Grace: 14-year-old Omaha girl heading to the World Irish Dance Championships

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Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 12:00 am

Arms straight, legs flying, Samantha Casey steps, kicks and leaps across the practice floor of a west Omaha dance studio, her second home from now until right before Easter.

Then the 14-year-old will leave Omaha for London, where she will become the second Nebraskan — and only Nebraska girl — to compete solo in the prestigious World Irish Dance Championships.

The annual contest, which started in 1970, will draw competitors primarily from Ireland and the U.S. and Canada. But Irish dancing is also taking root in places like Germany, Japan and Russia, where, according to one dance instructor, the folk dance is “exploding.” In all, some 5,000 dancers are expected.

And Samantha will be among them.

When I first heard about this eighth-grader from St. Margaret Mary's getting a chance to Irish dance on a world stage, I was intrigued. And I was reminded of my own days spent in an Omaha church basement learning jigs and reels.

But that was well before “Riverdance.”

Irish dancing, it seems, can be divided into two eras: Before “Riverdance.” And “After Riverdance.” Or, when your mother made you do it. And when you begged to do it because it was suddenly cool.

The 1994 Irish dancing production by Irish-Americans Michael Flatley and Jean Butler made Irish dancing mainstream and more popular than it had already been in Irish circles. “Riverdance” showed how a folk dance characterized by a rigid upper body and quickly moving feet could be reinterpreted in a more modern way while staying true to the dance form's roots. It also gave an incredible stage to Irish dancing and caused Irish dancing schools to swell.

Irish dance, of course, existed well before “Riverdance.” It was the tight, quick dancing, sometimes on tabletops or barrels. It was solo or group dances, called caelis, done to the music of a fiddle or accordion. It was, according to some explanations, the dance of protest.

During punitive British rule, when Irish dancing was forbidden, some stories tell how the Irish quit moving their arms so that British soldiers couldn't see them dancing through the windows. Other stories tell how the Irish made their arms flat when dancing for the English monarchs.

The dance form was brought over to America with each wave of Irish immigrants. According to John Cullinane's book on the subject, “Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing in North America,” the earliest recorded Irish dance instructor was a man in Philadelphia in 1789.

Cullinane wrote about “dance masters” on ships from Ireland who broke up the monotony of the long journey to America. He described how in the late 1800s and early 1900s, formal Irish dancing schools had sprouted in San Francisco, Chicago and Boston. He said it was easier for Irish culture to spread in America than in other British colonies including Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, a formal Irish dance commission, An Coimisiun, had formed in the 1930s.

Cullinane's book described how Irish dance in the 1800s was characterized by a Cork-Kerry style of very quick and very close feet movements. After 1950, a style of Irish dance called Northern Belfast slowed the feet down and made movements more graceful and complicated.

By the 1950s and 1960s, Americans seemed to embrace their Irish roots. More dance schools sprouted. In 1969, the first national Irish dance contest was held in America. In 1970, the first world championship in Irish dance was held.

The 1970s saw more homogenization of costume and step. But Irish dance, especially outside American cities with large Irish populations, remained a real niche activity.

Then came “Riverdance.” And then, in 1997, came Trish Weekly to Omaha.

Weekly is from Chicago, where Irish dance schools and competitions abound. She wanted to enroll her children in Irish dance here but didn't find much opportunity. That led her to get certified as an Irish dance instructor with An Coimisiun. Certification is a rigorous process that involves going to Dublin for a three-day test.

Weekly then opened a dance studio in Omaha called Craoi na Tire, pronounced “Cree na Tirah.” It is Gaelic for “Heart of Land” or “Heartland.” She runs it with a former student, Shannon Ryan. The school's dancers have in the past danced with Irish music groups including the Chieftains. Last week through Monday, Craoi na Tire dancers gave 20 performances.

The school has about 75 students, including Samantha Casey.

“We have kids that dance four and five days a week,” Weekly said. “We joke that we should set up cots in the back for the 8-year-olds coming four days a week, for two hours at a time.”

Samantha would dance all the time, if anyone let her. Alas, there is school. Alas, there is soccer.

But she loves Irish dance because it provides a good release, gives her a chance to compete, has introduced her to friends she may have never otherwise met and puts her in touch with part of her heritage.

Samantha's mother, Toni, is Italian. But her father, Dan, is Irish.

Dan grew up in a big Irish-Catholic Omaha family where St. Patrick's Day was celebrated like Christmas. It also helped that his birthday was March 17. Dan's great-grandfather was an Irish immigrant whose son, Dan's grandfather, founded J.D. Casey, the Omaha-based car paint and supplies company Dan now runs with his brothers.

Dan got interested in Irish culture as an adult — and very interested in Irish politics. He was an Omaha liaison for Irish Northern Aid, an American-based organization seeking a unified Ireland.

Dan and Toni were married in Ireland. Dan's nieces and nephews Irish danced. So it was a given that his children would do the same. Samantha is the only of his three children who still takes Irish dance lessons and competes. She says she plans to continue this through high school.

Weekly said Samantha has “really good feet.”

“Walking in the door, you could see this kid had so much potential,” she said.

Samantha's biggest challenge was being shy. But Weekly said Irish dance doesn't just teach your feet. She said it teaches poise, discipline and confidence.

Samantha certainly showed those qualities in November, during a qualifying competition in Grand Rapids, Mich. Samantha placed fifth of 137 dancers — making the cut to go to London.

That puts her in the top 1 percent, said Mary McGing, president of the Irish Dance Teachers Association of Mid-America. This group is part of the Irish An Coimisiun on Irish dance.

McGing and Weekly both cited “Riverdance” in making Irish dancing more mainstream. Social media now has further elevated the art form that is now characterized by elaborate, expensive (as in $3,000-a-pop expensive for some) performance dresses and ... wigs.

Competitive Irish dancers today wear fake ringlets — something that admittedly made me cringe until Weekly explained. Irish dance competitions were held on Sundays after Mass, so dancers' long hair would already be curled and bouncy. But as more and more children entered Irish dance and more and more girls went to bed at night with painful curlers and more and more mothers endured the agony of trying to keep hair curled in wet weather, everyone decided to heck with it. Thus came wigs. Gone went tears.

Samantha Casey will be wearing a wig in London. She will be wearing a long-sleeved costume handmade in Derry. It is hot pink, white and gold, adorned with crystals, and let's just say it cost more than my wedding dress.

But what judges will be watching are her feet.

They are feet that belong to the great-great-granddaughter of an Irishman who, like so many of his countrymen, braved a new life in America.

I like to think of those feet, so precise, so quick, so airy, are these many years later dancing the steps that are in her blood.

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