Irish Dancing in Fairfax

Irish Dancing in Fairfax

Energetic music, dancing and fellowship bring area dancers together.

The room was warming up as people left the dance floor to catch their breath. Some dabbed their foreheads, while others took off their sweaters. A few children lined up at the drinking fountain as their parents sliced themselves some soda bread.

The band started playing another tune — not as lively as the last, but still with a good beat. Some couples went back to the dance floor, determined to dance the night away. JoAn Knight-Herren stood on the sidelines and watched. She drove over 30 miles from Calverton, Md., to attend the evening's ceili at the John C. Wood Complex in Fairfax City. Introduced to the Irish set dances by a friend, she's been dancing them for six or seven years. Herren grew up in Iowa, where they didn't have these kinds of dances.

"It's a community, and the nice thing about it is that it's multi-age groups," Herren said, as she was watching the dancers. "The music just lifts you off the floor."

Herren regularly comes to the Fairfax ceilis (pronounced KAY-lee), which are held in the auditorium at the John C. Wood Complex every second Saturday during school-year months. She joins Irish dance enthusiasts from around the Beltway and beyond for an evening of live music, energetic dancing and fellowship.

The dances are sponsored by the O'Neill/Malcolm chapter of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (CCE), an international organization dedicated to preserving traditional Irish music and dance. Besides the ceili in Fairfax, there are ceilis in Gaithersburg, Md., and throughout the Washington/Baltimore corridor.

"It's great fun, a wonderful beat to the music," said Kathleen Rehwoldt of Rockville, Md. She had just finished dancing with her friend Marty McCullen of Gettysburg, Pa.

"It gets you pumped up, like aerobic exercise. Nice people here, too," McCullen said.

THE WORD "CEILI" used to mean a social gathering, with folks gathering together to show off their talents through song, recitation, dancing or instrument playing. In America, ceilis are informal dances, often with a live band. The dances are made up of figures or patterns. According to the Web site of Maryland-based Blackthorn Ceili Dancers, ceili dances are similar to American square dancing, except there's no caller.

The Fairfax ceilis began in 1971, when step-dance trainer and Fairfax resident Maureen Malcolm had given a demonstration of Irish dancing to her daughter's first-grade class two years earlier. The mothers who had been invited to the class wanted to know more. The parents got together in 1971 and set up their first ceili, according to CCE branch chairman Bob Hickey.

Since then, the Fairfax ceilis have taken place at local churches and the American Legion Hall in Springfield. The ceilis have been at the John C. Wood Center for 11 years.

Fairfax resident Hugh Conway started attending the ceili shortly after it moved to its present location. He started dancing seriously three years ago and now teaches a step-dancing class on Tuesday nights through the Fairfax City's Parks and Recreation Department.

"It makes you happy," Conway said.

Vicki Ryan-Barr of Arlington is in charge of organizing the monthly ceilis and the weekly classes. She started taking dancing lessons five years ago, after some friends introduced her to it. She's also part Irish.

"Once you get hooked ... my husband and I just got back from Ireland," Ryan-Barr said.

Ryan-Barr's husband, William, said that people travel from as far as Annapolis and Culpeper County to participate in the ceilis. Others have moved away from the area and return to Fairfax to dance.

"They just wanted to keep dancing, so they continue to come," William Barr said.

While the energetic dancing attracts people from all over, the community keeps them coming. Some participants have formed friendships and have traveled to Ireland together. During tonight's dance, everyone cheered as several young dancers presented their step dances to the clapping audience.

Sharon Kourtz of Fairfax comes with her whole family to the ceilis. She hoped more people would come, as the ceilis are open to everyone, regardless of skill. The dances start easy and get harder as the evening progress.

"Everyone's friendly, and there's no pressure. It's good fellowship. It gives you a small-town feeling in a big town," Kourtz said.