Originally created 09/17/99

Irish dancing not as simple as it looks



It may look like a bunch of hopping and skipping to some people, but traditional Irish dancing is a little more complex than that.

The 42 members of the Augusta Irish Dancers should know.

Each week, children from ages 8 to 18 practice the intricate steps that make up folk dancing in the Celtic tradition.

The dancers will perform this weekend at the 19th annual Arts in the Heart of Augusta festival, where the featured ethnic group is the Irish.

The Augusta Irish Dancers will perform traditional Irish dances, as well as their own Lord of the Dance production, throughout the weekend festival.

They will be joined by two visiting dancers who are professional teachers and world competitors.

The troupe was formed about 13 years ago by Annie and Louie Emmett after the couple went to Augusta's St. Patrick's Day parade and noticed the lack of traditional dancers, said their daughter Philomena "Phil" Mooney. Mrs. Mooney, manager of the Catholic Social Services Thrift Shop on Central Avenue, now serves as the group's teacher.

"It's a very family-oriented group. You have to have participation from family, students and teachers," she said.

Mrs. Mooney, whose three children dance, said Irish dancing gives them a chance to experience another culture.

"It's wonderful to expose children to their culture. There are few places in Augusta to do that," she said.

Irish step dancing dates from the time Vikings held power in Ireland, hundreds of years ago.

Dances were held at feisianna, a combination of trade fair, political gathering and cultural event. Similar events occur to this day throughout the country.

In modern times, the revival of Irish culture -- which had been suppressed by the English -- can be traced to the late 1800s. The Irish Dancing Commission, formed in 1929, standardized rules of competition.

Most recently, touring shows such as Lord of the Dance, Riverdance, and Spirit of Dance have revived interest in the tradition.

Such shows "brought Irish dancing out into the public," said Mrs. Mooney.

"The only difference between Riverdance and traditional dancing is in the costumes. The footwork are traditional steps done to perfection," she said.

Most dancers in the national touring shows are world champions on the traditional Irish dancing circuit, she said.

Along with highlighting costumes, traditional Irish dancing also showcases athletic ability.

"It takes a lot of stamina, especially in the legs and stomach," she said.

Traditional Irish dancing requires arms to be held close to the body with fists facing back -- not on the hips. Feet are always pointed out, and dancers must stand on their tiptoes.

Mrs. Mooney's daughter Amy has been dancing for 11 of her 17 years.

"I've grown up with Irish dancing, so it's a part of my life," she said.

The Aquinas High School senior competes at Irish-dancing events around the region.

"The hardest part is perfecting the foot positions and making myself practice at home. We practice once a week, but if you really want to be good you need to do it once a day," she said.

Competitive dancers within the Augusta Irish Dancers are part of a group called "Inis Acla," based in Savannah. In addition to weekly practice, dancers attend two weekend workshops a month.

At least five members of the dance group will attend a regional competition in Baltimore in December. If they succeed there, it's on to Ireland for the world championships during Easter Week.

REACH

Margaret Weston at (706) 823-3340 or mweston@augustachronicle.com.