Irish dance school passes on heritage ‘for generations’ through St. Patrick’s Day Parade performance

Dancers from the Emerald Isle Academy of Irish Dance prepare for the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Saturday in Springfield, Pa. (Emily Scott/WHYY, file)

Dancers from the Emerald Isle Academy of Irish Dance prepare for the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Saturday in Springfield, Pa. (Emily Scott/WHYY, file)

When Kate O’Brien saw the first performances of Riverdance, a theater show of traditional Irish music and dance, back in the 1990s, she begged her parents to let her take classes.

More than 20 years later, as the owner and director of Emerald Isle Academy of Irish Dance, O’Brien teaches those classes. She has 95 students, whom she instructs at several studios in Philadelphia and its suburbs, New Jersey, and Delaware.

Her students have spent two months preparing for their biggest performance of the year: dancing for tens of thousands of people and a live television audience in Sunday’s 249th annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Philadelphia.

The parade has become an annual tradition for Emerald Isle Academy. This is the studio’s 10th year performing in it.

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“What better way to celebrate being Irish than being a part of the parade in Philadelphia?” O’Brien said. “I would say there’s definitely a feeling of pride getting to do that every single year and sharing what we do on television with other people. It’s amazing.”

Sometimes, O’Brien said, she tries to tie her dancers’ performance and costumes to the parade’s theme. This year’s is “St. Patrick, Unite Us.”

She evokes the unity theme through a type of Irish dance called “ceili,” which refers to a social gathering involving folk music and dance. Ceili dances are performed as a group with hard shoes, and often resemble traditional step dancing.

The beginner dancers will perform in soft shoe during the parade.

“It’s a collaboration of different styles of dance in the soft and the hard shoes,” O’Brien said. “I thought that was kind of the perfect number to do because it’s a gathering of people, a  celebration to come together to do this group dance.”

O’Brien said she hardly sees any nerves from her students dancing for such a large crowd because it’s a much more laid-back performance in comparison to competitions.

Emerald Isle Academy’s dancers will perform multiple times along the parade route before heading to the stage area, where they’ll perform live on TV. O’Brien said the students want to shine while in front of the cameras.

“That’s just human nature,” she said. “The kids want to nail it and do their best in front of the television, and we have people texting us like, ‘You’re almost on, we see you!’ and they know their family and friends are at home watching, so they really try and give it their all.”

Luke Sooy, 11, has been Irish dancing for six years. He first discovered it when he saw a family friend’s Irish music band perform. His dad first told him that Irish dancing wasn’t for boys, he said, but then during the band’s performance a boy came out and danced.

Four years ago, Luke had a solo during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” he said of the parade. “It’s just so fun. You get on the stage and after all the hard work, you just have fun.”

O’Brien described March as “Christmas for Irish dancers.” She said her studio alone has had 50 performances over the last two weeks.

Emerald Isle Academy is preparing for the world championship of Irish dancing, which will take place in April in Greensboro, North Carolina. The studio has also competed internationally in the past, in both Ireland and Scotland.

Dancing has brought her closer to her Irish heritage, O’Brien said, and she hopes to pass that along to her students.

“There’s dances we do that are hundreds of years old and different traditional sets, and I teach them to my students and pass them along,” she said. “I hope they eventually become teachers and pass them along.”

“I think that’s a huge part of what I do and is a requirement for every Irish dancer … to preserve the heritage and pass it along to future generations.”

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