By Jaime Fuller
When you think of Irish dancing, you might think of it as a trend that faded with Riverdance, now performed only by residents of Ireland. Unbelievable as it may seem, right now there are children in Oregon who dance with straight arms and sprightly feet, thanks to Corvallis Celtic Arts. And they love it.
Although it sounds related to “dairy,” “an daire” is Irish for “oak grove.” Jim Mueller, who founded the dance academy, began Celtic dancing as a post-graduate hobby to express his Irish heritage. He danced socially and for fun until a judge at a competition told him that if he were his boy, he’d have him competing and championing. So Mueller started competing and incidentally met his wife through dance. In fact, they competed against each other at one point. Mueller feels his real mission is to teach. He opened An Daire Academy of Irish Dance in Portland in 2000. Now there are two other branches located in Corvallis and Wenatchee, Washington.
Each student at Corvallis Celtic Arts was very enthusiastic about this style of dance. Hallie, an eight-year-old girl, has been doing Irish dance for two and a half years. After trying ballet, tap, and jazz, she likes Irish dancing the best. “You have a lot of opportunities for performances,” she said.
Hallie’s sister Maggie loves performing and competing. “I love the music. I could listen to it all the time…I do,” she said, laughing.
One 10-year-old girl said her favorite experience was going to the regional competition, called Oireachtas (ERR-uhk-tuhss), in Sacramento, California.
Tristan, a 13-year-old boy who has been dancing for over two years, said he mostly likes performing in front of people. When asked why he started taking Irish dance classes, he said, “Mostly because I’m Irish. My grandmother came over from England. It was a way to connect to my heritage.”
The main teacher at Corvallis Celtic Arts is Nichol Merrill. She has been teaching since 2003. “I am African American, Native American, and Irish,” she said. She had always wanted to try Irish dancing and wondered, “How do they dance with their arms straight down to their sides? And how do they move their feet so fast?” She went home and tried it for 30 seconds, at which point she couldn’t breathe.
Thinking there must be a better way, she found classes in Albany and was hooked after the first day, enamored by the style and technique. “It takes an extraordinary amount of stamina. You actually have to learn how to breathe and how to hold your body so you don’t fatigue,” Merrill said. The dancing is all lower-body work aside from partner dancing. “It’s stiff and rigid, but very rhythmic,” she explained. They do not bend their knees unless doing a trick. When they leap or jump, they land on their first three toes, so strong ankles are critical.
Classes are open to children aged five and up. There are no adult classes available at this time, but Merrill said they hope to start one eventually.
For those of you not immersed in Irish culture, St. Patrick’s Day may be the furthest thing from your minds this time of year. Not so for Corvallis Celtic Arts, the non-profit that runs An Daire Corvallis. On Sunday, Sept. 21, they are hosting a Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day celebration in the form of a 5K race and a 1K kids’ race.
The Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day event is the main fundraiser for students of An Daire Corvallis to attend Oireachtas. Registration fees help pay for travel, costumes, and sponsorships at different levels.
Students of Corvallis Celtic Arts will perform at the beginning and end of the races. In light of the celebration, a free beer will be provided by Mazama Brewing to each participant who is over 21. All of this will be taking place in front of Cloud & Kelly’s, so there will be plenty of Irish victuals available for purchase to refuel post-race.
The Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day 5K/1K Run will take place on Sunday, Sept. 21 at 1 p.m. It will start and finish in front of Cloud & Kelly’s Public House. Pre-register online at www.corvallisirishdance.com. Entry fees are $20 for the 5K and $10 for the 1K. Add $5 to all entry fees on race day. For more information, visit http://www.corvallisirishdance.com/.