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Bob Dunn Playing Along: Lord of the dance? Not exactly

  • Dunn warms up before class.
  • Dunn does some leg stretches before class.
  • Class members join hands for a dance done in a circle.
  • Irish dances can be performed either solo or with partners. Dunn is shown here with teacher Kathleen Doherty.
  • Dunn watches instructor Kathleen Doherty, to his right, as the group practices its steps.
  • Dunn watches instructor Kathleen Doherty, to his right, as the group practices its steps.
  • Dunn dances alongside students Meredith Pavlovich, from left, Carly Lewis, Jessica Kotfila and Mikayla Mitchell.

As a proud American of Irish descent, there are a few things that come naturally to me.

One is being able to spontaneously get into a conversation with a stranger at a bar about the state of the Red Sox that will go on for about 90 minutes before both of us realize that neither of us knows what we’re talking about and that we can go back to agreeing that the Yankees stink.

What doesn’t come naturally, despite my heritage and inability to spend time in sunlight without burning, is dancing. If I’m in public and there’s music playing and I’ve indulged past my shame threshold, I may be seen moving my limbs in some fashion like a marionette on a string, but that could only be considered dancing in the broadest possible definition.

Considering it was recently St. Patrick’s Day, I figured I would “get my Celt on” by introducing myself to part of my heritage — step dancing, a form of Irish dance that emphasizes quick, intricate footwork.

Instructor Kathleen Doherty, of the Northampton School of Dance, allowed me to participate in one of her recent step classes at her studio on Damon Road. I took part in a class with four young women who have been taking Irish step dancing for about two years.

Doherty told me that she’s been step dancing for about 14 years, eight of those as an instructor. She started dancing when she was in the third grade, she said, having been introduced to the music and traditions of Ireland from an early age. Her grandparents emigrated from Ireland before starting their family in New York, she said.

My class started with a brief warm up that included stretches that left me wondering when my hamstrings had become as inflexible as my late grandfather’s opinion on women serving in the military.

Working with me one-on-one, Doherty showed me some basic moves, starting with what she called the skip. She showed me how to position my feet, kick one leg out slightly, and then skip several steps forward with the goal of repeating the pattern until I’d crossed the studio. My feet were moving, I was sure of that much, but trying to count, move, and pay attention to my form got a bit confusing. I wound up on the other side of the room, but I’m pretty sure that I was mostly doing what I would call Irish walking, with no real dancing involved.

Doherty then showed me how to do a second move, this one called the sevens, a side step that began with a kick, followed by crossover steps to the left or right to a count of seven. We got off to a shaky start on this one because I had presumed there would be no math, something else that doesn’t come naturally to me.

The steps and the music, Doherty said, provide a common vocabulary and base of knowledge among the dancers and musicians that enables them to work in harmony.

I asked her about a myth I’d heard that the reason Irish dancing concentrates so much on leg work is that it developed as an attempt for Irish domestic workers to dance behind a half-closed set of double-doors without being seen by those who would disapprove, like an old Celtic version of “Footloose.” A story I found online has it that Irish dancers used to take doors off their hinges and lay them on the ground as a makeshift stage; that version has it that the dancers held their hands close to their sides because the dancing surface was so small.

Doherty said she’s heard the same types of stories, but doesn’t pay them much mind. Even if those Irish dancers long ago kept their legs hidden from view behind a half-door, the sight of their torsos bobbing up and down surely would have raised suspicions, she pointed out.

In any case, modern Irish dancers like Michael Flatley — creator of the original “Riverdance” show that featured Irish dancing — incorporate more upper-body movement into their dancing, she said. Doherty said that she was struck by the spectacle of the shows produced in the 1990s by Flatley, who went on to create and direct the hugely successful “Lord of the Dance.” Flatley’s shows, which are credited with bringing Irish dance to a broad American audience, continue to inspire young dancers today, she said.

After my individual instruction, I lined up with the four other students and Doherty to try what was called a bonfire dance, a sequence that combined the steps I’d already done with the added elements of leading, turning and working with partners.

Getting to stand back and watch the students dance while waiting for my turn to jump in was a treat and a nice break for me. The result of Doherty’s teaching was evident as each of the four young students — jumping, kicking, skipping and moving with precision and grace — showed me exactly how one should dance.

Doherty closed out the lesson by performing a brief hard-shoe dance, which is done, as the name suggests, wearing hard shoes instead of the softer, lace-up shoes that the students in my class wore. Hard-shoe dancing also involves precise footwork, and the shoes themselves become percussive instruments, hitting the floor in time with the music. I could only imagine the cacophony I would have created if I’d been wearing anything harder than my socks.

Dancing may never come to me naturally, but I’ll always be Irish. I left the studio that night with a greater appreciation for the social and communal joy I believe a group of talented Celtic dancers and musicians can create.

And the Yankees still stink.

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