Vineyard Gazette: The Yard Brings High-Stepping Irish Dance Duo to Schools for Week of Entertainment

Vineyard Gazette
Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
April, 2002

“The Yard Brings High-Stepping Irish Dance Duo to Schools for Week of Entertainment”
By Mandy Locke

A haze hung over the hills and fields of Chilmark early this week, setting the stage for a glimpse of Ireland.  Inside Up-Island classrooms, students spoke in fragmented Gaelic and kicked their heels to an Irish jig.  With a “cead mile failte,” Chilmark School secretary Orlaith McCarthy-Estes offered an authentic “million welcomes” to Irish step dance champions Darrah Carr and Niall O’Leary.  Students sat pretzel-legged in the foyer of the school as Ms. Carr flitted around the group-carried by legwork so quick she seemed to be flying.  The children watched with wonder, their eyes following Ms. Carr’s flapping brown curls and rigid upper body around and around the circle.  Without notice, Mr. O’Leary broke into the circle with a click, clack of his hard shoes--sweeping Ms. Carr into a series of twists and synchronized footwork. 

Courtesy of The Yard’s intensive multicultural residency program, Ms. Carr and Mr. O’Leary spent a full day in each of the Island elementary schools this week-teaching students the basic art form of Irish step dance and its role in Ireland’s rich history.  Thanks to funding from local cultural council grants, this is the 11th year The Yard has selected specialty artists to bring cultures from around the world to Island children.  Students have traveled vicariously across the globe, from Greece to China, from Cambodia to Portugal. 

“We’ve been looking for good Irish dancers for a while,” said DiAnn Ray, Executive Director of The Yard.  “You don’t usually get champions-particularly those who are so much fun to be around,” Ms. Ray said.  Ms. Carr and Mr. O’Leary fine-tuned their craft an ocean apart.  A midwesterner, Ms. Carr attended the Tim O’Hare School of Irish Dance in Michigan as a youth, winning titles regionally, nationally, and internationally.  Mr. O’Leary competed in his homeland of Ireland, rising through the circuits to become Ireland’s National Champion and World Champion. 

The two dancers met serendipitously, Ms. Carr says, when she saw Mr. O'Leary compete during a research trip to Ireland for her college senior thesis.  “I saw him on the train and he shouted his email address to me right before he got off,” Ms. Carr says.  Now, the two reside in New York, juggling a number of professional pursuits.  Mr. O’Leary is practicing as an architect and trains a number of students for championships at the Niall O’Leary School of Irish Dance.  Ms. Carr co-founded Darrah Carr Danceand works as an Artistic Director for the modern dance company.  She also teaches dance at Mr. O’Leary’s school and freelances for a number of magazines.

Together, the two create a perfect balance.  Mr. O’Leary contributes a witty one-liner at every turn-throwing the students into fits of giggles.  “Irish spoons are better for this.  They’re smaller-probably because the Irish eat faster,” Mr. O’Leary tells the students after playing an Irish tune with two silver spoons.  Ms. Carr, with her winning smile, delivers with detail the historic nuances of traditional dress, shoe type and musical style.  Ms. Carr pulls a handful of students from the audience at the Chilmark school, asking them to try a turn at some Irish step dance.  In Nascar shirts, baseball caps and fleece jackets, the selected students rush to follow Ms. Carr’s kicks and drops.  Even Ms. McCarthy-Estes, originally from Ireland, tries her luck with her homeland’s traditional dance. 

The students end the morning session by drilling the visitors with questions.  “Why do you wear all black?” one student asks.  “Because we’re from New York,” Ms. Carr counters, before explaining that the neutral color helps the audience focus on the steps rather than the outfits.  A little critic in the corner raises her hand to inform Mr. O'Leary and Ms. Carr of their permanent mark on the Chilmark school.  “I think you made a really big mess on the floor,” the student says matter-of-factly.  In fact, the hardwood floor does bear the scribbles of scuff marks.  But, Chilmark School principal Carlos Colley laughs, telling the dancers not to worry. 

Islands schools tried to immerse themselves in Irish culture in honor of their guests.  The Oak Bluffs School served corned beef and cabbage for lunch, while the Tisbury School served Irish stew and soda bread.  Mr. Colley played his private collection of Irish fiddle tunes through the hallways of the Chilmark School on Tuesday.  “They literally spend the entire day trying to consume that culture,” Ms. Ray said.

For Islanders who missed the authentic Irish dance performance, the pair will return to the Vineyard in August for The Yard’s “Mid-Summer Eve Experience,” which will showcase Irish step dancing.

Darrah Carr