By Pamela Lannom
March 20, 2008 – The Hinsdalean
Eileen Mulhern O’Kane will board a plane tomorrow with four of her students who will compete in the 2008 World Irish Dancing Championships in Belfast.
She and her sister, Coleen Mulhern Malloy, have come a long way since Malloy first taught her niece to dance for Malloy’s wedding. The niece soon brought her friends over and the sisters found themselves teaching 30 or 40 children in their parents’ home.“The shoes would all be at the front door,” O’Kane said. She would be baking us soda bread and bringing us tea,” she said of their mother.
The sisters, who are two years apart and the youngest of seven, first were exposed to Irish dancing when they went to their older siblings’ lessons. “When our mother took the older kids, we had to go along, too,” Malloy said.
The daughters of Irish immigrants, it’s no surprise the two prefer Irish dancing to all other types. It’s just a beautiful art form like no other,” O’Kane said. “It’s different. It’s beautiful. It’s a mix of ballet it’s a mix of tap, but I’d say, even a little more demanding. In Irish dance, you’re required to keep your upper body completely straight. “We feel — we may be a little biased—it’s certainly the best of all worlds,” she added.
The sisters, who both live in Hinsdale, teach about 13 classes a week to their 150 students in their Westmont studio, which they opened about a year and a half ago. There’s so much in sports medicine that says you need to be on sprung surfaces so you’re not damaging muscles and bones,” O’Kane said. “The floor we put in here was the most expensive thing we invested in.
”The youngest students, who begin classes at age 3 or 4 in soft shoes, learn how to arch their feet, place them correctly, keep their legs straight and control their bodies, Malloy said. “They must have the basics,” she said “If they don’t have that, there’s nothing there.” They also learn how to keep time with the music and to skip and hop. The first dances they learn are the jig and the reel. A year or two later, as they become more proficient, they move to a hard shoe and eventually learn what are called set dances. The solo performances are danced to specific pieces of music, although each school choreographs its own routine.
“Only the championship level dancers would do the set dances,” Malloy said. The younger girls compete in a simple black skirt and top. After they have been dancing for a while, they can buy a costume made in Ireland. Most girls don’t buy a more elaborate solo costume until they have been dancing for quite some time. “We want them to take their time,” O’Kane said. “They range anywhere from $500 to $3,000. It’s a big investment.”
How long it takes a student to move into higher level classes depends on his or her ability level, the sisters said. “We have certain guidelines but not every child is the same, so you’re not going to have the same outcome,” Malloy said. The sisters don’t limit their classes to those who want to compete. “There are those, no matter the age, who really enjoy the recreational side of it and just dance for the love of dance,” O’Kane said. “You want them to love what they’re doing.”
Thirteen-year-old Emily Russell of Hinsdale loves dancing and competing. She is in her eighth year of dancing at the school. She started because two of her friends were dancing there, including Morgan Mulhern, Malloy’s and O’Kane’s niece. “I thought it was really fun because it was with my friends and I really learned to love it. I was into soccer and basketball but when I started Irish dance it was a totally different sport that I had never really heard of,” she said. Russell last competed March 1 in Lake Geneva, where she won second place. She said competition is difficult and you have to focus on every little detail. “In basketball and soccer, there are your teammates who can help you, but in Irish dance it really all depends on you,” she said. Many people are not aware of how challenging Irish dancing really is. “I think it’s definitely more difficult than anyone ever imagined because it’s very easy on the eye when you look at a top dancer,” Malloy said. “Those are championship dancers doing those shows.” O’Kane agreed. “It’s very athletic. You have to be physically fit. It takes a lot of stamina, it takes a lot of muscle strength to jump,” O’Kane said.
And the competition schedule has expanded since the days when Malloy and O’Kane competed between Memorial Day and thanksgiving. “It’s huge now. In our day, we probably went to five to 10 competitions. Now it doesn’t stop. It’s like all sports,” O’Kane said. The most important lesson the two try to teach their students is to accomplish what they set out to accomplish. “Achieve your dream, whatever your dream is —to learn a step, to win national, whatever the dream is,” O’Kane said.