Celtic Junction Arts Review
O’Shea Irish Dance at 15: looking back – and forward!
For the thousands of youth who engage in Irish dance, 2020 has resulted in a scene unlike any over the course of Irish Dance’s cultural explosion: absence. At a time where Irish dancers would normally be traveling around the country for competitions, across the state for festivals, and throughout the city for performances, stages have been standing quiet and studios are empty. In an instant, Irish Dance was relegated to the world of distance-learning with students and teachers in a delayed call and response between basements, garages, living rooms — anywhere and any way — to continue training.
For Cormac Ó Sé, original cast member of Riverdance and director of O’Shea Irish Dance in St. Paul, MN, this became a time for a new perspective. When Celtic Junction Arts Center closed in March, O’Shea Irish Dance swiftly moved their classes online. “At the beginning, the kids were so happy to see another human, even on-screen” says Cormac. “They were willing to work at their dance and see each other however they could. With little room to move and a view of only feet most of the time instruction became incredibly focused on the details; turn-out, foot placement, crossover… all of the technical aspects for Irish dance to excel at the highest levels. Our most athletic dancers had to restrain themselves from the big motions to concentrate on the minute ones, It was actually incredibly useful for a time. It really made the kids think differently about their dancing, and made me sharpen my communication skills as a teacher.”
Just recently O’Shea introduced a socially-distanced protocol for small groups of dancers to try a “bubble” class in the Celtic Junction’s large performance space. Parents drop dancers directly in one door to the room and pick them up from another. Dancers within their bubble-level arrive masked, sanitize their hands, and place their items in their assigned space. Instead of the usual hubbub of chat and fun, the dancers exit one by one again, leaving the classroom empty before the next shift can arrive. “It was an incredibly emotional experience”, says Cormac, explaining that when they were finally able to see each other in person, some of them cried. “While they were so considerate of each other and careful of the rules, it was all they could do to keep from throwing their arms around their friends.” When it came to dancing, he said, “The relief was palpable – having been confined to dancing in tiny, make-shift areas in their houses, they were able to stretch their legs and move. It was like they found their wings again.”
That is only part of the current reinvention. One of the largest events in Minnesota for the Irish community is the Irish Fair of Minnesota, another of Celtic Junction’s tenants alongside O’Shea Irish Dance. Every Irish dance school in the state gets involved in the festival – one of the primary events around which the dance calendar revolves, until now. O’Shea Irish Dance had intended to host their annual gathering for current and alumni families at the Fair this year especially to mark their 15-year anniversary of teaching. Instead, with no Irish Fair this year, volunteers moved the indoor stage piece by piece to the Junction’s south parking lot to host an outdoor, distanced, masked FEIStival during the day (feis being a term for an Irish dance competition) with scheduled arrivals and exits isolated under tents for family separation. O’Shea and Celtic Junction also coordinated with Irish Fair representatives to help sponsor a small, virtual Irish Fair “Porch Pour Party.” Irish Fair kicked off the live event onsite, which was attended online by 500+ attendees across 46 states, from over a dozen countries, on 4 different continents. For the event, Celtic Junction also hosted an online Art Gallery opening for Tom Dunn’s newest Irish of Minnesota work, and OID brought in live music from the Two Tap Trio, with a special Riverdance performance from 44 of Cormac’s dancers, past and present.
“Now we must ask, what does the future hold?” Says Cormac. That work is only beginning. Cormac is Regional Representative for the mid-America region as part of Dublin’s “An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha” organization, the worldwide governing body of Irish dance competition originating from the Gaelic League in the 1920’s. “We have convened an international work group of dance teachers from around the world who have been discussing the impact of this pandemic on the dance world. Together, we are seeking solutions to safely keep going and to move Irish dance forward into a very different world.” Some of these tasks have included the development of a dance studio reopening toolkit, insurance coverage advice, online grade exam development, exploration of online feis (competitions) Live streaming of regional dance events and the creation of the very first International Irish Dance day this coming Sept 17th.
“I realized in a deeper way than ever before, that what we do is not just to train Irish dancers, but to create a safe place for young people to be challenged, to grow, and to return to as they celebrate who they have become as adults. As we watch them graduate, get jobs, find relationships and explore their lives, our dancers have become parents, scientists, and even teachers themselves. The fact that they return to celebrate with us is a testament not to my teaching, but to the community we have created together. Their presence felt like a greater piece of work than any competition or placement. They are the most incredible legacy we could ask for. We hope to be blessed enough to continue to do this for a long time to come.”
O’Shea Irish Dance began in August, 2005 with seven beginner students. Since that time, Cormac, Natalie and many other teachers have instructed over a thousand students who have become the most decorated dancers in Minnesota, holding the most regional, national and international podium placements in team and solo championships in the state. “The energy, passion, and talent of experienced and new dancers alike drives our momentum,” Cormac said, “The unshakable spirit of Irish Dance inspires us all to work together as a community and grow stronger–not in spite of the challenges of 2020–but because of them.”