By: Onnie Middendorf
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.