Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007

Culkin School preserves an Irish dance tradition

School founded by a native of Ireland will celebrate its 10th anniversary next week

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Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Sean Culkin (left) works with students of the Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance during Feb. 12 classes held in the gymnasium at Hughes United Methodist Church on Georgia Avenue. Culkin founded the school 10 years ago.
Brigid Kilner, 7, stood in front of a mirror propped against a wall, watching herself carefully as she step-hopped and kick-backed while lilting Irish music played and other children stomped and kicked at the Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance.

Kilner was working on her reel — a dance with eight counts — and wanted to make sure she didn’t make a mistake. She wanted to dance as well as her older sisters, also students at the school. Her heels turned in, her toes turned out and she danced lightly on her toes, putting one foot in front of the other.

The Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance, which is celebrating its 10-year anniversary, has locations at churches in Silver Spring, Kensington, Bethesda, Rockville and Baltimore where staff teaches children traditional Irish dances. Some students attend simply because they’re interested in dancing or were inspired by shows like Riverdance, but many students also attend because they want to learn about their heritage or carry on a family tradition.

Tradition was on Silver Spring resident Sean Culkin’s mind when he founded the dance school, where students pay tuition and many attend to prepare for dance competition. Culkin, whose family is from Ireland, learned Irish dance from a young age.

‘‘My mother made me do it,” the Silver Spring resident said. ‘‘... I decided I liked it.”

As a child, he danced on and off, then threw himself back into dance his junior year at Mount St. Mary’s University.

‘‘I decided I missed it,” Culkin said. He continued dancing until his mother died — when she died, dance for Culkin did, too.

But in 1994, he and his wife attended an Irish social dance — a ceili — and Culkin met a man who asked him to help teach traditional Irish dance. Performance Irish dance — often referred to as stepdance — is typically done in a line, with quick and precise movement mainly from the legs. Dancers keep their arms at their sides. Irish social dance is often done with couples.

Eventually, Culkin, now 46, decided to become a certified instructor and open his own school. His sons, Michael, 8, and Rory and Sean, both 6, take classes from him.

Many of his other students’ parents are from Ireland, Culkin said. However, in some cases, the parents or children had simply seen Irish dance performed and enjoyed it.

Regardless of the motive, he said, Irish dance teaches discipline. Classes cater to children and adults of different skill levels. During class, Culkin will tell his students a little bit about the history of dance and, from time to time, he also tells them about the Irish language, Gaelic.

Katie Kilner, 13, has danced at the school for seven years. Her 10-year-old sister Madie has been dancing for five.

Katie Kilner got involved after seeing her cousins doing Irish dance, she said. Their family is Irish, she said, and it seemed natural that she and her sisters also would become involved.

Brigid Kilner, the youngest, said she’s learned from her sisters and from teachers at the school.

‘‘They teach me lots,” she said.

Tierney Acosta, 7, and Ella Torp, 6, have both been dancing for about two years and enjoy coming to Culkin’s location at Silver Spring’s Hughes United Methodist Church, which is close to both of their homes.

Acosta said her mother used to Irish dance, which was how she got involved at age 5, the youngest age Culkin takes at his school. When she saw her mother dance, she knew it was something she wanted to do.

The case was similar for Torp, who danced and kicked around the room with gusto during a recent practice.

‘‘My mom asked me because she did it. I said yes,” Torp said.

Silver Spring’s Mary Clyde, 6, and Ana Clyde, 8, also have enjoyed learning Irish dance.

‘‘I like to dance because it’s fun,” Ana Clyde said, adding her favorite dance is a slip jig.

The girls saw Irish dancing during a show at Busch Gardens, said their mother, Lourdes. ‘‘They got so excited. ...It’s just a confidence-builder and a very good activity for them. I love all the work Sean does with them.”

See Irish dancein action

In celebration of its 10th anniversary, the Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance will present a 90-minute showcase, ‘‘Damhsa: Rhythm and Grace,” March 2 and 3 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. Tickets are $20 and available through the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre at⁄theatre or by calling 240-314-8690.