Celtic Junction Arts Review

Kickin’ It Irish: More than a show

Carillon RoseMeadows

Kickin’ It Irish is back for its tenth year of captivating performances and dynamic displays of talent. Those of us associated with the Celtic Junction Arts Center (CJAC) or any of the organizations that make their home here know: St. Patrick’s Day is not just a day – it’s a season. There’s an air of excitement and urgency as experienced teenagers shepherd boisterous younger dancers and musicians through the most exciting time of the year.

Cormac and Lads, Steppingstone Theater, 2015

Kickin’ It Irish teens understand this first hand: several of them started out as young performers in elementary school and have now become Championship level dancers, showcasing their skills in their 8th or 9th season with the annual show. But performing in this Irish music and dance show isn’t for the faint of heart. These athletes train 3 and 4 nights a week – or more if there is a major competition coming up, as most of them participate in Regionals, Nationals, and even World Irish dance championships and Fleadh Cheoils. So what makes these teens who are experiencing an increasingly high volume of homework, university search anxiety, and college application frenzy make a commitment to perform at their highest level for what can be a 13-14 show run, during what is a spring break for most others?

Celtic Junction Arts Center 2019

Part of it is in the show itself. Drawing inspiration from the groundbreaking production of Riverdance, Kickin’ It Irish has cemented its place as a must-see event for lovers of traditional Irish music and dance in the Twin Cities. Central to its success, and a constant through its rich history, is Celtic Junction co-founder and original Riverdance cast member, Cormac O’Sé. 

Young dancers of 2016

Kickin It Irish’s connection to Riverdance, though fairly unknown, is direct. Cormac’s parents, Séamus Ó Sé and Áine Uí Shé, worked for nearly 50 years training Champion Irish dancers in Dublin, Ireland, holding the Leinster Cup for 29 of those years. It was the superlative quality of their dancers which made them the favored choice of Michael Flatley, Riverdance’s primary choreographer. Cormac was just 16 when he was chosen for his role as a Riverdancer – at the same age as many of the performers in Kickin’ It Irish. He treasures his time touring in Riverdance, and he wanted his students to experience the camaraderie and feeling of accomplishment that comes with a high-quality, well-run show.

Original Riverdancers 1994

Cormac says, “What some folks don’t realize is that most of the Riverdance cast grew up in the competitive Irish dance world together. Like me, we grew up at feiseanna – our parents knew each other, our holidays were spent in each others’ company – at competitions – so there is a common history we share. Traveling with Riverdance was like traveling with an extended family. We have memories together that are very hard to explain to anyone who wasn’t there. We saw each other at our best and worst – and we learned how to get along, pull our own weight, and be a resource to our castmates when they were feeling low. I wouldn’t change those experiences for the world.”

May Ennis (1911-2003)

The roots of the Celtic Junction and of Kickin’ It Irish run deep, but they hinge on a tenuous circumstance. Natalie explains, “Cormac’s Mam, Áine, adored dance when she was a little girl and wanted very much to take lessons. Her father refused to send her. Her mother, May Ennis, who took it upon herself to stash enough money away to be able to sneak young Áine out to attend dance lessons without her father knowing. Áine went on to found one of the most successful dance schools in Ireland, and while never officially recognized, taught most of the original Riverdance line. A single act by one mother has ramifications that we can trace right into the Celtic Junction’s lobby today.”

Promo image of Riverdance for the 1997 tour
Cormac and Natalie at Steppingstone Theatre, 2013

The story of Kickin’ It Irish properly begins in 1997, when Riverdance first came through the Twin Cities. I, myself,  was sitting in the audience at the Orpheum in Minneapolis, four months pregnant with my first child. Little did I know that my future friend Cormac O’Se, who would go on to change the course of not only my own family but many others, was on that tour at nineteen years old with twenty-one of his dance friends, seventeen of whom were from his parents’ renowned dancing school in Dublin. He met his wife-to-be, Natalie Nugent (O’Shea), while they were both working on that show; they toured together for a while, then moved to Minnesota in 2001 and started O’Shea Irish Dance in 2005. In 2009, they founded The Celtic Junction to house their dance school and help forge a fledgling Center for Irish Music, and by that time I had become thoroughly invested in all of those ventures. Then in 2013, they debuted Kickin’ It Irish at SteppingStone Children’s Theatre.

Kickin’ It at Steppingstone in 2013

I remember watching the show at SteppingStone Theatre and I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. I knew I had to work hard for it so it pushed me to be a better dancer and a well-rounded person. The show has taught me to be confident, to be a leader, and to work as a team.

Gabby Pasquerella
Morien McBurnie and Ciara O’Shea in the Celtic Junction lobby, 2010

Many of us refer to the Celtic Junction as a “home away from home.” For the kids who began running these halls shortly after learning to walk, it’s more than a well-worn phrase- which the personal items strewed about the lobby, the piles of heads together chatting, and peals of laughter can attest to. After all, all our communities’ events happen in this building; baptisms, graduation parties, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and even funerals. Our children have seen them all, sharing the celebrations and supporting each other through the losses. They are growing up here, having meaningful experiences that will shape who they become; small moments and momentous ones.

Wee dance line, Steppingstone

As parents in the midst of the day-to-day grind of driving, feeding, badgering, and hopefully, raising our children, it can be difficult to track where exactly we are in the adventure of parenting. Kickin’ It Irish is a collective annual barometer. Every year, we watch to see what’s new, which dance would the previous “babies” be old enough and skilled enough to perform? “Wow! Look at them, they’re growing up. I didn’t know they could do that!”

The truest relationships are born through shared experiences – and blossom with a sense of mutual accomplishment. Working hard in a group setting and managing a grueling show schedule, creates opportunities for children to develop trust and form incredibly deep bonds. This can lead to stronger relationships and a sense of unity within the group. It can also lead to a bit of drama. Green rooms become pressure cookers, and the phrase, “Leave it at the door.” becomes a mantra to live by. They learn lessons, make mistakes, see each other through success and heartache…. And grow up.

Greenroom 2013
Greenroom 2018
Backstage 2019

I enjoyed spending time with the “big kids” backstage and making lasting friendships. The shows helped me form long term connections that I still value immensely. 

Morien McBurnie

Liam Slattery in Dance Masters

Where will these decades of dancers go from here? Recent graduates have gone on to study modern dance, neuroscience, biology, cosmetology, music, and some have even gone on to dance in touring shows. At some point, they return to visit, sometimes to dance, and recently to bring their own children to classes. Invariably, they’ll reflect back to the people and experiences they had here remembering fondly the mad dashes to get to the next venue, how their parents hauled their bags, belongings, and instruments until they were strong enough and tall enough to do it themselves. They’ll remember the applause too, but not so much as the friends they experienced it with.

Masking up in 2021

Together as a team, CJAC’s resident organizations work diligently and passionately to promote and preserve cultural arts. The Irish Fair of MN supports their talent, the Center for Irish Music builds their musicianship and confidence, O’Shea Irish Dance has imported an incredible 50-year legacy of Irish dance into these halls, and the Eoin McKiernan Library gathers the ephemera of times past and traces important memories and connections. These kids are growing up in a charmed space where they are encouraged to be musical, to dance, to stretch, to sing, to learn. In this magical ‘village’ they are surrounded and nurtured by adults who care about things like traditional arts, poetry, history, and Indigenous languages. The phones get tucked away in pockets and bags and they live and breathe it in altogether as a community. We can’t explain to them how special this experience is, but we’re confident they’ll remember.

Kickin' It Irish: more than a show
Broom Dance 2022

This is an ephemeral time in their lives that will pass all too soon. This is the first generation to grow up in the Celtic Junction and to grow up Kickin’ It Irish… Celebrate a decade of Kickin’ It Irish with us this March. Show information and tickets are available HERE or at Kickinitirish.com.