An Daire brings ‘Riverdancing’ to River City

Take a look and see how this inner SE Portland dance school is training young people who will be competing in the upcoming International Irish Step Dancing competition …

Four An Daire Academy students show off their Irish Step Dancing skill – which may take them to the international competition.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Behind the An Daire Academy of Irish Dance, hidden away in an industrial area of inner SE Portland, is a story of passion, romance, dedication – and Irish Step Dancing.

The international show theatrical production “Riverdance” popularized traditional Irish Step Dancing, in which dancers take rapid and sometimes acrobatic steps, while their torsos and arms remain motionless.

But the proprietors of this unique Portland-based dance school, Jim Mueller and Lauren Crowe-Mueller, started perfecting their dancing technique long before Riverdance-styled shows became all the rage.

Owners of the dance academy, Jim Mueller and Lauren Crowe-Mueller, tell how the love of Irish dance brought them together both in love and in business at an East Portland Chamber of Commerce networking event.

Portland natives, but strangers
Both members of this husband-and-wife team grew up in Portland and attended rival high schools – but in those days, they never met.

At an East Portland Chamber of Commerce function in March, Jim told the group he learned his first Irish steps as a postgraduate hobby, took to dancing, and started instructing.

A 1988 Portland Rose Festival Princess, Lauren studied nursing and musical theater, before moving to Nashville, Tennessee, where she took up Irish dance. She progressed, finally dancing with The Chieftains, and performing at renaissance festivals throughout the United States.

“We met in a class taught by Tony Comerford in Seattle,” Lauren said; “We became engaged at his Feile na Nollaig (Irish dance event) in December of 1999, and were married in our hard [dance] shoes in May of 2000.”

Jim added, “Thanks to the Comerford School, we became successful open champions, competing at the North American, All-Ireland, and World Championships, in both solos and teams.”

Opens studio in Portland
Under Comerford’s direction, the Muellers opened a dance studio in Portland in 2000.

“In 2005, Tony said we were ready to, and able to, operate our own school; and, with his blessing, in 2005 we opened the An Daire Academy of Irish Dance,” explained Lauren.

She informed us that instructors must be certified in Irish dance if their students are to compete. “The examination process was difficult, but we were both certified before we opened our school.”

Wee dancers Kate, Emilie, and Kendal admirably perform a “Three-hand Reel”.

Armless dancing explained
“Why don’t you use their arms when you dance?” is the question they’re most frequently asked, Jim said.

“It started with the church movement in Ireland,” he related. “When St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, the church was very tied into the state. As the British came into the Emerald Isle, their magistrates tried to suppress the Irish; getting them to submit to their will.”

Because the Irish are such a celebratory people, he continued, they tried to break their spirit by decreeing that dancing was an offence to God. “The Irish learned to dance with her hands at their sides. So, if a church magistrate walked past the window, appeared as if they were listening to music and having a good time.”

It wasn’t long until competitions arose to see who could dance the best steps – with their arms at their sides.

These fast-stepping An Daire dancers demonstrate the speed, precision, and skill required to enter and win Irish Step Dancing competitions.

Workout on the dance floor
It’s only been within the last decade that the Irish dance form has come on par with jazz and ballet, Jim mentioned. “Irish dance technique is very young. Over in Ireland, it’s still ‘Shut up, put your shoes on, and dance’.”

Lauren explained that they realized, early on, that poor technique will limit the life of a dancer, due to injuries. “We want to help dancers enjoy a lifetime of dance, without injury. So, we’ve created special warm-up exercises and strength training, based on the ballet and jazz. It’s a great workout.”

This top ranked Irish Step Dancer, Allie Lewis, traveled to Ireland in March, to enter in the 2008 dance competition.

Dancing for fun, and prizes
“This year has been especially wonderful,” Lauren beamed, “because not only do we have dancers going for solo competitions, we also have three teams of dancers going to the 2008 international competition in Ireland.”

Jim added, “We’ve got our fingers crossed; we’re hoping we can get a team on the [winners] podium in Belfast.”

Wide variety of skills taught
Visiting their studio, we learned they also teach Highland dance, and offer music lessons on Celtic and medieval eclectic instruments as well.

“We do a lot of fun things here at the studio,” Lauren concluded. “All told, we have just shy of 300 dancers throughout the Northwest. If you know anyone who wants this type of musical education, please tell them about us.”

This dance troupe appeared more than a dozen times at various St. Patrick Day observances around the greater Portland area this year.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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