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Toe to Toe

Mark Howard and the students of his Trinity Irish Dance Academy want to be good. But what they really want is to win.


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The response to foot-and-mouth disease couldn't have come at a worse time. It was the night before Saint Patrick's Day, and hundreds of Trinity Irish Dance Academy students were scrambling to get their moves down before the green beer flowed in Chicago when they learned that the 2001 World Irish Dancing Championship in Ennis had been postponed and would probably be canceled. "I had a practice that night for kids who were going to be dancing on a morning news show," recalls instructor Michaela McGarry. "All of them were training for the Worlds. It was pretty devastating."

Not everyone felt that way. Thirteen-year-old Katie Aspell of Barrington says, "Some people were like, 'Oh, too bad. We could have done well.' And others were like, 'Yes!' and jumping up and down. A lot of people get really nervous before a competition." She adds, "I'm always really nervous. Especially the night before. I can never get to sleep."

Watching Aspell practice, her face a solemn mask, her lips pinched tight, her brown eyes fixed in concentration, you can tell how seriously she takes her dancing. She has to be reminded to smile.

Competitions have always been central to the Trinity Irish Dance Academy, founded by Mark Howard in Chicago in 1979; it now has two suburban branches plus schools in Milwaukee and Madison. (Dancers from the academy and the Trinity Irish Dance Company are performing Sunday, August 12, at Navy Pier.) In fact, if it weren't for dance competitions, Howard might have left Irish dance long ago and become a broker. A first-generation Irish-American, he was an athletic kid who grew up on Chicago's south side and began studying Irish dance when he was five. But he didn't take it seriously until he was nine, when some of his boy cousins started taking classes. Then Howard could show his cousins he was the best--the fastest and an expert at every step, jig, reel, or hornpipe. Eventually, though, the lure of organized sports proved too strong, and Howard dropped out of dance classes and joined his high school soccer team.

He returned to dance in college only reluctantly, when a friend who founded a school asked him to teach. At the time Howard was also preparing for a career in commodities trading. But his plans changed the first time one of his students entered a dance competition. "She was a little girl I'd taught for six months," Howard remembers. "She won a silver medal at a local dance contest, and I was hooked." Soon afterward, Howard's friend closed his school--and Howard opened his.

From the first, Howard was intent on creating champions. But when Aspell first started taking classes six years ago, she didn't have a clue about the form's competitive aspect. "My mom and dad were always very big on folk dancing," she says. "We went to one Irish fest, and I saw some kids doing Irish dancing and I thought, 'Oh, that could be fun.' I didn't know anything about competitions and costumes and all the other requirements and things you have to do."

For a while Aspell's classes in Irish dancing were no different from the other kinds of ethnic dancing she'd studied. Then one day she overheard some students talking about going to the world championships. The idea of dancing in Ireland excited her. "I want to go the world championships," she told her mother out of the blue.

Irish dance has existed in some form for hundreds--some would say thousands--of years. But the competitions are fairly recent phenomena. In 1929 the Irish Dancing Commission was created by Conradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League). Founded in the 1890s in Dublin, Conradh na Gaeilge's mission was--and is--nothing less than the revival of Celtic culture, suppressed over more than 500 years of English domination. As its name suggests, the organization strongly advocated a return to Gaelic as the national language of Ireland--although in the 1890s most Irish couldn't speak or read Gaelic (it's now taught in schools in the Republic of Ireland). The league also promoted Irish music, literature, and dance.

The commission's first task was to codify what until then had been an informal, unregulated art practiced by people who may or may not have had instruction. It provided guidelines for the teaching of Irish dance and published a handbook of ceili dances (group dances that are progenitors of American square dancing). Then, in the 30s, the commission helped set up dance competitions in Ireland, Scotland, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and North America. There are now nine regional councils worldwide, all reporting to Ireland.

Competitive Irish dance caught on slowly. The first World Irish Dancing Championship wasn't held until 1970, in a small theater in Parnell Square, Dublin. Today there are four major championships, or feiseanna, in Irish dance: the American National Championship; the All Ireland Championship; the Great Britain Championship; and the most prestigious, the World Championship. Trinity students regularly compete in the Nationals, the All Ireland, and the Worlds. Each competition has its own entrance requirements. For example, you may go to the Worlds only if you pass a qualification round at a regional feiseanna, but anyone with the entry fee can compete in the All Ireland or the Nationals.

In general, the drill is the same at each championship. The competitions are broken down by age groups and the kind of dance--reel, jig, set dance, ceili dance. The correct performance of each form is carefully prescribed by the commission. Performers demonstrate in short dance sets--often lasting less than five minutes--how well they've mastered the form while also subtly improving on the traditional moves. Trinity has earned more honors than any other American school at these competitions. But because they love to try new things--in music, dance, and costuming--they've also racked up the most disqualifications from Irish judges.

As in many sports competitions, dancers must pass an elimination round before moving on to the final competition, when the outcome of months of practice may be decided in less than ten minutes. In the last 20 years, the popularity of Irish dance has grown exponentially, due in large part to the success of Riverdance and Michael Flatley's shows--though Howard likes to point out that his dancers were regulars on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show when Flatley was still a Chicago plumber.

Serving the world's Irish dancers has become a cottage industry in Ireland, where seamstresses make the costumes by hand and every year thousands of dancers, their families, and other fans descend on the island for the All Ireland in February and the Worlds, usually around Easter.

Aspell has gone to the Worlds twice, in 1998 and 2000. The first time she was only ten. Competing in a field of 100, Aspell placed 40th. "I'd never been to Ireland before," Aspell says. "I was like, 'Whoa. These people are so good.'"

"She was very upset," recalls her mother, Marie Aspell. "They only called back the top third for the next round. After that she took her classes and practices much more seriously."

"I said to myself," Aspell tells me, "'OK, I'm going to practice and work really hard. And the next time I come back, I'll do better.'" Two years later she placed seventh in her class. Aspell was pleased but still not satisfied. Having seen how much she could improve in two years, she wanted to see if she could do even better. Last November she placed first in the qualifying regionals for the Worlds and started feverishly practicing all her new routines for that competition. (It was canceled, but she's automatically qualified for the 2002 Worlds.)

Eight-year-old Laura Kempf of Arlington Heights is just as determined to go for the gold. Kempf isn't very tall, but her confidence and strength make her seem much older. And when she dances, she's more than equal to the frenetic bursts required of her for hours on end.

Kempf loves to perform, but the competitions are what really drew her in. Her older sister, Ann, used to compete. "I saw my sister's trophies," Kempf says, "and I wanted trophies too." Kempf was only four when she started classes, making her one of the youngest students at Trinity's Palatine branch. But she'd already picked up some of the basic moves from Ann.

Her first teacher was Michaela McGarry, who recognized Kempf's talent right away. "It was pretty evident from the beginning," she says. "She has very strong legs, very long legs, arches her toes well, stands on her toes well. She has good timing. I could see that as she walked in the door." Before she finished her first year of classes, Kempf was entering school competitions. And by the time she was six, she'd begun to compete in regional contests.

Families make great sacrifices of time and money for their dancing daughters and sons. (Trinity does have a handful of boy students, but as in all Irish dance academies in the United States, they're far outnumbered by girls.) How often the students go to class depends on their level of commitment and whether they're preparing for a competition.

"Normally Katie has two classes a week," says Marie Aspell, who also has another dancing daughter. "They're two and a half hours each. And then when they're preparing for a competition, that's an extra class. And when they're performing in teams, they'll do two or three more hours a week. And toward the end, as a competition approaches, they can have more than that. It could be five days out of seven. And then she tries to practice an hour a day at home."

Beginning classes are available at the Grand Avenue Community Center in Western Springs and Rose Park in Palatine. (In the fall, the Palatine classes will move to the Metropolis, in Arlington Heights.) But Trinity's more advanced classes are held at the Irish American Heritage Center, at Wilson and Knox on Chicago's north side. Located just off the Kennedy, it's still quite a commute for students in the far-flung suburbs.

"That's always a topic of conversation among parents," Marie Aspell says. "We live 30 miles away. On a Saturday morning, it will take 40 minutes on the toll road. But on a Friday afternoon, in rush hour, it can take almost two hours."

"It really takes some planning," says Laura Kempf's mother, Cathy Kempf. "We live in the northwest suburbs, in Arlington Heights. As we drive we're listening to the traffic reports to decide which way to go." The parents have formed car pools but still end up spending a lot of time driving.

And then there are the expenses. "Tuition is generally $10 a class," Cathy Kempf tells me. But that cost is trivial compared to the costumes. Two kinds of shoes--one soft, one hard--and special "poodle socks" are required. Marie Aspell says, "Katie goes through three soft shoes a year. And one pair of hard shoes." The soft shoes run about $40, and the hard ones $80-$140.

Most girls practice in running shorts and T-shirts, but for shows or competitions they wear specially made dresses, riots of color and pattern, elaborate stitching and ribbons, velvet and gabardine, satin, silk, and lame. Every dress is unique, festooned with embroidered patterns--crosses, chalices, designs from the Book of Kells--and stitched with silver and gold thread. Most are made by hand in Ireland and do not come cheap. You can find some in the $800 range, but they tend to run around $1,000, and some are as much as $1,400.

"You need two dresses," Marie Aspell says, one for solos and one in the school's colors for group dances. "My daughters have been getting new dresses every year--nothing is sized to grow into. They get them to fit exactly, and then they grow out of them."

Boys have a much easier time of it. They used to perform in Irish kilts, but in recent years American dance schools have abandoned that look--in part to keep from scaring away boys who didn't want to be seen in public in a skirt. Now they wear a black shirt and black pants, an outfit that makes them look like little priests.

And their hair is much simpler. As long as a boy's hair is clean and trimmed, he's considered presentable. Trinity girls--and those at other North American schools--have not been so lucky. Perhaps trying to out-Irish the Irish, they must have long, curly tresses. "My girls have long, thick hair," Marie Aspell says. "To get the curls we had to first wash their hair, then dry it completely, then put on mousse. Then we'd roll it up in these pink sponge rollers. And then they'd sleep on it overnight. It would take Katie half an hour to blow-dry her hair, and another hour and a half of rolling. Then it would take another hour taking it down. And then you had to separate out the curls." After being plastered with hair spray, the do might last a full day. "It was a constant thing to worry about," says Marie Aspell. Hair is such an issue in the Irish dance community that there's a T-shirt for sale on the Web that shows a girl with her hair in dozens of foam-wrapped spikes and the caption: "I'm a dancer, these are curlers, any more questions?"

A year and a half ago, Trinity switched to wigs. Cathy Kempf jokes that her daughter may have had a lot to do with that decision. "One morning before a competition--we had a ritual at Trinity where we all used to get together to take the curlers out of their hair--Laura was miserable." Every time her mother took out a curler, Laura screamed, making everyone else in the room cringe. "It was right after that we switched to wigs."

The wigs are much more convenient and hold up better during performances. But they add to the cost of participating in Irish dance. Usually a dancer needs two of them, one for shows and one for competitions. "The show wig is not full--it's more like a fall," Marie Aspell says. "The competition wig is bigger, much fuller." Wigs can cost as much as $90 each.

After the cancellation of the Worlds last spring, everyone stampeded to the next major feiseanna, the Nationals in Toronto, June 30 to July 3. Over 3,500 dancers signed up for the affair, an increase of roughly 45 percent over the pre-vious year. "You have never seen so many little girls with sparkly dresses and curly hair," McGarry says. The hotels were crowded, the convention hall packed. Every competition ran late. "They were giving results sometimes at 12:30 at night," dance instructor Sheila Ryan says. "And things get started at 8 AM. So we were getting kids ready at 6 AM."

"If you were lucky," McGarry adds, "you had time to eat one meal--on the run."

"Nationals felt like a business trip," says Marie Aspell. "We were there four days. We had three full days of dancing. Each of the girls had solos on different days. When we weren't at the convention center, we were in our hotels waiting for the next event to happen. And you never quite knew when or where."

Katie Aspell tossed and turned the night before her solo performance, but on the day of the competition she was energized. "It felt kind of good. Here are all of the best people. Let's see how I can do against them." She came in third in her category, behind two girls from schools in Ireland.

"It is a substantial financial commitment," says her mother. "I still don't have furniture in my living room. But I tell myself I would rather be going with my kids to competitions in Ireland than have a couch."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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