken at the Cincinnati Celtic Festival in 2012, shows the school dresses, the, the solo dresses, and the choreography costumes as well. Choreography costumes are neither school dresses nor solo dresses, and are worn when doing non-traditional Ceili/choreographed dances, and, even sometimes when doing traditional ceili dances.

Allison Erickson founded Erickson Academy of Irish Dance in 1998.  Irish Dancing was a monumental part of Erickson’s life.  She began dancing when she was ten years old, relatively old by most Irish Dancing standards.  She was actually instructed by Mary McGing, who founded the largest Irish Dance school in Cincinnati back in 1977.  As her student, Erickson qualified for the World Championships of Irish Dancing three separate times, performed for Gene Kelly, and performed on tour in the Soviet Union.  Before founding Erickson Academy of Irish Dance, she co-founded the Bluegrass Irish Dancers (known now as McClanahan School of Irish Dance), and taught there for years.

 

“Cincinnati Celtic Festival 2011 Banner” The Cincinnati Celtic Festival has a variety of performances, from music and song, to dancers from different schools and levels, and it’s sponsored in part by Guinness!

“Cincinnati Celtic Festival 2011 Banner”
The Cincinnati Celtic Festival has a variety of performances, from music and song, to dancers from different schools and levels, and it’s sponsored in part by Guinness!

After teaching the Bluegrass Irish Dancers, she founded her own dance studio.  In February of 1998, Allison Erickson, TCRG (certified as a teacher by Coimisiun le Rince Gaelacha), ADCRG (certified as an adjudicator by Coimisiun le Rince Gaelacha), began her dance school.  Currently located on Wilmer Avenue near Lunken Airport in Cincinnati, it was originally in a much smaller studio storefront on the edge of Mount Washington and Anderson Township.  It was a quiet area, a residential neighborhood that many years before had been the end of the Mount Washington Streetcar Line.  The Erickson Academy has since grown and expanded, and in 2007 moved to Linwood to a studio that was originally a warehouse/storage space.  Closely located to the river bottoms, Erickson Academy of Irish Dance is near the East End of Cincinnati.  In the warmer months, the dancers roll up the door on the loading dock to let fresh air into the studio’s larger room, which on the opposite end has the Irish Flag painted from floor to ceiling and wall-to-wall.  It has signatures from the school’s dancers who attend the Mid-America Oireachtas (large dancing competition) each year.

“Cincinnati Celtic Festival 2011 Mid Dance” This is a photo taken during the Three Hand Reel.  Some ceili dances have names like the “Siege of Ennis,” and others are named for how many people are dancing and what kind of dance it is, like the “Three Hand Reel.”  There are three dancers (three hand) dancing to a Reel.

“Cincinnati Celtic Festival 2011 Mid Dance”
This is a photo taken during the Three Hand Reel. Some ceili dances have names like the “Siege of Ennis,” and others are named for how many people are dancing and what kind of dance it is, like the “Three Hand Reel.” There are three dancers (three hand) dancing to a Reel.

Erickson and her other teachers, Allison Carr and Rachel Voltaggio, are dedicated to preserving this tradition in teaching the individual steps and traditional ceili dances as they also endeavor to “foster friendships in a respectful learning environment and nurture talent to achieve success on every level — recreationally, socially and competitively!”

To share this passion and love for Irish-American culture, every year Erickson Academy participates in the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in Cincinnati and holds its own dance performance called the Emerald Ball, originally named the Brigid’s Bonfire Ball. Erickson puts on the Queen City Feis and goes out into the community on Saint Patrick’s Day as well as throughout the year to perform in libraries, grade schools, nursing homes, and pubs.

 

“Brigid's Bonfire Ball 2013” This photo was taken at “Brigid’s Bonfire Ball,” later renamed “The Emerald Ball,” which is Erickson Academy’s annual “recital.”  Irish Dance recitals are different from typical dance recitals, at least in my experience they are.   There isn’t a stage to dance on, the dancers dance on the floor, and people are seated at tables around them.  At our recitals there was a bar at the back of the room and people will often bring food in with them.  At intermission and at the end of the recital, the band would play and our head instructor would call the steps for different ceili dances.  The most common one was the “Siege of Ennis.”  It was an opportunity for dancers and the audience to interact and enjoy dancing in a casual way.

“Brigid’s Bonfire Ball 2013”
This photo was taken at “Brigid’s Bonfire Ball,” later renamed “The Emerald Ball,” which is Erickson Academy’s annual “recital.” Irish Dance recitals are different from typical dance recitals, at least in my experience they are. There isn’t a stage to dance on, the dancers dance on the floor, and people are seated at tables around them. At our recitals there was a bar at the back of the room and people will often bring food in with them. At intermission and at the end of the recital, the band would play and our head instructor would call the steps for different ceili dances. The most common one was the “Siege of Ennis.” It was an opportunity for dancers and the audience to interact and enjoy dancing in a casual way.

While I began much later than the majority of dancers, I never felt unwelcome.  I danced until I graduated from high school, and throughout that whole time dance was my favorite part of the week.  It made me wish so badly that I was Irish, and that I could claim it as a part of my cultural heritage.  But even though it isn’t, I can still appreciate the beauty and the cultural significance of Irish Dancing.