It’s Friday night and the pub at the Ceilidhe Club of Rhode Island is ready to open for the evening. Club President Kathy Greenwell pulls up a stool, just as the sound of quick, heavy footsteps begins upstairs.
Downstairs, members and friends of the Irish social club are gathering to share a pint of Guinness or play a game of darts. Upstairs, students from the Harney Academy of Irish Dance practice for their busiest time of year - St. Patrick’s Day. In the two weeks surrounding St. Patrick’s Day, the team will perform at 30 shows.
“I look forward to March 18,” Harney said, laughing.
Harney is a two-time World Champion Irish Stepdancer and founder of the Harney Academy, which is based in Walpole, Massachusetts, but recently expanded into Rhode Island, with the Ceilidhe Club as its current base locally. He runs the school with his mother, Sally Harney, who was born in Ireland and passed on the Celtic tradition to her son. Prior to starting this east coast school, Harney founded the Academy of Performing Arts in San Diego, which is still flourishing in California. He starred in the Irish performance, “Waves,” as well as “Riverdance,” and countless other performances in the United States and abroad. He created his own touring Irish Dance show, “Celticfusion,” which he continues to perform in, despite limiting his appearances in order to focus on teaching.
“I always knew that I wanted to teach,” he said Friday, as several of his dance students warmed up.
His goal is to continue the tradition of Irish dance and music, but also to help students enjoy it. He finds that young people today are more competitive, and the sport has become more intense. He encourages his students to return to their reason for dancing - passion.
“The real reason for dancing isn’t for a trophy,” he says. “I want to let them feel the passion for dance.”
Harney was not even 5 years old when he started dancing, so he enjoys being the one to expose children to Irish dance for the first time.
Last week, he had several newcomers joining to watch his regular students, including 8-year-old Caleb Maytum from Cranston, and 9-year-old Samantha Haggerty and 10-year-old Erin O’Toole, both from Warwick. During a break in the practice, Harney walked them through some basic steps.
“It was fun,” Maytum said.
For O’Toole, it’s something she’s always wanted to learn.
“I’m mostly Irish, so I thought it would be good for me,” she said.
In addition to the Harney Academy, The Kelly School of Irish Dance is based out of the Ceilidhe Club. They have been practicing especially hard lately, not just for St. Patrick’s Day festivities, but also for their Park Theatre performance alongside world-renowned Celtic fiddler Natalie MacMaster. MacMaster, whose career has spanned three decades and earned her two Grammy nominations, is performing at the Park on Tuesday, March 20.
“The dancers at The Kelly School of Irish Dance practice extremely hard all year long to perfect their routines for the St. Patrick’s Day season,” said Kathleen Kelly, dance instructor for the school. “The girls have such a love for the Irish culture, they couldn’t be more thrilled to be the opening act for world famous Celtic musician Natalie MacMaster. We love the chance to perform any time we’re able, whether it be for school children, a church group or for a competition, but this particular opportunity is going to be very special for all of us.”
The Ceilidhe Club is happy to play host to both schools, and expose new students to Irish dance, as Greenwell’s own daughters were Irish dancers for many years.
Now in its 56th year, the club was formed by a group of Irish immigrants who began meeting in each other’s homes, before renting a hall and later purchasing their current facility on America Street in Cranston, just off Park Avenue.
“They wanted to be able to get together and just share traditions,” Greenwell said.
Today, the club has more than 200 members, who pay an annual fee of $35 to support the club’s mission. While the club pub is a popular hangout for members, the group has expanded its offerings over the years to include historical lectures, performances from Irish musicians, CD releases, book signings for Irish authors and other cultural activities.
“We’re starting to become a culture center; we’re becoming a resource for the State of Rhode Island,” Greenwell said. “It’s been really exciting to see the direction the club is going in.”
On Monday nights, from 7:15 to 9:15 p.m., guests can pay $6 for a Set Dancing workshop. There is also an ongoing adult Ceili Dancing workshop on the fourth Friday of every month from 8 to 9:30 p.m., with a fee of $7 per class. Additional classes cover Irish whistle, the Irish fiddle, knitting and a beginner’s course in the Irish language. On Thursdays through May 16, pay $8 per session for a Gaeilge conversation circle.
“We do a little bit of everything,” Greenwell said. “We’re busy. We’ve been working really hard the last two years to increase the membership.”
Saturday’s festivities could help to add a few more members to the ranks. Naturally, the Ceilidhe Club does St. Patrick’s Day in a big way. There will be a mass at 10 a.m., followed by an 11 a.m. flag raising. The club pub will open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and feature traditional Irish music from the Sean Connell Band and performances by the Harney Academy of Irish Dance. The pub restaurant will be open and serving corned beef sandwiches, as well as homemade Irish bread.
“It’s a really nice day,” Greenwell added.
For more information on the Ceilidhe Club of Rhode Island, visit www.irishclubri.org or call 944-3233. The club is located at 50 America Street in Cranston. For more information on the Liam Harney Academy of Irish Dance, visit www.harneyacademy.com. Or, to purchase tickets for the Natalie MacMaster and Kelly School performance, which are priced at $35 and $45, visit www.parktheatre.com or call the box office at 467-7275.