Photo by Lee Woolcock
On March 17th, the Irish—and all those who have ever drunk in an Irish pub—will don Guinness hats and raise a glass to the Emerald Isle’s patron saint. So, in honour of Saint Patrick’s Day, I have a confession to make:
My name is Lauren Mannion and I am an Irish dancer.
Admitting to it isn’t always an easy thing to do, even though I’m proud of it. After all, it’s not the hippest of pastimes. Tell anyone that your hobby is Irish dancing, and expect them to cry, “What, like this?” while hopping about, arms pinned to their sides and legs flailing in their best Riverdance impression.
I should know—I started Irish dancing way back when I was a geeky 13-year-old. Undeterred by my utter lack of natural ability and the fact that idolising Michael Flatley did nothing to improve my already pitiful street cred, I found that I absolutely loved it. Even painstakingly practising new steps in a church hall alongside infinitely more talented five-year-olds wasn’t enough to put me off. There was just something captivating about that unique combination of the energetic and the ethereal, the mixture of intricate footwork and powerful leaps set to a background of beautiful Celtic music.
Irish dancing isn’t only about the rhythmic tapping made famous by shows like Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. The usual solo dances include reels, hornpipes and jigs, some using the well-known hard tap shoes and others danced in soft lace-up leather slippers. Then there are the countless céilí dances, done in pairs or groups and often danced at weddings and other celebrations. You don’t need to be a great dancer to be able to enjoy it, and neither do you have to be Irish. And since last summer, you don’t have to leave Catalunya to learn the moves, as it now has its very own Irish dancing school, Aires Celtes.
I’d been thinking about going back to Irish dancing for some time when I started looking online for classes last year, but I never seriously expected to find anything here in Barcelona. Preliminary searches revealed a couple of groups doing céilí dance performances, but regular classes seemed unlikely. Eventually, one day last September I came across a Facebook page for the Aires Celtes / Maria Singal Irish Dance School, newly opened and the first school in Spain to be registered with the World Irish Dance Association. Inspired by the mid-Nineties’ Riverdance phenomenon, Betlem Burcet, a music teacher from Girona, and Júlia Díez, a full-time mum of two from Barcelona, had danced together for years, often travelling abroad to train, until finally deciding to strike out alone and form their own school. Both women met my tentative enquiries about classes with overwhelming enthusiasm, and before I knew it I was digging out my dancing shoes and wondering what I was letting myself in for.
A good 10 years older and at least 10 kilos heavier than when I last danced, arriving for my first Aires Celtes class was a somewhat nerve-wracking experience, but I needn’t have worried. I was welcomed with open arms by the small but diverse group which included experienced performers, total beginners and even a couple of rusty former dancers like myself. It was only after going around the room giving the obligatory dos besos to my new classmates that it struck me that I was the only guiri, having idly imagined that most Irish dancers here would surely be expats. In fact, being English with a grandmother who hails from Limerick, I was by far the nearest anyone in the class came to being Irish, and as such, something of a curiosity.
Having danced before, the basic jumps and hops came back to me fairly easily, although my hopes that the years might somehow have transformed me from clumsy and inept to graceful and athletic were sadly shortlived. I also quickly realised that the stamina and strength I’d had as a teenager were going to take some time to build back up—even balancing high on the balls of my feet was difficult, and I was in absolute agony for days after my first few classes! Then there was the substantial challenge of learning new steps; as every Irish dancing school creates its own unique routines, the moves I remembered from my English school were of no use to me here. Just as in my old school, the tricky task of remembering combinations is often helped by singing the steps along with the music. However, previous experience hadn’t prepared me for the delicious mongrel mix of English, Castilian and Catalan used: “Jump, two, three y un, dos, tres, and hop and hop i un taló!” Classes follow in much the same manner, with the teaching mostly done in Catalan or Castilian, liberally peppered with “kick your heels” and “treble, hop backs”.
Júlia Díez explained from the start that the school’s emphasis is on correction and reinforcement of core technique, following the methods of registered Irish dance teacher Maria Singal, who lends the school her name and endorsement. Fine by me, since I need all the correction I can get. Besides, the school’s methods definitely seem to be working; in January, Júlia’s two young boys and Betlem scooped no less than eight first prizes between them at a World Irish Dance Association competition held in Dortmund, Germany. These competitions aren’t just about winning medals or moving up a grade, though; they’re also a great opportunity for us to travel, meet people from all over the world and watch champion dancers in action.
Aires Celtes runs one kids’ class and two adult groups every week at the school’s base in Barcelona, while Betlem organises official courses for students at Girona University and runs twice-monthly Saturday classes in Arbúcies. The regular timetable is topped up by weekend intensive courses from Maria Singal and other visiting teachers, and performances for special occasions including—what else—Saint Patrick’s Day. This month we’ll be celebrating Ireland’s national day in style in the centre of Girona, where dancers from both branches of Aires Celtes will come together to show off their fancy footwork in displays, workshops and a parade. There’ll be live Irish music, storytelling sessions featuring Celtic mythology and even some typical Catalan dancing thrown in for good measure. Expect things to kick off around 10am on Sunday March 20th in the city centre. All are welcome and participation is, of course, encouraged. Why not give it a try? You can’t possibly be worse than me!
Fancy giving Irish dancing a whirl? Contact Aires Celtes through their website: airesceltes.blogspot.com or by emailing: email@example.com