Irish dancers and their fans prepare for weekend festivities

Scores of Irish dancers are preparing for performances at the Irish American Heritage Center in Chicago tonight, which kicks off St. Patrick Day-weekend festivities.

Among the dancers are Rory Ward, 18, and Katie Guinan, 10, members of the Mulhern School of Irish Dance, and both will represent the school at the World Irish Dancing Championships in Philadelphia next month.

St. Patrick’s Day shows are a great venue in which to practice and hone skills, says Katie’s mother, Allison Guinan.

“It’s one thing to see it done in the studio, it’s another thing to do it on a lit stage with costumes,” she says.

The event Irish Dance Chicago is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. tonight at the Irish American Heritage Center at 4626 N. Knox Ave. The other Chicagoland dance schools participating in the event are: Spriorad Damhsa; The O'Hare School of Irish Dance; The Mullane Healy O'Brien Irish Dance Academy; Trinity Irish Dancers and The World Academy of Irish Dancing. Also, members of the Academy of Irish Music will perform.

Irish dancing is at once graceful and athletic, with a lot of time devoted to learning intricate footwork and training to develop leg strength and stamina.

Rory, a Chicago native, says he’s excited about this weekend’s events. He has been dancing for 10 years and credits Mulhern School co-founders Colleen Mulhern Malloy and Eileen Mulhern O’Kane, with helping him to “blossom as a solo dancer."

Rory’s parents are Irish immigrants and he believes being an Irish dancer is a great way “to demonstrate your history.”

Rory placed 13th at the World Championships last year and is hoping to “medal” this year in the Top 10.

Katie has danced for seven years and has been with Mulhern since 2007. This is the first year that she could qualify for the World Championships at her age level.

She started out in ballet but found that she needed to do something more active. 

"I gave it [Irish dancing] a try and just fell in love with it,” she says.

Next month, Katie will be performing three solo dances at the World Championships. Mulhern is also bringing two Ceili teams (team of eight dancers each) to the event. 

When dancers perform solo, they keep their arms at their sides. A Ceili dance, however, allows for movement, including clapping, arm movement and forming patterns on the floor.

Mulhern School founders Malloy and O'Kane are sisters and started the school eight years ago. They teach classes at the Heritage Center in Chicago, Hinsdale and have a studio in Westmont.

Malloy and O’Kane are certified dance teachers and usually teach together.  Although their schedules often get hectic with classes, shows, and competitions, Malloy says it’s fun.

“To us, it’s a hobby,” Malloy says.  “We’ve done it all our lives. It doesn’t feel like a job.” 

Both sisters have been dancing since they were toddlers and went on to dance under the direction of Chicago Irish dance legends Pat Roche, Dennis Dennehy and Riverdance creator Michael Flatley.