A Winning Tradition: Claddagh Irish Dance Team

Tough love and hours of practice prevail a school of champions

Hornpipes and fiddles play in symphony as the clattering of happy feet dance on the stage floor.  Their unison tapping echoes in rhythm as they beautifully bounce off the hardwood floors.  The excited audience cheer and clap with jubilation in response to the dancers who proudly take stage.

The Claddagh Irish Dance team continues the wining tradition of Irish dancing.  They are the world champions who are returning this year to the Western Regional Oierachtas held this fall in Sacramento, Calif.  The teams are composed of young children starting at age 5 to adults of any age.  For many of the team members, it is a way to stay connected to their Irish heritage and create lifelong friendships that stem from the team sports.

Máire O’Connell is the director of Claddagh Dance Company in Ventura, Calif.  She came from Galway, Ireland to Ventura, where she has spent her time raising her two sons who also continue the family tradition of Irish dancing.  O’Connell started teaching students of all ages in 1985, learning a mix of solo and group dances in the traditional soft and hard shoes.  Since, the studio has opened doors to hundreds of boys and girls who are taught by seven accredited dance instructors in seven studios located between Murrieta to Signal Hill, Calif.

O’ Connell has earned a bachelor’s degree at the University College in Galway and is accredited to teach and adjudicate by the Irish Dancing Commission of Ireland. O’Connell promotes education and encourages her dancers to bring their homework with them on the evening and long weekend practices.

Her tough love method of teaching has produced premier dancers leading the Western Region to more than 50 solo and team championships.  Laura Hodge, one of O’Connell many students said, “I never loved-hated something as much Irish dance, it is a love-hate relationship.  But I could not imagine doing anything else, it is something I will always cherish.  I would never change the opportunities experienced through Irish dancing.”

A winning tradition does not come without a sacrifice.  The team members of the ceili and figure choreography teams spend most of the year preparing for one of many competitions ranging from the Western Regional Oierachtas, the Nationals and the World’s Irish Dance competition, which usually is held in Ireland but most recently was here in the United States.

This year the Claddagh Irish Dance Ladies Choreography Team competed in Boston, Mass., for the most prestigious world competition.  Shannon Joyce, who danced with Claddagh more than 12 years, recalls it as an opportunity for personal growth, building lifelong friendships and, most importantly, an opportunity to earn respect and the rewards of hard work.
Joyce finished her dance career at the highest level, which is first place at the World’s Irish Dance Competition. “As a member of the winning team, it was a lot of blood, sweat and tears that led to the best reward I could have asked for, a world championship,” Joyce recall after retiring this year. “It came with tears of joy. I will not be dancing with my friends, but I could never replace what Irish dance and Máire [her director] has taught me over the years.”

A new generation of Irish dancers emerges but they do not get an easy pass to the championship.  They will endure many hours of practice to uphold the Claddagh winning tradition. This year, Annie Darlington, TCRG an accredited instructor and choreographer for Claddagh, has produced many winning figure choreographies. Darlington will be introducing a new dance for the under-12 figure choreography and a new version of the Swan dance for the senior ladies choreography.

The Claddagh younger team will introduce a new figures team dress and dance, which the girls expressed great enthusiasm for the change.  Marie Argus, student of the senior team, said: “This is the best thing I have ever started and I’m glad to do Irish dance. I began in ballet but it’s not nearly as cool as Irish dancing.”

Every year, a week before Thanksgiving, the Western Regional Oierachtas Irish Dance Championship plays host to thousands Irish dancers wishing to bring home the coveted crystal bowl from Galway, Ireland.  This award represents the cultural tradition of Ireland but it also continues the joy of friendship, family and love for the heritage, which is the true meaning of Irish dancing.