Gate City Journal
Greensboro steps up in the world of Irish dance
By Maria Johnson
You’ll hear the students of the Walsh Kelley School of Irish Dancing long before you see them.
You can’t miss the rhythmic hammering of their fiberglass heels and toes, especially as they pummel the hardwood on St. Patrick’s Day at M’Coul’s Public House downtown.
On that bonnie day, the local dancers make do, fencing their explosive steps into wee spaces. In competitions, however, with proper stages at their disposal, they cut loose in a blur of curls and Celtic finery punctuated by the firing-range report of feet.
Later this month, two of them — 19-year-old Kelly King, a freshman at UNCG, and 16-year-old Amanda Trolle, a student at Northern Guilford High School — will travel to Glasgow, Scotland, for the World Irish Dancing Championships.
An international tribe in practice if not in name, Irish dancers vie for global honors where lassies and laddies don the black shoes and white socks of the faithful. Also, they require a lot of ballroom space. Hence, Greensboro — emphasis on the green — will host the world championships of Irish dancing at the Koury Convention Center in April 2019.
Five thousand Irish dancers from all over the world are expected to thunder into the Gate City, drawing some 25,000 spectators.
Greensboro dancers will be hoofing heartily in the coming year, hoping to qualify for the championships in their own backyard.
History says they have a good chance.
The Greensboro branch of the Charlotte-based Walsh Kelley School has sent about 30 students to the world championships in the last 16 years.
Credit their teacher, 48-year-old Colleen Flanigan King, who moved to Greensboro with her husband Jim in 1998, and started taking classes at the school.
Twice a competitor at the world championships, she’d been Irish dancing since she was a kid in Seattle.
“It was just a fun sport to do. As I got more into it, my sister and I performed at nursing homes, and at local fairs, and when Irish bands came to town. We’d go to Canada and all over the West Coast to compete. Now, it’s a great activity for me and my daughters to do,” says Colleen, the mother of two girls and two boys.
Her boys chucked Irish dancing for soccer. Dancing took with the girls.
Kelly King — the regional champ in her age group and one of the two Greensboro dancers headed to worlds in Glasgow this month — is Colleen’s daughter.
So is 15-year-old McKenzie, who flew to Killarney, Ireland, last month to compete in the All Ireland Championships.
Two other Greensboro dancers joined McKenzie on the Emerald Isle: Trolle and 16-year-old Jillian Fulp, a student at Page High School.
All are Colleen’s pupils. Twice a week, they meet for a championship class at the Greensboro Cultural Center.
In the mirrored corral of Studio 317, Colleen circles them with the vigor of a border collie, eyes always on the feet. She is compact, athletic, quick to smile, urgent.
Fast, higher, clap-clap-clap, c’mon, toes out, knees up, travel farther. She pushes them, sometimes literally, her hand alighting briefly on their backs. Her own feet phrase what she wants to see.
The dancers take flight in sorties, sweeping across the black vinyl floor in lines that connect the invisible dots of choreography unique to each school of Irish dancing.
At times, their board-straight bodies appear to lean slightly backward and jet forward at the same time. How do they do that?
No time to figure it out. Things are moving too fast, prodded by the windy, rollicking music that warbles from an iPod tucked into a speaker at the front of the room.
Legs straighten and scissor. Calves cross. Feet slap, slide, stutter and stand on tiptoe, en block. Knees jut into peaks and descend with the power of pistons. Heels jab at glutes. Quads flush and crease where tectonic plates of muscle collide. Sweat beads. With arms glued fast to their sides, dancers land like human exclamation points.
At the world championships, Kelly and Amanda will dance at least two rounds in solo competition. Each will do a hard-shoe number and a soft-shoe number.
Hard-shoe routines — the loud ones — go with peppy hornpipe music and treble jigs. They last a little more than a minute.
Soft-shoe pieces — easier on the ears and more about graceful leaping than emphatic stepping — pair with reels, slip jigs and light jigs. They take a little under a minute.
Finalists are called back for a third round.
Kelly King, who started Irish dancing at age 4, has been to Worlds five times. She has yet to make it to the third round.
“Hopefully, this year will be the year, but I try not to set my expectations too high. I just try to go out and have fun,” says Kelly. “Hopefully, my hard work shows up when I’m on stage.”
She practices at least an hour a day. Sometimes she drills for two- or three-hour stretches. That doesn’t include the time she spends looking at Irish dancing snippets on Instagram.
Video is hard to come by. There are no live broadcasts of championships and recording is not allowed except when winners parade a few prized steps at the end of contests.
One reason for the caution is to protect the privacy of the youthful dancers. Another is to guard the secrecy of the steps.
“Schools are sensitive about their steps, so they won’t be stolen,” says Kelly.
The latest in Irish dancing fashion is more accessible. Kelly and other students follow the makers of hand-embroidered costumes. Female dancers complete their outfits with corkscrew wigs — either shoulder-length or in buns piled atop their heads — to accentuate the springiness of their dances.
The fairy-tale look captivated Amanda Trolle, who started Irish dancing when she was 6 and lived in Germany.
“I saw the wigs and dresses, and I thought, ‘I want to do this. I want to be that person.’” she says.
Now she is. She plays lacrosse for her school team, but her heart beats to the up-tempo of Irish dancing.
“When I’m not in class, I’m either training at home or doing strength and conditioning work at the gym. It’s a seven-day thing.”
Amanda and her fellow dancers relish the travel, friendships, discipline and poise that their artistic sport has brought them. It’s unfortunate, they say, that the ability to shake a leg with a rigid upper body does not translate well to proms and other informal dances.
“I have no idea what to do with my arms when I dance other dances,” says Kelly. OH
Students from the Walsh Kelley School of Irish Dancing will perform at M’Coul’s Public House on St. Patrick’s Day at 11 a.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. For results of the March 24–April 1 world championships, go to clrg.ie. Maria Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.