Potomac riverdance
Mar. 15, 2002
Chris Slattery
Staff Writer

David S. Spence/The Gazette

Kayle Borenstein of Bethesda dances a reel
at the Sean Culkin School of Irish Dance.

The jig is up in Montgomery County as Irish dancers -- and others --

get ready for St. Patrick's Day

Like Irishmen have since time immemorial, Sean Culkin longs for a small bit of land: someplace he can call home, nothing fancy, just as long as it has a floor.

"A wood floor," he sighs, his voice all dreamy. "The kids need a proper floor."

Culkin teaches Irish dance. He's a first generation Irish American, born in Silver Spring four decades ago to parents who had emigrated from a remote corner of County Sligo. Sometimes, if you listen with diligence and an experienced ear, you can hear a trace of brogue in the things that he says -- especially when he talks about dancing.

"I just love it," he exclaims. "The kids love it. And the people love it, too."

And that's why, on Saturday, Culkin will be marching down Washingtonian Boulevard in Gaithersburg, leading the hardiest of the 400 dancers who call the Culkin School of Irish Dance their artistic home. They will be dressed not in the green of the emerald isle but in Sligo colors, black and white. These are also the colors of his school, Culkin explains over coffee on a sunny morning. He's in black and white: a white Culkin school cap holds back what appears to be an abundance of wavy black curls and a black Culkin school shirt covers his generous -- for a dancer, anyway -- frame.

"We have three different routines," he says. "I don't showcase different groups; they all do the same thing at the same time which is a great effect."

The parade kicks off at 10 a.m. at the Washingtonian Center, at I-370 and Washingtonian Boulevard, with County Executive Doug Duncan as Grand Marshal. Culkin and his band of dancers will be handing out beads.

"We kind of combine the Mardi Gras theme with the St. Patrick's Day theme," he explains, smiling. "Green and gold beads."

If that seems to buck tradition, how about the idea of Irish dancing in Glasgow, Scotland? That's where Culkin will be going a few days after the parade, to watch as five of his students go to the world championships.

In Glasgow?

"This is the first time it's ever been held outside of Ireland," he explains. "There's a big Irish community in Glasgow."

That is a fact that Culkin knows firsthand. He grew up learning the art of Irish dance from a Glaswegian, Peggy Hannon O'Neill.

"She was small, but she was mighty," he remembers, and has to stop as the emotions overwhelm him. "Peggy put up with me -- and then I started blossoming. I guess she saw something in me."

When O'Neill passed away in 1984, Culkin put away his dancing shoes.

"There was no outlet for me," he says sadly.

But fate intervened, as it seems to do on such a grand scale for the Irish. And it intervened at church, which is where good things tend to happen to Culkin.

He had stopped dancing when he was a junior in college, at Mount Saint Mary's in Emmitsburg. With a bachelor of arts degree in political science, he was working as a law clerk and as a paralegal, looking toward a career in law. He had married Denise (the girl who was knitting an Irish sweater the first time he met her) and was milling about after mass at St. Mary's in Silver Spring when he ran into Jesse Winch of the band Celtic Thunder.

"He said, 'Next Saturday we're playing a ceili up in Baltimore,'" says Culkin. "They got me up to dance, and [afterwards] a girl came up to me and said, 'Can you teach me Irish dancing?'"

From there, it was a short hop to Glen Echo Park, where Culkin assisted John Keenan, who taught the country dances of Ireland.

"Set dances, social dances -- he asked me to help him teach," Culkin explains.

And the desire to be a lawyer evaporated, silenced by the sound of tapping feet.

Dance masters

The Irish have been dancing since before the Vikings dropped in for a quick pillage on their way to Vineland back in the 11th century A.D. Even after the conquering British drove the Irish language and culture underground, the native dances remained popular, although jigs and reels, like religious practice, were most often done in secret during the 1700s. Not that the two went hand in hand; it is said that the frenzied dancing was frowned upon by Irish priests, and that the custom of dancing with arms close to the sides was a way of making the procedure seem more chaste, and therefore acceptable.

As conquerors came and went, the island nation changed, and the art of Irish dancing absorbed and incorporated these changes. It's always been about fluidity, and about finding a way to bring the newest steps developed by one group of dancers to others, no matter how far away.

Dance masters -- traveling foot tappers in fancy garb -- started going around the country centuries ago, staying as honored guests with families in different towns. Sometimes peasant students didn't know their left foot from their right, and the dance master would tie a bit of hay to one foot and instruct the students to lift their 'hay foot.'

Nowadays, learning to dance is as simple as consulting the local department of recreation. Roger Andes of Gaithersburg says that's how his group, the Ring of Kerry Dancers, got started.

"The group developed out of a Gaithersburg Department of Recreation class that my wife, Kathleen Andes, taught," he explains. That was 11 years ago, and while Mrs. Andes no longer teaches because of illness, the dance club continues to grow.

"We're a club. We have no commercial activities whatsoever," he says. "People are there just to have a good time: we're a social group [primarily] and we do have the opportunity to perform at the local Celtic festivals."

And at parades ? the Ring of Kerry Dancers love a parade, and they've marched in the Labor Day Parade, at Olde Towne Day, and yes, they'll be marching as a unit at this second annual St. Patrick's Day parade in Gaithersburg. Most of the group's activities, though, occur at the Tuesday night classes in Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg. Andes estimates enrollment at 75 pairs of feet, belonging to dancers, ages 8 to 70.

"People are there just to have a good time," he insists. "You have to be able to laugh at your errors and not worry about it."

Of course, once you get good there are opportunities to travel, to meet and compete with other Irish dancers.

"We get to meet people from all over the U.S.," says Andes. "Baltimore, New Jersey, Delaware, New York. There's a special group that goes to Pittsburgh.

"And the Dublin Irish festival is the first week in August."

That's Dublin, Ohio.

Fleet of feet

It is practically impossible to talk about Irish dancing without mentioning "Riverdance." When two Irish-American dancers, Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, stepped into the spotlight of the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin, few people realized what the repercussions would be. Certainly not Sean Culkin.

"My whole interest in getting back into Irish dancing just grew with 'Riverdance,'" he observes. "I'm a surfer, and I hit the wave at the right time."

Could this be fate again? Maybe. Or coincidence, or good fortune, or a happy convergence of one Irishman and the forces of the zeitgeist. But whatever it is, it has made Culkin's life easier -- and more complicated, too.

"Lots of kids want to do it because of 'Riverdance,'" he admits. "There's more awareness, and it's great that there are more teachers to take the kids."

The teachers Culkin works with -- Bridget Launi, Nicki Elliot and Caterina Earle -- are TCRG certified, which means their credentials meet with the approval of an Ireland-based board that oversees dance in North America. Jenny O'Connell, a Virginia teen, assists when she's not heading off to a feis, or competition. These events are excellent networking opportunities for the dancers and the dance teachers, too. They get together to watch and share, to get ideas about the latest steps, the moves that might bring Irish dancing to the next level. Just as "Riverdance" did less than a decade ago.

"Irish dancing is very, very, very different from what I took as a child," Culkin points out. "I teach the same traditional steps to beginners, but beyond that, it's an art that's continually growing and changing.

"It's like the fashion world: every spring something new comes out."

Like the fashion world, too, the world of Irish dance tends to be dominated by women. That's something Culkin is working to change. He has 33 boys in his school, possibly more boys than any other school in North America.

"It's not that I don't want girls, he explains. "I need boys to do the choreography."

He adds that boys are crowd pleasers, too. No matter how gorgeous the girls' dresses may be, no matter how high the leap or how precisely they step, everybody loves to see boys do Irish dancing -- a la Michael Flatley, perhaps.

Because not every Irishman dreams of land. Some dream of superstardom.

Gaithersburg's second annual St. Patrick's Day parade steps off at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Washingtonian Center, I-370 and Washingtonian Boulevard. For information or to participate, contact the Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture at parksrec@ci.gaithersburg.md.us or call 301-258-6350. To learn more about the Culkin School of Irish Dance, call 301-593-9600 or visit www.culkinschool.com. To learn more about the Ring of Kerry Irish dancers, call 301-301-926-6943 or visit www.geocities.com/ringofkerrydancers.