Sheeaun Academy of Irish Dance
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Bridgeport News and
Fairfield, CT – A scrappy kid from Bridgeport’s east side with a love of and early encouragement in Irish dance now operates one of the largest academies of Irish dance in the region. The group has been taking top spots in leading competitions and is a fixture at Fairfield’s annual Irish Festival.
Moira Speer, the 30-year-old owner of Sheeaun Academy of Irish Dance, which maintains a studio space at the Sportsplex@Fairfield, 85 Mill Plain Road, spoke with this correspondent at a recent practice session.
An early love of Irish dance
Speer, a pleasant thin-framed lass with long locks of blonde hair, was born in Virginia but moved to Bridgeport when she was three. She lived on Goddard Avenue on the Park City’s east side, a part of town she described as a “great area” as a kid growing up there in the early 1980s. “My brother and I had a lot of friends on the street and at the Multi-Cultural Magnet School where we had classes,” she said.
She was four years old when she was bitten by the Irish dance bug, taking instruction from Patty Lenihan of the Lenihan School of Irish Dance, conducted at the Gaelic-American Club of Fairfield. The school was then on the Post Road and is now located on Beach Road. Speer’s grandfather was president at the time. “My parents were just becoming members, learned about the lessons and asked me if I wanted to try,” she said.
Besides dancing at the Lenihan School, Speer and her younger brother Eamon, now 28, began dancing and performing at the Magnet School, every St. Patrick’s Day.
“I loved dancing from Day One, and only wanted to Irish dance, despite trying other activities like soccer, ballet and T-ball,” Speer said.
She began competing at local Feiseanna’s, which in ancient Ireland, were local festivals wherein storytellers, bards and balladeers would lead audiences in legends, stories, dance and song. These gatherings later gave rise to athletic and sporting competitions, including horse- and chariot-racing, as well as feats of strength and endurance.
Speer was a quick study and early talent. “I did really well and, from the beginner level, moved quickly through the ranks from Novice and Prizewinner to Preliminary Championship and Open Championship, the latter being the highest level, which I achieved at age 14. At that time, that was a pretty fast track,” she said.
“Riverdance”, the theatrical show consisting of traditional Irish stepdancing that, in essence, tells the story of Irish culture and Irish immigration to America, was debuting in Europe then, and was a huge influence not only on Speer but on young people everywhere that had even a passing interest in dancing.
“It lit the world on fire,” she said of the show, “driving immense interest in Irish dance. For me, it was really exciting and fueled my drive even more.”
Speer attended the first show, in fact, when it came to the U.S. and debuted at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in mid-March 1996. An eight-week run had been scheduled, which completely sold out. Related merchandise sales for the phenomenon smashed Music Hall records to date.
“There were all sorts of celebrities in the audience and the show was really powerful – the dancing, the music, the rhythm… .so inspiring,” she said.
The show drove Speer to compete “first regionally, then nationally,” said Speer of the period that followed. “My biggest accomplishment was in 2002, when I placed 35th at the World Championship in Scotland,” she said. “Over 150 top dancers from all over the world competed. I was one of the top 10 Americans.”
In 2005, no longer an upstart teen, Speer placed first in New England in the Senior Ladies 21+ category.
Speer steps into a new role
As she competed, Speer was also developing leadership skills. “From age 15 on, I was helping Patty at the school with instruction,” she said. “Eventually, I got to a point where I wanted to branch out on my own, and so established Sheeaun Academy, in 2008.”
She began giving lessons in her house and doing after-school programs. “Little by little, the student base grew and now there are over 100 students from Fairfield, Trumbull, Madison and Stonington in the group,” she said.
One of the biggest challenges to date for the rising academy was the recent New England Oireachtas, a regional Irish dance competition held November 18-20 at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence. The event, which has been conducted for the past 36 years, is hosted by the Irish Dancing Teachers Association of New England (IDTANA). The association operates under the auspices of AnCoimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha (the Irish Dancing Commission) of Dublin, Ireland.
Twenty-four students from the Academy, ages five through 16, participated in the competition. It was their second consecutive appearance – in 2010, nine of 11 Academy participants placed, with one getting first place in her age group. “It was a wonderful debut,” said Speer.
This year, the results were even more impressive: three were in the top 5, six in the top 10, and 12 in the top 20. Contests were divided by age, level, individual and group, with between 40 and 60 competitors in each category.
“For me and my teaching partner, Frank Rupp, who has also danced since he was a youth, it’s amazing to send your own students to competition and continue the Irish dance tradition,” said Speer.
Inspired, enthusiastic students
Eleven-year-old Fairfielder Finula Milici, a Sheeaun Academy member, shows the same spirit and drive as Speer at the same age. Nursing an ankle injury and looking on from the sidelines as her younger sister Bella and other classmates went through their paces at their Sportsplex training space recently, Milici described some of the technical aspects of Irish dance.
“During dance competitions and performances, we wear curly wigs,” she said. “The tradition started when girls went to church and would curl their hair. Church is on Sunday for most people and so are competitions. If you showed up for competition without your hair curled, people would assume you didn’t go to church.”
In Irish dance, arms are typically held rigidly to the sides and behind the back. Milici explained why: “Back in the old days in Ireland and England, classes were very popular and crowded and there wasn’t much room to move around.”
Milici, like Speer, began Irish dancing when she was four, at Greenway Academy in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. She was inspired by a television program. “I used to watch ‘The Wiggles’ and, on a St. Patrick’s Day special, there was a dinosaur Irish dancing,” she recalled. “I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. My mom signed me and my sister up. It was different from all the dancing I’d ever seen and the costumes were cool. When you’re young, it’s not so competitive. As you get older, it gets harder. Kids are grouped by talent, so a thirteen-year-old and a seven-year-old could be in the same class.”
Milici is a sixth grader at Roger Ludlowe Middle School. On a local level, Academy classmates are also from Saugatuck Elementary, St. Thomas Aquinas and Roger Sherman Elementary.
Irish Dance steeped in history
Irish Dance has gained great popularity in the United States and around the world. It may have begun among the Druids, who danced in religious rituals honoring the oak tree and sun. When the Celts arrived in Ireland from central Europe over 2,000 years ago, they brought their own folk dances. The Anglo-Norman conquest in the twelfth century brought Norman customs to Ireland. The Carol was a popular dance in which the leader sang and was surrounded by a circle of dancers who replied with the same song.
Three Irish dances were noted in the sixteenth century: the Irish Hey, the Rinnce Fada (long dance) and the Trenchmore. They were often performed in the great halls of newly built castles, to greet royalty arriving from foreign lands and at wakes.
In the late 1700s, it was common for pairs of dancers to hold a handkerchief between them. Dancing was accompanied by music played on bagpipes and the harp.
During the 18th century, the dancing master appeared in Ireland. He was a wandering dancing teacher who traveled from village to village, teaching dance to peasants. Group dances, with very high standards, were developed by the masters, with gifted pupils given solo performance opportunities.
Different styles of Irish dance developed across Ireland, which today are illustrated by jigs, reels, hornpipes, sets, half sets, polkas and step dances. The colorful costumes commemorate the clothing of the past, with each school of dancing exhibiting its own costume. Dresses are based on Irish peasant dresses worn two hundred years ago and are adorned with hand-embroidered Celtic designs, copies of the Tara brooch and capes down the back. Men’s clothes are less embellished, consisting of a plain kilt and jacket, with a folded cloak draped from the shoulder.