A reel and a jig

Irish dance invades Hobart Arena

Photo: Elina Espy and Addyson Randolph take a break between rounds.

By Terri Gordon

The Hobart Arena has been the venue for a variety of entertainment—from the circus, to sports, to music—and on Oct. 14 and 15 it will host a back-to-back Feis Weekend put on by Dayton’s own Celtic Academy of Irish Dance. 

Feis is a Gaelic word meaning festival, and festive it promises to be! Centered around the unique dances of Irish tradition, it is a regional competition within the larger Northern America Feis Commission and An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha.

What that means is that there will be much gaiety and dancing and singing and playing of instruments. There will be jigs and reels and traditional dances with names like Job of the Journeywork, Jockey to the Fair, and Garden of Daisies. There will be brightly colored costumes and shiny shoes, there will be accordions accompanying the dancers, and a small music competition with fiddles and other traditional instruments.

The Celtic Academy of Irish Dance has been a part of the Dayton scene since the 1950s when it was called the Hibernian Irish Dancers. The school is currently run by Mary Laffey, and her sister Laureen Laffey. Mary, who has been dancing since the age of five, took the reins in 1989, when her teacher retired and turned it over to her. At the time, there were only twelve students, but it has grown to more than 125 since that time—helped in some measure by shows like Riverdance.

Anyone who has watched Irish dance must see that it takes on a very different form than other types. Instead of the flowing, side-to-side footwork of, for instance, a waltz, the footwork is more linear, with dancers putting one foot in front of the other. Dancers also keep their arms at their sides. There’s an interesting history to these features as it came about, essentially, as a form of rebellion.

“The story we heard growing up,” says Mary, “is that it was because during the wars, when England was trying to takeover Ireland, they were trying to get the dance out of Ireland. The soldiers used to march up and down the streets, and people would have to keep their curtains open, so the soldiers could see into the houses. So they decided, at that point, that their feet could be doing things as long as their arms were still, and the soldiers wouldn’t realize that they were dancing!”

The weekend begins with the Gem City Feis, now in its thirteenth year, which takes place on Saturday. Roughly 600 dancers from the surrounding region and Canada will participate. On Sunday, the Lindsay Marie Memorial Feis—in its second year—goes on with just over 400 competitors. 

The difference between performance and competition is vastly different. In the world of competition, the focus is on technique and costumes and overall manner. There are rules and regulations.

“In a competition we’re restricted to what music we can use, what dances we can do,” says Laffey. “We can’t use our arms. It’s very demanding of technique, whereas at performances, we can cut loose.

Stage presence is important, so from head to toe, they have to look perfect. You want your stage presence to be there because that is judged as well as the execution of your steps.”

On the local, regional, national, and world levels, the Celtic Academy Youth and Adult teams have won awards and titles from the Mid-America Regional Championships, while both teams and soloists have won medals from the Mid-America Regional Championships, North American Irish Dance Championships, as well as the prestigious World Irish Dancing Championships. 

Celtic Academy has also performed with National & Internationally known bands and has performs locally at various events, including the United Irish of Dayton Celtic Festival, the A World A’Fair, the Ohio Renaissance Festival, and the Harlem Globetrotters.

The Lindsay Marie Memorial Feis is named for Laureen’s daughter, Mary’s niece, who died in a car accident in 2002, just shy of her seventeenth birthday. 

“It was a very difficult time for our family, the dance studio family, and all of her friends,” says Mary. “Laureen wanted the feis to do a scholarship in Lindsay’s name, as Lindsay enjoyed helping others and this is one way to keep this part of her memory alive—helping Irish Dancers with their dance related expenses.”

When the school added the second feis to make it a back-to-back weekend—giving regional competitors more options and opportunities, more bang for the buck, as it were—it was the students who suggested making it a memorial to Lindsay.

For those who go, there will be food, soft drinks, and vendors. There will be plenty to see—and hear.

“It is live music,” says Laffey, laughing. “But you might get tired of listening to the same piece over and over again.”

Hobart Arena is located at 255 Adams Street in Troy. More information about the feis weekend can be found at www.CelticAcademy.com.

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Freelance writer Terri Gordon writes across a range of topics, including nature, health, and homes and gardens. She holds a masters in English and occasionally teaches college composition and literature. Her blog, WordWorks (http://tsgordon.blogspot.com) is a "bulletin board" of some of her favorite things.

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