Dancers small, tall, and in between swarmed the Irish Cultural Centre of New England campus June 14 for the second Boston Irish Festival Feis, a day of Irish step dance competitions that attracted some 450 participants of various ages and levels from across the Northeast, as well as from Toronto, South Carolina, and even New Zealand.
Co-organized with the Harney Academy of Irish Dancing, the Feis was the third of three consecutive weekend Boston Irish Festival events celebrating popular Irish pursuits at the Canton-based ICCNE, which is marking its 25th anniversary. On May 31, the festival featured a day of sporting events – notably hurling and Gaelic football – and children’s activities. The middle portion of the festival, June 6-7, showcased top-line Irish/Celtic acts Black 47, The Screaming Orphans, and Eileen Ivers & Immigrant Soul, as well as numerous musical performers from the Greater Boston area and elsewhere in the region.
Misty, murky weather greeted the Feis, and a steady, 45-minute drizzle at mid-day posed a potential threat to the styled hair and make-up sported by some of the competitors. But most of those present, being pretty experienced in matters of feis, seemed unperturbed by the damp and focused on the task at hand – although a number of younger dancers found the temptation of the center’s playground facilities irresistible.
The day’s competitions took place in two tents, the “Grades Stage” on the ICCNE patio, and the “Championship Stage” about 50 yards or so away on the grass. The dance floor in the packed Grades Stage was divided into four separate sections (using yellow “Caution” tape as dividers), and competitors – sometimes in groups of three or four – did their routines, then cleared the area hurriedly for the next. It was less crowded at the Championship Stage, with dancers mainly competing in pairs, but adjudicators kept things moving along briskly: One pair would complete their routine, bow, stand and wait while the adjudicators tabulated scores and the next pair of dancers took the stage; at the ring of a small bell, the previous competitors departed and the next round would begin.
As they awaited their category, a pair of 12-year-old Graces carved out a little practice space on a smaller patio outside the ICCNE main building. Grace Mussari, of Bridgewater, went through her paces wearing rain boots, trading off with her friend Grace Gilmore, a Kingston native. The two talked about the pre-feis regimen they follow – involving crunches, sit-ups, lots of stretching, yoga and “listening to powerful music” – and avidly agreed that a feis, as Mussari put it, “is a whole different world.”
“It’s just the best time, meeting up with everyone and seeing what they do,” said Gilmore. “And it’s like you all speak the same language,” added Mussari. “You just do Irish dance and no one minds. Not like when you’re with your friends at the grocery store; it kind of freaks people out.”
Wait, you do Irish dancing in grocery stores? “Um, sometimes,” said Mussari, bursting into laughter along with Gilmore.
Elsewhere, 10-year-old Maeve McCann of Hanover and 11-year-old Weymouth resident Megan Siegfried, along with their respective mothers, Nancy and Maria, enjoyed some cool drinks while waiting for the results of their competition to be posted. Both girls have a few years of experience in Irish dance, and taking part in a feis definitely ranks as a high point.
“You go to your class every week, you really focus, and then you come here and make your hard work pay off,” said Megan.
Maeve said the feis can serve as an extra dose of development: “The judges will tell you the areas where you need improvement, like crossing your feet or pointing your toes. It’s very helpful.”
Rockland resident Kristen Gallagher, an Irish step dancer as a child, watched her nine-year-old daughter Mairead stretch out and warm up. “We’ve made some wonderful friends through Irish dancing, and I really like the confidence it gives the kids,” she said.
Asked what she liked about dancing, Mairead had a simple answer: “Everything.”
Everything? All the practice, the long hours, the aches and pains? “Everything,” she repeated, with emphasis.
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The Saturday previous to the Feis had seen a picture-perfect early summer day for the festival’s music weekend. Saturday’s schedule included some 12 hours of live music, concentrated in three locations. In the center’s main function room, Erin’s Melody offered a veritable songbook of sentimental favorites, and singer Margaret Dalton smiled at the audience and asked, “Will you sing for me?” before launching into a medley with the likes of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Too-ra-Loo-ra-Loo-ral.”
By contrast, mere yards away at the Celtic Patio Tent stage, Cat and the Moon – a quartet of Berklee College of Music students – played high-energy instrumentals that fused Irish/Celtic, bluegrass and jazz styles, as fiddler Kathleen Parks and five-string banjoist Ricky Mier traded licks with one another, as well as bassist Charles Berthoud and guitarist Eamon Sefton (who fondly recalled attending the festival as a child). Clearly enlivened by the atmosphere, a clutch of toddlers used the tent’s dance floor to demonstrate their considerable skills in romping and scampering.
Meanwhile, underneath the mid-day sun at the Emerald Field Stage, the trio Inchicore (Derrick Keane, Tom Miller and Damon Leibert) entertained the audience with “Some Say the Devil’s Dead” and other tried-and-true festival crowd-pleasers. Other performers on Saturday included Alfie O’Shea, Yokeshire, Step About Boston, Norman Payne, The Jolly Tinkers, The Gobshites, Erin’s Guild, The Auld Locals, The Tom Lanigan Band, and members of Boston’s Reynolds-Hanafin-Cooley branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, who hosted a ceili.
At the edge of Emerald Field, a contingent of Irish wolfhounds relaxed in the shade, seemingly oblivious to the stares of children, and not a few adults, amazed at the dogs’ enormous stature. Some festival-goers browsed the merchandise of vendors in the Grafton Street tent, or opted for light refreshments in the Tea House tent.
At the latter location, a pair of friends who gave their names as “Thelma and Louise” talked about their different takes on the festival. Thelma, of Milton, said her experience dates back to the period when the festival took place at Stonehill College (it moved to ICCNE in the 1990s), and her daughter took part in step dance performances. For Louise, a Detroit native now living in Dorchester, the festival is a more recent discovery: “I’m here for the crafts, the good food, and I like to see the people who come out.”
Two other relative festival newcomers were Dedham residents Karen Kelly and daughter Julie, who were strolling through Grafton Street. “I love looking through the Irish jewelry,” said Karen. “This is just a great place to hang around and enjoy yourself for the day.”
High on Julie’s list of things she’s enjoyed during her few visits to the festival was joining in the “Redheads Photo,” an attempt to gather the largest number of redheads in one place – although it was not in this year’s schedule. Patting her stomach, Julie – expecting in November – said, “Hopefully, if they do the photo next year, we’ll have another redhead to bolster the ranks.”