By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 17, 2011
What’s St. Patrick’s Day without jigs and reels?
That’s why students of Irish dancing across Atlanta are in demand, from church performances and the Peachtree Street parade to the Hibernian Society ball and restaurants and pubs.
The Irish dancers in colorful dresses and curly wigs bring down the house with their well-timed, rhythmic steps, jumps, heel touches.
“At our dance school, we just have fun with it. We put on our biggest smiles and we go through our routines and it doesn’t matter if we mess up because we are having fun,” said Enya Filberg, 14, an eighth-grader at Holy Redeemer School, Alpharetta.
“It’s really, really crazy” around this time of year, but Enya said she loves it. Riding down Peachtree Street on a float is great, she said. “We just have fun with it.”
Enya laced up the hard shoes when she was 4 and in April is a competitor for the first time at the World Irish Dancing Championship in Dublin, Ireland.
Dancing is a way to stay close to her Irish heritage from her mother, a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Enya said. She practices at the King O’Sullivan School of Irish Dance studio four days a week and when she’s not at the studio, she’ll spend an hour in the family garage where a special dance floor is installed.
Much of the Irish dancing world is filled with competitions and the biggest is coming up in Dublin. It’s called the “Olympics of Irish Dancing.” But for the week around St. Patrick’s Day, youngsters can forget the competitions and let their curly wigs down, so to speak.
Catie Foley, 18, and a parishioner at St. Brigid Church, Johns Creek, said, “I love dancing with a live band. It’s a lot of improvisation. I definitely get to go out and have fun. It really is an incredible time.”
Around St. Patrick’s Day, dancers are in the spotlight.
“It’s a time when Americans get to experience a culture they don’t see every day,” she said.
Foley placed ninth in her age group at the 2010 world championship and hopes next month to move up in the world rankings.
“I started when I was 5. Not only do I have an Irish background, but my cousins in Chicago and San Francisco started to do it, so I started to do it. Now, I’m the only one still doing it,” said Foley, who hopes to study either nursing or international business next year in college.
“Dancing is really my thing. I’m good at it. I love the travel. I’ve been to Ireland 13 times and England and Scotland. Dance has really given me a lot of amazing experiences,” she said.
In January, she traveled to China to teach students Irish dance.
The craziness of the week surrounding St. Patrick’s Day is exhausting, but welcomed.
Here’s one example. Students at the Mulligan School of Irish Dance on Saturday, March 11, performed at the Atlanta parade, then did a set at Underground Atlanta, then they piled into a bus for a show in Douglasville’s Irish Bred Pub, then moved on to Duluth where they again went on stage at St. Benedict Church and the Harp Irish Pub and ended the day at Transfiguration Church, Marietta.
“And that’s just on Saturday,” said Eileen Mulligan Evans, school founder.
“From church to pub. And then back home to collapse,” she joked.
For dance instructors, they get to introduce their students to a wider audience to enjoy the festivities.
“It’s an energetic dance. It’s fast moving. It’s great fun. Everyone wants to clap, everybody wants to have fun.” said Jacinta “Jessie” O’Sullivan, who has been teaching for close to 20 years at her studio, the King O’Sullivan School of Irish Dance. “This is the time of year we get to have some fun. The kids love this time of year. They get to perform.”
Karl Drake, who started the Drake School of Irish Dance with locations here and across the Southeast, said he doesn’t see the popularity of the dance slowing down.
“It’s still growing. I think American are infatuated with Ireland and the culture,” he said. “They love the music, they love the culture.”
Drake students performed during St. Patrick’s Day at St. Brigid Church, Johns Creek, St. Monica Church, Duluth, St. Patrick Church, Norcross, and Holy Family Church, Marietta, among other places.
O’Sullivan taught her daughter in her kitchen. When the youngster, who is now studying law in Ireland, performed in kindergarten, suddenly O’Sullivan got a flood of requests to teach others.
“I actually started teaching dance in my kitchen, moving the table around,” said O’Sullivan.
Now she has about 120 students around metro Atlanta practicing at rented dance studios.
The best dancers enter competitions, but many enjoy it simply to dance and keep their Irish roots alive.
Evans remembers teaching in the 1970s in parish halls. Many pastors were Irish and “they jumped at the opportunity to have Irish dancing in their parish,” Mulligan said.
She started dancing as a youngster.
“My mom was a Flanagan, she married a Mulligan. All my brothers and sisters, instead of doing soccer, we all did Irish dancing. My father wanted to keep the heritage alive,” she said.
There is more emphasis now on competitive dancing, she said, but the secret to a good dancer remains the same: “You dance with your heart and it comes out in your sole.”