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Mar 12, 2020

Try Something New: Taking a Step into Irish Culture

From left: Shanna O’Mara, Gillian Daly and Karen Rockafellow pose in The Jig Factory in Atlantic Highlands after an Irish step dancing class.

In this new column, Managing Editor Shanna O’Mara and Graphic Designer Karen Rockafellow will try out a new activity, trend or challenge each month and share their experiences – good or bad – with readers. How will Shanna, a stubborn introvert, and Karen, an artsy over-thinker, survive all the new experiences? Read on to find out! This month, in the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day, the two attended an Irish step dancing class.

I bit my nails the whole drive over. You’d think this challenge would be right up my alley. My name is Shanna Megan O’Mara for goodness sake. I’m a face full of freckles, baptized on St. Patrick’s Day, the product of a woman who wore green felt leprechaun shoes on her wedding day. But when Gillian Daly of The Jig Factory in Atlantic Highlands agreed to have us in class, I was nervous. My grandfather tried to teach me to step dance when I was little, but I was always distracted by the nearest shiny object and never got around to paying attention to his lesson.

Karen’s call to Ireland was back in 2009 when she dyed her hair red. A self-proclaimed “mutt” of ancestry, she has some Irish blood and it would soon course through her as we began learning steps.

Gillian Daly was the most gracious host. A highly experienced dancer from Dublin, she told us the story of emigrating to America after visiting her sister in New York.

“I called my mom and said, ‘Send my things. I’m staying,’” she laughed. “New York had this smell. It had opportunity – all these places to see and things to do. I didn’t want to leave.”

I can’t imagine what smell made Daly stay that day and for more than three decades after, but I’m sure so many are glad she did. She runs an incredible program, not only training highly skilled dancers who have gone on to win prestigious titles but also fostering an environment of acceptance, of freedom and of fun. Her dancers feel welcomed in the safe space of her studio and are always encouraged by her words and the countless positive posters hung on the walls. Daly urges everyone who steps in The Jig Factory to follow the rules posted around the room: keep your head high and your kicks higher, shine from the inside out, believe in yourself always and, perhaps most importantly, “No TikTok allowed.” If you were just as confused reading that as we were initially, ask the nearest youth to perform “Renegade” for you, and you’ll understand why their flailing arms are a distraction in class.

We began the class following Daly and her co-instructor, Nicole, as they rolled their ankles and stretched their legs. We began jumping in place, always keeping our toes pointed out and legs straight. We learned to “suck in” our kneecaps to engage our quadriceps and were reminded repeatedly to keep our shoulders back and spine lengthened.

Karen and I, each a foot taller and years older than our classmates, watched in awe and envy as the girls propelled off the ground so gracefully and seemingly with ease. While they sprung up and down, we stumbled side to side, often muttering to each other about how sweaty we already were. But the girls were polite and encouraged us to keep trying. “You’re doing really well for your first time,” one of the sweet girls, Lily, told us.

Daly’s hard shoes used for Irish step dancing

Daly’s mom and uncle are shown after an Irish step dancing competition. In the shadow box beside the photo is the medals they won.

We did various drills, including boxes (stepping in sequence to form squares with our movement) and step memorization (repeating patterns of tapping our feet in front and behind us to form a dance). We then got to take a break and watch the girls perform their steps. Each level stood, listened for the music and impressed us with their calculated yet rhythmic movements. They each wore Ghillies, shoes made of flexible, black leather with lace that wraps around their arches to train the foot to bend and allow the dancer to balance on their toes. Daly wore hard shows with a high arch and material on the bottom that clicked every time she tapped her toes or heels on the ground. Karen and I wore scuffed-up Adidas.

We ended the class after watching the girls, as young as 4 in the class we attended, perform with a smile on their face and starch in their socks then fall into a giggly huddle when the music stopped. They were warm and welcoming, disciplined but fun. We so appreciate the dancers and instructors for allowing us to be a part of this incredible experience. We’ll be tapping along from the sidelines as the girls perform in local parades and shows. We won’t forget – tap, tap, back, two, three.

Irish step dancing is an engaging activity for people of all ages and ethnicities. To check out videos of the dancers and to get involved, visit Facebook.com/DalyIrishDance.