Dancing into the 21st Century

Jenny Cathcart meets Irish dancer Brídín McElroy

'Dancing makes me happy. I have been doing it since I was three and for me the secret of success is to love dancing and to look as if you love it,’ says 18-year-old Brídín McElroy from The Knocks, Lisnaskea.

At just 5'3'’ in her pumps, McElroy's elfin figure is perfectly formed for the dance, her bones strong with years of practice, her back straight in optimal posture, her head held high, her movements elegant.

Just like classical ballet, Irish step dancing has its own rigorous rules and defined movements including the treble, the heel kick, the drum, the cut, the rock or puzzle, the shuffle, the batter, and the grind.

McElroy explains that she wears soft shoes to perform 'twiddles', 'crossed keys' and 'rocks' which are ankle movements, while 'trebles' and 'double trebles' are drumming heel taps, executed in heavy shoes.

She is particularly adept at modern leg throwing ‘clicks’ which demand that the upper body remains still while one or other leg is raised head high.

Aware of the precocious talent of their youngest child, McElroy's parents, Noel and Anne, encouraged her at every stage from her first dance classes with Rosaline McPeake in Enniskillen to the 2000 World championships in Belfast.

They themselves enjoy ceili dancing and set dancing and have both been heavily involved in community work at The Knocks village community hall, right by their home. Brídín was able to use the hall which has a wooden dance floor to practise whenever she wished and she did practice for up to 20 hours a week.

Competitive dancing is an expensive business. An elaborate costume embroidered with Celtic designs (described by one witty commentator as a ‘bouncing Book of Kells’) made by a recognised designer like Rita Carroll in Navan or Phoebe O'Donoghue in Dublin will cost between £400 and £800.

‘Sausage’ ringlets, tiaras, Tara brooches, soft ‘Brigadoon’ pumps and specially engineered leather shoes with built up toes and synthetic heels are required uniform for any competitor.

Brdn McElroyNoel and Anne McElroy accompanied Brídín to Irish dance competitions in Ireland, the UK and America.  She won her first major Ulster championship when she was just four years old.

Aged 12, she won the British National title, the Scottish National title, and was awarded second prize in the American National competitions in New York.

In 2000 she became the first Fermanagh girl to win an Ulster crown and qualified for the World championships which were held that year in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.

A minor slip during her final routine for the World title put McElroy in third place behind two dancers whom she had previously defeated in the Ulster Championships. For the teenager the highlight of the event was her meeting with one of the judges, Bernadette Flynn, her dancing idol and Michael Flatley's partner in Feet of Flames.

Remembering the day with pride she says, ‘I think my style of dancing is similar to Bernadette. She is some years older than me but I see her as a role model. She is a winner and that is what I want to be. I am also a big fan of Michael Flatley for he has charisma; you just can't take your eyes off him when he is dancing and although he is now forty he practises as much as he ever did. He is also a brilliant choreographer as he proved not only in Riverdance and Feet of Flames but in Lord of the Dance and now Celtic Tiger.

The 1994 success of the first Riverdance and its three touring troupes, distinguished by their river names ‘Lee’, ‘Liffey’ and ‘Lagan’, brought Irish dancing to a new international audience and doubled enrolment at Irish dance classes not only in Ireland but in the US and elsewhere.

Brídín McElroy enjoys taking classes of up to fifty children at the Knocks Centre with her former teacher Mrs Rosaline Peake and she also prepares individual pupils for championships.

McElroy successfully auditioned for a place as lead female dancer with the Co Leitrim based traditional Irish dance group, Shaylyn founded by Jane Gilheaney. The sixteen dancers and eight musicians who make up Shaylyn have performed to wide acclaim not only in Ireland but in the UK, France, Holland and New York and will travel to Algeria in the summer of 2006.

One of Shaylyn's lead male dancers, Fintan Shevlin, has been Brídín's dancing partner with an innovative contemporary music show, Erne Rising, produced in Fermanagh by Red Lagoon Music Ireland Ltd.

The show premiered in Lisnaskea Community Hall in December 2005 and toured in Poland in March 2006 including a sold out performance on St Patrick's Day at the prestigious Rampa Theatre in Warsaw. The music, which describes life along the Erne waterway through the ages, moves from ancient themes to modern with scope for both traditional and contemporary dance styles.

McElroy shows her skill in both idioms. Her imaginative solo interpretation of the jazz/rock fusion piece, ‘Jigsaw’, composed by Pat McManus, reveals influences beyond the traditional Irish dance repertoire or ballet or the choreographed styles of Riverdance and similar shows.

For McElroy is a twenty-first century teenager who buys the coolest fashion on eBay and goes clubbing on Saturday night.

She says that ‘four on the floor’ disco beats are boring, which is why she prefers to dance the night away to hip-hop and world beats, improvising hip, hand and feet movements inspired not only by her dance education but by routines she has seen in video clips or on TV.  She certainly draws the attention of the boys, who ask her if she is a professional dancer, but she will tell them she is just having fun.

When she walks down the street in Lisnaskea the boys toot their car horns to attract her attention for Brídín McElroy is now a local celebrity.