U student competes with best as Irish dancing comes to Minnesota

Erin Ghere

As a little girl, University political science junior Kristina Lee performed ballet routines in puffy pink tutus and jazz dance steps to funky music.

But she’d never seen anything quite like this.

As an eighth grader, Lee watched Riverdance on television and was inspired. The dancers donned colorful, traditional costumes and floated across the stage on their toes. They kicked in unison while the clacking of their shoes complemented the Irish music accompaniment.

Seven years later, Lee is an experienced Irish step dancer with five years of competitions and medals under her belt. She also teaches a weekly class in Northfield, Minn.

“I saw Riverdance and was inspired,” Lee, 19, said. “I don’t think (step dancing) was half as known before Riverdance.”

The rise of Irish step dancing as a mainstream hobby since the inception of Riverdance has been felt across the country.

Feile Minnesota 2001, the state’s inaugural Irish step dance competition, was held at Roy Wilkins Auditorium on Saturday. More than 800 dancers attended.

As a result, Minnesota joined numerous other states that are home to step dance competitions, including Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Washington, D.C.

Although attendance didn’t reach into the thousands like some well-established Midwest competitions, organizers were pleased with the turnout.

Step dance competitions and schools have sprung up all over the United States since the mid-1990s rise of Riverdance.

Created in 1994, Riverdance became an international sensation after its February 1995 opening. It has performed in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia, according to its homepage.

During its most recent Minnesota run, Riverdance’s Sept. 12 opening night performance at the Orpheum Theater was packed.

The show is a performance-art version of the history of Ireland. It mixes traditional Irish dancing and instruments with African, Russian and Spanish dances.

As Riverdance’s popularity rose, so did the intrigue with the traditional dances.

The show contributed a modern style to the traditional Irish dancing, which attracted many new fans to the sport.

Lee and many other students in her St. Paul-based school, Scoil na dTri, performed in Saturday’s competition.

Teachers and parents from local schools Scoil na dTri and Shamrock School of Irish Dance began organizing for Feile Minnesota almost a year ago. The competition involved many hands, with local dancers’ parents managing stages, posting results, handing out medals and directing others to bathrooms and vendors.

Dancers from 11 states and Canada attended Feile Minnesota, performing a variety of dances on seven stages throughout the day.

First referenced in history books circa 1300, modern Irish dancing was not prevalent until the mid-16th century. During competition and performances, American dancers imitate the colorful costumes and curly-haired bobs of traditional dancers.

They perform two types of dances: soft shoe and hard shoe. Soft shoes, called ghillies, are similar to ballet shoes. The hard shoes are unique to Irish step dancing, with a fiberglass tip and an elevated heel to produce clicks and taps in time with the music.

Like many dancers, Lee has traveled to numerous states for competitions and has seen the Irish step phenomena sweep the country – even, Lee said, in southern states where there aren’t large Irish-American communities.

But, “it is very exciting to have one in town, because traveling to others is often a long trek,” she said.

Some dancers, however, made that trek to Minnesota.

Tricia Kelly, 13, of Northbrook, Ill., has been to competitions in Milwaukee, Chicago and Memphis, Tenn. But, she said, she was happy to have a new place to travel to and another opportunity to earn medals.

The dancers are judged equally on four areas: timing, steps, execution and style. They practice long hours working on small, intense movements to improve through the competition levels. Dancers compete at beginner, advanced beginner, novice, open, preliminary championship and open championship levels. There are also worldwide competitions for the most skilled dancers.

In the lower divisions, dancers advance by placing in the top three at competition. But when starting at the novice level, dancers must place first to move up. They usually compete against 20 to 25 other dancers in each dance.