Dancers from the Boyle School of Irish Dance give a new meaning to the phrase “kicking up their feet.”
Girls and boys fly furiously through jumps and jigs as part of the local dance school’s whirlwind schedule of events for the St. Patrick’s Day holiday.
The Boyle School of Irish Dance, started by sisters Alannah Boyle Sweeney, 35, of Clifton, and Ellen Boyle Gibbons, 42, of Manassas, has earned recognition in international Irish dance competitions as well as a loyal local following for lively performances.
The school has 80 shows on the schedule this March, at venues ranging from local schools and churches to Irish pubs and parades. Booking for this busiest season started last October.
More than 550 students take dance classes at the Boyle School. The school holds classes in four locations: in Chantilly and Herndon in Fairfax County, and also in the cities of Alexandria and Manassas.
Out of all the students, about 300 choose to dance in the shows. Sweeney and Gibbons divide up the students to cover all the many performances on the calendar.
“Performances make kids feel like rock stars for the day,” Gibbons said. “You take them into a St. Patrick’s Day crowd, and everybody is cheering for those kids.”
Staying on top of their busy schedules keeps Gibbons and Sweeney on their toes, but that is a comfortable spot for the sisters. The sisters started Irish dancing before they even started school. The daughters of Irish immigrants, they grew up with their six brothers in upstate New York.
“In our generation, if you were the child of an Irish immigrant, you could bet that your brothers were altar boys and your sisters were Irish dancers,” Sweeney said.
The family moved down to Northern Virginia before Sweeney’s senior year of high school in 1996. The school got its start that year at Seton School in Manassas, where Sweeney started teaching steps to several of the younger students.
When Sweeney left for college, Gibbons, then a nurse at Georgetown University Hospital, took over the informal classes, and soon took on another group of students at St. Timothy Catholic School in Chantilly.
Sweeney returned to the area after college as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, but soon, she and Gibbons decided to give up their day jobs and make their growing group of Irish dance students an official school.
The decision did not come lightly — getting certified as an Irish dance teacher requires months of training and studying, according to Sweeney.
“It takes at least a year to study for it, and that includes music, dance and theory, plus a demonstration of your own teaching and dancing,” Sweeney said.
“The certification process is no joke, that’s for sure,” Gibbons added.
But in 2002, Sweeney and Gibbons both earned their certification from An Coimisiun le Rinci Gaelacha, or the Irish Dancing Commission, the international governing body for Irish dance, and started preparing students to compete in local and national Irish dance competitions.
Since then, the school has blossomed. Students can choose to take classes for fun, to participate in local shows or to train for competitions. Even better, they can choose to do all three, Gibbons said.
“We really focus on maintaining a performance base for the school,” Gibbons said. “We want the kids to remember that not everything is competition focus. It helps them find the joy in their dancing.”
Currently, about 160 of the school’s students participate in competitions. Eight of the students earned a spot at the world championships in London from April 13-20, and the St. Patrick’s Day shows provide the perfect opportunity for practice and for a much-appreciated confidence boost.
For example, one of the students heading to the world championships garnered chants of “USA! USA!” at a pub show last weekend in Alexandria.
“Getting that recognition, they just feel special,” Sweeney said.
“I think our performances have actually been the reason we’ve had our success,” Gibbons said. “We maintain the joy while still being able to reach a high level.”