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The Greater Cleveland Feis Society

History: The Story of Irish Dance in Cleveland

The earliest Irish Dancing teacher to give instruction in the Cleveland area was Tom Scott. He arrived in Cleveland with his family in the 1940’s, bringing his love of Irish Dance and music with him. He was also an accomplished fiddle player. Tom’s legacy in Cleveland is seen in the work of his daughters Betty Scott Kish and Tessie Burke.

Tom’s daughters Tessie and Betty, both began schools of Irish Dance. One cannot talk about Irish Dancing in Cleveland without mentioning Tessie. She began teaching in the early sixties and still teaches today, forty two years later. Over the years she presented us with many accomplished dancers and champions as well as a number of teachers. Betty taught in her own school until one of her students, Peggy Cannon O’Donnell took over the school so that Betty could devote more time to her family. Betty has recently returned to teaching in the Cannon School.

Jack Mullally and Kevin Shanahan taught in the Cleveland area around the same time as Tom Scott. Tom Hastings, Bob Masterson, and PJ McCafferty were students of Kevin Shanahan who later went on to become teachers in the Cleveland area. Kevin was also very involved in the establishment of the Cleveland Feis in 1957. Kevin left Cleveland in 1961 and asked May Butler of Toronto to help his Cleveland students. She sent Bernie Bonner, one of her students, to Cleveland and Bernie taught Kevin’s students here. Several of their students continue to teach today including Bob Masterson, Sheila Murphy Crawford, & Tom Hastings. Bob continued on to teach in May’s School after Bernie left Cleveland. Bob taught another current teacher, Catherine Leneghan, who also spent some time learning her craft under the instruction of Tessie Burke.

In the late 1960’s we had the benefit of the presence of Una Ellis and John McKenna in our community. John was a student of Jack Mullally and is best remembered for teaching ceili dancing at the old West Side Irish American Club on Madison and for his involvement in the Gaelic League’s dance classes. Una Ellis operated a dance school in Cleveland and also taught dance for the Gaelic League.

In the 1970’s, PJ McCafferty and Judy Bunsey McCafferty opened their school. They were students of Tessie Burke and taught in the Cleveland area until PJ’s work transferred him out of the area. They continue to teach in the Southern Region where they reside. Two of their former students, Kathleen McGinty and Mary McGinty Sweeney, went on to become teachers, opening Innis Acla School in Cleveland, Memphis,and Savannah. The McCafferty School was taken over briefly by Tim O’Hare who continues to teach in Akron. Teacher Eileen O’Kennedy Dunlap recently opened a satellite class of the O’Hare School in Parma, Ohio.

Today in Cleveland we are blessed with seven dance schools and seventeen certified teachers of Irish Dance: Tessie Burke, Maire O’Leary Manning, Peggy Cannon O’Donnell, Bob Masterson, Catherine Leneghan, Sheila Murphy Crawford, Eileen O’Kennedy-Dunlap, MaryRose Conway, Colleen McCarthy, Shannon Ryan-Sikorski, Siobhan O’Leary, Holly Sheridan Podbesek, Maureen Cavanaugh, Betty Scott Kish, Melissa Barrett, Eileen Quinn Eagan, and Celine O’Leary Conway. All of them spent many years learning and refining their craft and are now passing this on to the next generation.

In addition to these teachers, there are countless others who have taught informally or just helped someone learn a step at a ceili. We extend our gratitude to them as well for what they have given of their time and skill so that Irish Dancing continues in Cleveland.

It is because of all these teachers, whose love and devotion to Irish Dance became their livelihood and their passion, we continue to celebrate the feis annually. Please join us in remembering those who came before and those who are with us today in showing them our gratitude, our respect, and our best wishes.

We are grateful to Brigid-Ellen Stefan, a feis committee member, has a great love of Irish Dance and who provided this information about Irish Dance in Cleveland over the last forty five years.

The Cleveland Feis Logo

The silhouette of two dancers has come to be known as the official logo of the Cleveland Feis. It was taken from a publicity photo of Bridget McNeely and Jim Reilly and in 1979 used as part of a promotion for the Feis in the Cleveland Press. As the 25th Anniversary of the Feis came around in 1982, the photograph was transformed into the silhouette to be used on the Cleveland Feis Society commemorative T-shirt. It was 1989 when the silhouette became the official logo. The logo symbolizes the past efforts of the Cleveland Feis Society to promote and provide access to one aspect of Irish culture, that being music and dance. The logo also represents the Feis Society's continuing commitment to the advancement and preservation of Irish culture and heritage in America.

History of Irish Dance

A Brief History/Description of Irish Step Dancing

Irish step dances are relatively modern, creations of the dancing masters prevalent in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries. "... almost all references to Irish dances in literature, down to the beginning of the eighteenth century, deal only with Round and Long dances, and ... there is a marked absence of any indication of the existence of the dancing-master until about the same time." The intricate steps were invented by the dancing masters, who elaborated on the simple steps of Round and Long dances.

(Round and Long dances are group dances, requiring a minimum of four dancers depending on the dance. Round dances are known in step dancing as figure dances, e.g., six-hand reel, eight-hand reel, four-hand jig.)

There are four basic Irish step dances (solos): reel, (light) jig, slip jig, and hornpipe. There are, of course, many variations of reel, light jig, slip jig, and hornpipe steps. Each dancing school has its own versions of the steps.

For those who are musically inclined and care about the timing of these dances: the reel is in 2/4 time; the light jig is in 6/8 time; the slip jig is in the complex 9/8 time; the hornpipe is also in 2/4 time, although with a different structure than that of the reel.

An Irish dance competition, feis (pronounced fesh ), can be found somewhere in the United States every month of the year, although the spring and summer months are the busiest. Competitions are also held in Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Regional competitions (Oireachtas -- pronounced uh-roc-tus ) allow the best dancers to qualify for national competitions and thus for world competition. The All World Championships are held every year at Easter-time in Ireland.

Each school has several different costumes. There is one or more costumes for kids, depending on their level; many schools have one costume for beginners and another for dancers at the intermediate level. Junior and senior dancers (teens and adults who have reached a high level in competition) have different dresses. Adult dancers (adults who have not danced in at least five years) have yet another costume, which is more often a skirt and blouse or jacket than a dress.

When dancers reach a certain level in competition, they may receive a solo dress. The dress, usually made in Ireland or England, is velvet with satin linings and lots of colorful embroidery. The solo dress is a sign that a dancer has achieved a high-level of skill in Irish step dancing. It is worn during individual (solo) competitions; for team (figure dancing) competitions, the dancer wears the standard school costume for their level.

A commission in Ireland (An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha) provides rules and guidelines for teaching and for competition. Teachers and adjudicators must qualify for their positions and be registered with the commission.

(Historical information taken from the book: A Handbook of Irish Dances : With an Essay on Their Origin and History by J.C. O'Keeffe and Art O'Brien. Dublin : O'Donochue, 1902.)