Skip to main content

What's Up Magazine

Stepping Out For St. Patrick’s Day

Feb 16, 2012 12:50PM ● By Anonymous
During the month of March, Irish step dancers in our area will perform in dozens of local shows and parades through an art form that has survived more than five centuries.

Irish step dancing has a rich history, dating as far back as the 1500s, and is closely linked with the progression of Irish folk music. Though its origins are unclear, Irish dance became widespread during the 18th century and was influenced by Quadrille dancing, popular in Europe during this time. Modern Irish step dancing emerged due to the traditional Irish dance masters who traveled the country during the 1800s, formalizing steps and techniques that varied slightly from village to village.

Irish dance, or some form of it, has existed for more than 150 years in the United States, but it was not until 1930, when Ireland formalized a set of rules for performance, that it gained international notoriety.

Today, the Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America regulates the teaching and competition standards of the sport in the United States. The popularity of Irish dance exploded across America when Riverdance, the world-famous Irish dance show led by Michael Flatley, came out in 1994.

“Riverdance really changed the world of Irish step dancing. It was always prevalent in certain regions of the U.S., especially the Northeast, but now Irish dancers come from all parts of the country to compete nationally,” says Beverly Hunt O’Conner, owner of the Hunt School of Irish Dance, based in Annapolis.

Modern Irish dancing is categorized by the unique appearance of the dancer during a performance. Dancers keep their arms at their side in order to call attention to the intricacy of the dance steps. Each of the traditional Irish dances, such as the jig, reel, slip jig, and hornpipe, is based on traditional Irish folk tales so that the steps tell a story.


Dancers from the Maple Academy of Irish Dance.

Dancers wear either soft shoes, known as ghillies, or hard shoes, which produce a loud noise when the fiberglass tip comes into contact with the dance floor. In competition, Irish dancers are noted for their elaborate dresses, hand-stitched in Ireland, and the costume would not be complete without a big head of bouncy curls. “Irish dancers are definitely unique because we wear wigs!” says Madison Metheny, a 12-year-old from Annapolis. She has danced since the age of six and loves the sense of accomplishment she enjoys during competition. “I love working so hard and seeing an improvement in myself,” says Metheny, who recently placed 44th in the country when she traveled to Nashville for the North American Irish Dance Championships.

Most Irish dancers compete in a feis (pronounced ‘fesh’), an organized dance competition divided by age and level of expertise. Dancers at a feis perform to live Irish music, often played on the fiddle, and are scored on the technique, style, and rhythm of their performance. Although each dance is rooted in one of the traditional Irish folk dances, dancers have the freedom for innovation in their routines, which are not to be replicated at future competitions and why videotaping is prohibited at any organized competition.

Dancers of all ages can be found at two Irish dance schools offering classes in Annapolis. The Hunt School, which offers classes in Edgewater and Crofton, has more than 70 students ranging in age from five to 18. The Maple Academy of Irish Dance, founded by Bill and Marnie Maple, offers classes throughout the Washington, D.C.’ area, as well as through a partnership with Maryland Hall. Local interest in Irish dance has been steadily increasing. “Most of our students start dancing because of their Irish heritage, but quickly grow to love the flexibility of it,” says O’Conner. “Irish dancers must possess a distinct combination of strength, rhythm, and upper body control that is unlike other forms of dance. And most importantly, it’s fun!”

Dancers from the Hunt School and The Maple Academy of Irish Dance will perform at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Washington, D.C., on March 11th. For more information about Irish step dancing in the Annapolis area, as well as upcoming show times, visit and