In Step With The Irish

Dance class comes with bit o' the blarney

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The last time Kathleen Kelley was in Ireland, she was told, "Kathleen, you'll not be kissing the blarney stone, you've got too much of it already."

After 30 seconds on the phone with Kelley, you begin to appreciate the uncanny perceptions of the Irish.

"I'm 22 and have a perfect body" she answers before the first question about her background has been completed.

Even those who've never laid eyes on her can tell by the joyfully wicked tone of her voice: pure, unadulterated creme de la blarney.

But on Kelley, a bit o' the blarney is a wonderful gift. Although born in White Plains, N.Y., and raised in Chicago, her heart is in Ireland, her soul is deeply connected to her Irish ancestors, and her voice and feet rarely stop celebrating her heritage.

That's part of the reason why starting last Saturday and continuing every Saturday until St. Patrick's Day Kelley will be teaching an Irish Step Dance class from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Payson Senior Center, 514 W. Main Street, right next to the library.

"After that," she says in her perfect imitation Yankee-Irish brogue, "those people who really want to go on with it continue with me. We put together a pretty good competition dance. It doesn't take long."

But the relative ease of learning Irish step dancing made phenomenally popular by dancer Michael Flatley and his "Riverdance" show is not the only reason folks should sign up, Kelley says.

"You know that there are only 59 more shopping days until St. Patty's day. It would be a sacrilege if you weren't ready. When you hear Irish music, it gets into your soul. And you don't have to be Irish to enjoy this kind of thing. We just have the greatest time."

Just don't count on sticking to straight, strictly traditional Irish steps, Kelley warns.

"I took one group to the White River Reservation, and we had the bagpipes and fiddles and flutes and the Apaches had their drums and mariachis and other handmade instruments. They showed us their traditional dance, we showed them some traditional Irish dance and then together we created an Irish-Apache dance, which was so unique.

"Square dancing, folk dancing, clogging and all the dancing we do here in America are kind of a cultural melting pot of all the European dances and they've all become part of our culture."

Kelley has been singing and dancing to lilting Irish tunes since before she could walk, thanks to her grandmother.

"And I come from a family of singers; we used to go all over the place every weekend to sing," she says. "I guess my father thought it would keep us from fighting. I have eight brothers and sisters, and we're all very shy and introverted, as you can imagine."

More blarney.

"The Ceili tradition in Ireland is wonderful; families come together every weekend and sing and tell stories and dance. I find that to be a great way for families to get together on the weekend. Obviously, that's what inspired me to put the dance class together."

This is hardly Kelley's first stab at teaching her favorite pastime to others.

Before she moved to Payson from Show Low last August, she held Irish step dance classes for five years eventually assembling a local troupe called the Ceili Irish Dancers ('Ceili' is Gaelic for 'a coming together') and performing with the Donegal Irish Dancers in Phoenix. She was a nurse in the town hospital's emergency room by day.

Here in Payson, Kelley's maintaining a similar schedule. She is employed at Payson Regional Medical Center as a registered nurse.

Isn't that an awfully serious and sometimes unsettling job for someone so happy and full of life?

"I think music and dance and laughter are perhaps the most healing medicines we have," Kelley says. "I'm also a holistic practitioner, and you find that there are a lot of cures beyond drugs and surgery. That's not to say I don't support modern technology, but we have to take some responsibility for our health and if we have laughter and joy and music, you become healthier. It's a wonderful gift to share."

Anyone with a drop of Irish blood in their veins has another good reason to spend their Saturday evenings with Kelley, as evidenced by another story she tells about a trip to Ireland.

"My ancestors are from County Cork, County Claire and County Mayo," she says. "I went into the church in County Claire to look up my family history, because there they keep their records for hundreds and hundreds of years. A woman who worked there said, 'And what would your family name be, lass?' I said, 'Kelleys, Dennehys, Murphys and Dylans.' And she said, 'Well open the door, lass, there's a million of those devils running around in there, and you're related to the whole lot of them.'

"So if you find anyone who's Irish," she says, "I'm probably related to 'em, laddie!"

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