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Three decades of Irish dancing

The annual ceili dance brings out a diverse crowd of dancers. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
The Zenith City Ceili Band prepares to play for last year’s ceili dance. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

Ever dance the “Haymaker’s Jig?” What about the “Walls of Limerick?” Do you know the difference between a “side step” and a “jig-step?’

Luckily you don’t have to know the first thing about Irish ceili dancing to participate in the St. Patrick’s Day ceili dance at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on March 17. The dance is a fundraising event put on each year by Loaves & Fishes. Loaves & Fishes is inspired by the Catholic Worker Movement and extends hospitality to people who are homeless by opening three houses of hospitality on Jefferson Street.

“There’s no need for any pre-existing knowledge. The instruction is very clear at the beginning and well explained,” said Kate Bradley, a spokesperson for Loaves & Fishes.

The dance’s first half hour, starting at 7 p.m., is dedicated to instruction by the dance’s caller Terrance Smith. Smith has been leading the ceili dances in Duluth on and off for several years. He also teaches folk and barn dancing.

In Ireland, Smith says, there are basically three types of dances.

“There’s step dancing, like Riverdance that you see on television. That’s only performed on stage. There’s the set dancing, which is close to our square dances. Then there are the ceili dances, which are more like our barn dances,” Smith said.

Smith didn’t start out calling the dances. He remembers attending them in the 70’s and 80’s with his daughters and his wife.

“In Ireland, in the 1930’s and 40’s, they decided to preserve their traditional forms of dancing by writing books about it. There were basically three books written on the subject,” Smith said.

Smith traveled to Ireland in 1996 where he had the opportunity to participate in an authentic Irish ceili.

“There was a guy who taught the kids how to do the dance. He was calling out the steps in Gaelic. But I recognized a lot of the steps because it’s still the same three books that he was using!” Smith said.

While he enjoyed his time there, Smith said the ceili lacked the variety of dancers that can be found at the ceili’s back home in Duluth.

“The only thing was that none of the older adults would dance. It was mostly a kid thing. That’s something I like about our tradition. We have adults who are willing to dance along with the kids,” Smith said.

“What I enjoy most is seeing all the people. You see all sorts of people come out for the ceili,” Bradley said.

In fact the people who attend can range from kids in the neighborhood to residents of the Loaves and Fishes Houses to the sisters of the St. Scholastica monastery.

“Last year, I saw one of the nuns sitting on the side during the instruction portion. I asked why she wasn’t dancing and she said ‘Oh I know all of these steps, I’m not wasting my energy on practice,’” Bradley said.

The ceili dances have been held for more than 30 years now. It was started by Steve O’Neill in 1978.

“Steve loved everything Irish. Ceili dances are not that uncommon in Chicago where he grew up,” Bradley said.

The dances have endured through the decades.

“Something we’re very proud of is the fact that it’s a completely safe, family friendly environment. There is no alcohol served on site, and if someone comes and appears to be intoxicated, they are asked to leave. It’s not the traditional St. Patrick’s Day celebration,” Bradley said.

This year’s dance will include music provided by local musicians who come together to form the Zenith City Ceili Band. The cost for the dance is $10 for individuals and $20 for families, but no one will be turned away because of a lack of funds.

“Ceilis are all about dancing, singing and celebrating,” Smith said. “It’s not so much about about the steps, don’t worry too much about the steps but enjoy the party.”

If you go

What: Loaves & Fishes Annual Ceili Dance and fundraiser

Where: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 1710 E. Superior St.

When: 7 p.m. March 17

Cost: $10 for individuals, $20 for a family, (but no one will be turned away because of a lack of funds.)

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

(218) 720-4176