During a rakish hornpipe, their clog-fitted feet tap out a staccato, snare drum-like rhythm. Minutes later, to the strains of a lively jig, they flit around almost noiselessly in soft shoes, toes pointed and legs extending crisply out from their knee-length, elaborately embroidered dresses.
This Easter week, Reilly and Boyle will have the opportunity to perform at Irish step-dancing's Olympics, the world competition, held in the County Clare town of Ennis. Like Drayna, who competed last year, Reilly and Boyle will match their prowess against top dancers from Ireland, Great Britain, Canada, the US and Australia.
Such contests are nothing new for the three, who began learning to step-dance around the time they entered kindergarten. The competitive aspect of step-dancing is often lost amid the prominence of "Riverdance" and other popular Irish entertainment, a terrain marked by hard work and hard wills, and an assortment of idiosyncrasies and politics.
Sophomore Meghann Drayna (left) competed last year, and senior Beth Boyle (center) and junior Eileen Reilly will compete this year in the Irish step-dancing world competition in Ireland. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
But the satisfaction dancing holds for the three students - among a small but spirited group of step-dancers in the Boston College Irish Society - runs deeper than a well-executed maneuver. They say the experience has strengthened their ties with family and cultural traditions.
"I've found it keeps generations together," said Reilly, a psychology major from Williamantic, Conn. "My mother teaches step-dancing, and her grandfather - who was from Ireland - was apparently a great dancer himself. It's like we have this connection running through the family that reaches across time and distance."
"Any time I hear Irish music, I just want to get up and dance," said Drayna, a psychology major from Milwaukee. "There's something about it which gets into your heart and I can't imagine anything better."
For many years, competitions were one of the few venues for Irish step-dancers, explains Michael Smith, a part-time faculty member in the Irish Studies Program and an eminent step-dance teacher and choreographer. That has changed dramatically in the past decade, particularly since the advent of "Riverdance."
"There's been a tremendous interest these past few years, and it's incited a rush to step-dance schools," Smith said. "But what most people don't realize when they see 'Riverdance' or a more traditional Irish step-dance performance is how the dancers have spent long, long hours mastering the art. The competitions have always been the means of expression for that effort."
Dancers compete both as individuals and representatives of their step-dancing school's team. Grouped by age, they perform several styles of dances in "hard" or "soft" shoes, and are judged according to criteria such as posture, extension and especially timing - "If you're off with the music," Drayna said, "they don't even look at you." Like Drayna, Boyle and Reilly qualified for the world competition through winning performances in regional and national events.
Of course, there also are the social mores and unwritten rules befitting a long, distinguished tradition. While participants enjoy the camaraderie, Boyle acknowledges that "it can get kind of intense" when the event gets underway. Dancers jockeying for the best spot on stage have been known to crowd one another, even collide, and apologies are not always forthcoming.
The competition's growing international character has introduced an element of Olympic-style controversy, the students say, with some non-Irish contestants wondering aloud if they can get a fair shake in Ireland. Innovations are not especially welcomed, either. Drayna's team "got burned," she said, in a world competition event because the recording used to accompany their performance contained vocals instead of only instruments.
But the students feel that the strict criteria is desirable because it preserves the tradition binding them with dancers from Limerick, Liverpool or London (Ontario). The carping about favoritism or other issues, they say, cannot begin to measure up to the sheer enjoyment dancing brings.
"In the end," said Boyle, a San Francisco native studying accounting, "you just love the dancing."
Besides, the students add, the current popularity of Irish step-dancing has enabled them to perform in other, non-competitive settings. Drayna and Boyle had stopped dancing for a while, but took it up again after joining the Irish Society. They and the other dancers in the organization have performed regularly on and off campus, even doing a stint at a recent concert in Lyons Hall with Black 47, a New York City band which interpolates rock and Irish music.
"You never really leave it behind," Drayna said. "A few years ago, I was in a pub in Dublin with my father when we heard a fiddle player start playing a tune. I looked at my dad, he looked at me and nodded his head, and I just got up and started dancing. It was wonderful."
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