Something about Irish dance inspires a special kind of devotion in those who practice it. When about 20 Burlington students of the art form were left without a teacher three years ago, their families pitched in to rent studio space so the kids could keep practicing on their own.
Beth Anne McFadden, a 26-year-old certified Irish dance teacher who was living in Long Island at the time, read about the plight of the teacher-less Vermonters on an online message board. After one visit, she was sold: She relocated to Burlington and opened the McFadden Academy of Irish Dance.
"It was a little crazy," she says of her decision. "But the kids were beyond dedicated."
Now McFadden has 105 students, ages 4 to 23 — she also teaches adult classes — and is thinking about hiring more teachers. The school just moved to a new location in Williston to accommodate its growth.
So what is Irish dance? Most people are familiar with the Broadway phenomenon Riverdance, with its undulating lines of performers, kicking and stomping without seeming to move a muscle in their upper bodies. According to McFadden, legend has it that the tradition of moving only below the waist originated at some indeterminate point during the long English occupation of Ireland. If English soldiers patrolling the streets looked into the windows of Irish homes, they couldn't tell that people were dancing. "It was a rebellious act," says McFadden.
Others trace the earliest origins of Irish dance back to the Druids. But the style as we know it now began to come into its own in the 19th century.
By the time she reached third grade, McFadden had already taken ballet, tap and jazz classes, but something clicked when she took her first Irish dance class. Her teacher was "right off the boat from Ireland," she says, recalling that he was small, "like a little leprechaun."
At first McFadden came in planning to just sit and watch. But, she recalls with a laugh, the teacher informed her, in a thick brogue, "There is no watching in Irish dance." As soon as she started moving her feet, she knew why. "There's something just really infectious about it," she says.
McFadden's parents noticed an immediate change in her: "She doesn't walk anywhere anymore," she remembers them telling people. Instead, she began dancing her way up the street. At school, she would tap out jigs under her desk.
McFadden is proud to say her academy is the only certified school of Irish dance in Vermont. She took a rigorous two-day exam — proctored by leprechauns, one imagines — to get her certification. It may seem odd that anyone would need to be certified to dance, but McFadden says within the Irish dance community it's essential, and ensures that students are learning the very technique that's been passed down for generations. Learning at a certified school also makes students eligible to participate in what is known as a feis, or competition.
Besides being a great workout, Irish dance offers an excellent opportunity for kids to be part of a social setting. Performing in front of an audience enables them to develop confidence. And if they go the competition route, it can "teach them how to be good winners and losers," McFadden explains.