South Washington County youths get their Celtic kicks at upcoming Irish dance celebration
The soundtrack of traditional Irish music and pounds of heavy clogging are everyday sounds in the homes of Sean Boyles and Claire Dietzsch.
Students at the prestigious St. Paul-based O'Shea Irish Dance school, Boyles, 14, and Dietzsch, 16, have literally danced their way to the top. With more than a dozen years of dance experience between the two teens, the spirit of the Emerald Isle is alive and well.
While the origins of traditional Irish dancing are cloudy, traveling dance teachers roamed the Irish countryside as early as the 18th century teaching the art of the Céilí and set dance styles. Fluent in both, Boyles, a student at St. Ambrose Catholic School in Woodbury, and Dietzsch, a student at Park High School in Cottage Grove, have been invited to participate in the annual 10-day "Kickin' It Irish" music and dance event.
Hosted by SteppingStone Youth Theatre in St. Paul, the event features the Celtic stylings of acclaimed Twin Cities fiddle and flute act Two Tap Trio, various Irish musicians, and performances from O'Shea Irish Dance students, including Woodbury Irish dancer and instructor Sophia Myerly. An Iowa native, Myerly, 18, first moved to Woodbury several years ago to be closer to the Irish dancing community that was rapidly growing in Minnesota.
Throughout the last few years, the east metro trio has been lighting up the dance floor with electric performances of some of the most difficult Irish dances.
"It's a really addictive sport to watch," Paula Dietzsch said of her daughter's performances. "And, the strength of these kids, athletically, is just amazing."
Agility, overall body strength and athleticism is attributed to the almost daily, several hour-long practices in both hard and soft shoes. Novice dancers begin learning the art of Irish dancing by training with a soft, almost ballet slipper-like shoe, also known as ghillies. Learning proper form and technique is crucial to graduating to the hard shoe, which is bulkier, and its fiberglass heels provide the famous stomping sounds associated with traditional Irish dancing.
"When you first get them, they feel like bricks," Claire said. "They aren't flexible, but you work into them."
Once dancers perfect their craft, they participate in regional and worldwide competitions alongside some of the most skilled dancers in their sport to attain the highest skill level of Open Champion. Dietzsch and Myerly both have this distinction, while Boyles is one level below at Preliminary Champion.
"To gain a skill level, dancers participate in a traditional Irish feis," Myerly explained. Pronounced "fesh," the competition is an opportunity for skilled dancers to move up in rank, ultimately vying for the Open Champion title. "Once you work your way up to the highest skill level, you begin to think about the big competitions such as the national and world championships. You work your way up incrementally and it's a lot of hard work dancing toward something bigger."
While the main focus is on being the best at their craft, Boyles said it has given him the athletic experience he said he couldn't find in other sports and the opportunity to meet new friends.
"I really like Irish dancing mainly because of all the people you can meet," Boyles said. "The more competitions you dance in, the more people you meet."
The constant networking is also a reason Myerly said she is so active in the Irish dance community in the Twin Cities, and said it is a sport that offers positive lifelong skills.
"I feel the biggest thing that Irish dancing offers to anyone involved is the sense of being able to better yourself," she said. "Everyone comes into a new sport with a sense of self-awareness, but you really learn how to understand and develop that through dancing. To develop that life skill through the arts is such a rare intersection of gift."
All three dancers will participate in the upcoming "Kickin' It Irish" music and dance showcase, which features some of the best Irish musicians and dancers in the Twin Cities. The celebration of all things Irish will also feature the talents of Cormac O'Se, founder of O'Shea Dance and original member of the famous Riverdance performers.
If you go
The "Kickin' It Irish" event begins Friday, March 8 and runs through St. Patrick's Day. Tickets for the event are available by calling 651-225-9265 or by visiting the SteppingStone Theatre website. http://www.steppingstonetheatre.org/