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Irish Step Dancing – a Community Tradition in the All America City of Dublin, California

March 4, 2012

With the City of Dublin’s famed St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Celebration just around the corner, invited a Dublin High School junior to write about her passion for traditional Irish step dancing.

By Camille Chabot (junior – Dublin High School)

Camille Chabot (third from right)

Keeping with Dublin settlers’ Irish roots, Irish step dancing has made its way to our All America City of Dublin, California. Valerie Deam created the California branch of the McGrath School of Irish Dance shortly after moving to California in 1990 from Waterford, Ireland where her grandmother, Annie McGrath founded the school in 1950.

My sister and I have been attending Irish Dance classes for as long as I can remember – almost 12 years! It is a huge part of my life. Believe it or not, one of the reasons my mother starting looking to settle in Dublin in 1999 was for the proximity to the McGrath Irish dance studio. I am 3rd generation Irish and still have cousins in County Mayo – many of whom grew up step dancing and competing. Furthermore, my great grand uncle started a dance band called The Brose Walsh Band which still travels and plays jigs and reels throughout Ireland.

Camille Chabot (right)

There are three important props for an Irish dancer: the shoes, the dress, and the hair piece. Every dancer uses two pairs of shoes – ghillies and hard shoes. The ghillies are built with a soft leather material and make no sound. The hard shoe is similar to tap shoes, except that the tips and heels are made of fiberglass, and are significantly bulkier. Advanced dancers wear “solo” dresses, which combine traditional Celtic pattern and colors with modern inspiration. The McGrath Irish Dancers of Dublin, California are lucky enough to have their dance teacher, Valerie Deam, also as their costume designer! Almost every dance dress in the troop has been made by Valerie. She brought me to the fabric stores in San Jose to choose the colors and materials when I was ready for my first solo dress. Receiving a solo dress for performance and competition a very exciting step in a dancer’s career.

After every show the dancers are asked, “How long does it take to curl hair like that? It must have taken you all night!” I will let you in on a little secret: our hair takes most girls about 4 minutes to style because they are wigs. However, before we invested in wigs (after about a year of dancing), mothers and dancers admit they argued as hair was brushed and curled for performances, and sometimes we couldn’t go swimming because of the hair curls getting flat. When Valerie sees a student having fights with mom about hair, she knows it’s time to switch to a wig!

Some of the specifics with Irish step dance are: straight arms and feet, while toes and legs execute “steps”. Music is from Irish inspiration with rhythms such as jig, reel, hornpipe, and trebles. Our hours of dance classes are split between preparing for National competitions and choreographing for local performances. Our senior troop is often hired to perform with live Celtic bands.

We’re not nearly as famous as the Riverdancers but the McGrath School of Irish dance has been lucky enough to perform at halftime for Stanford, Cal Berkeley, and San Francisco Giants, as well as for festivals and events around the Bay. We have performed with well known ensembles such as Golden Bough, The Diablo Symphony, and Tempest.

With the month of March approaching, this is the busiest time of the year for Irish Dancers! The St. Patrick’s Day Celebration, held by the city of Dublin, is always a popular place to see our troop perform rain or shine. It is entertaining and we are devoted to celebrating our city and its Irish roots.

Beginning Irish dance classes taught by Valerie Deam are offered through Dublin Parks and Recreation Dept. on Thursday evenings.

Camille Chabot is a junior at Dublin High School. Camille was recently nominated for the City of Dublin’s 2011 Young Citizen of the Year award. Camille also participated in the City of Dublin’s successful bid to be named an All America City last year in competition in Kansas City. You can see the McGrath Irish dancers at this year’s City of Dublin St. Patrick’s Day Celebration (March 17-18, Civic Plaza).

Camille Chabot (left) with sister Juliette

McGrath Irish Dancers

Camille Chabot (left) at the St. Patrick Day Festival