Irish dance competition a big part of fest at Chicago Gaelic Park
By Jim Hook For Sun-Times Media
In step: The Cross Keys School of Irish Dance perform during a recent competition at Gaelic Park's Irish Fest. | Supplied photo
The Chicago Feis (pronounced “fesh”) has become the Super Bowl of Irish dancing. And Gaelic Park has become the Mercedes-Benz Superdome of Irish dance venues.
Once again, Gaelic Park in Oak Forest will be home to the Chicago Feis, one of the world’s largest and most popular Irish dance competitions. The Chicago Feis attracts thousands of dancers and visitors to Gaelic Park each year.
And for the last few years, Irish Fest organizers have moved the Chicago Feis up a month to coincide with the popular four-day event commonly referred to as the Gaelic Park Irish Fest.
The festival runs May 25 through 28 at Gaelic Park, 6119 W. 147th St., Oak Forest. This year’s Feis will be held on Monday, May 28, inside Gaelic Park.
Harry Costelloe, chairman of the Chicago Feis, said this year’s event will feature more than 500 dancers from across the country performing myriad Irish dances, including: the jig, the slip jig, the reel, the treble jig and the hornpipe. Dancers who participate in the annual event range in age from 5 to 18.
The perfect atmosphere
Some of the dancers represent Irish dance schools like the Keigher Academy of Irish Dance in Joliet. Owned and operated by sisters Holly McNichols and Sue Keenan, the dance academy has been sending students to the Chicago Feis for the last 13 years. That’s how long McNichols and Keenan have owned the dance academy since moving to Illinois from California.
More than 60 students study dance at the Keigher Academy of Irish Dance and many of those who dance there participate each year at the Chicago Feis.
“It’s really a great atmosphere,” McNichols said. “They have the carnival attached to the venue and dancers can enjoy the carnival when they are not dancing. The dancers have a lot more fun, and it makes for a much better time for entire families to enjoy.”
She said dancers spend a lot more time at the festival when they are not dancing.
“This way, it’s not just about the (dance) competition,” McNichols said. “It’s also about having fun with your family.”
Make no mistake, however. Those competing at the Chicago Feis take their dancing seriously. They are competing for individual and group honors.
McNichols said Irish dance competitions used to feature almost entirely people of Irish descent. Now, however, the popularity of Michael Flatley and his “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance” shows have introduced Irish dance to a variety of ethnic groups who have started dancing and competing in large numbers.
“Riverdance” is, in essence, the story of the Irish culture and of the Irish immigration to America.
Costelloe said the Feis used to be held on the Saturday before Father’s Day. The event was held outside and attracted as many as 2,500 dancers who performed on multiple stages.
But for the last few years the event has been held inside where the temperature can be controlled. He said there are four indoor stages on which the dancers will perform this year.
“It’s all Irish dancing,” Costelloe said. “Just like ‘Riverdance.’ Michael Flatley’s influence has been unmistakable. Participation has increased 1,000 percent over the years.”
Costelloe said the first Chicago Feis was held in 1959. Since then, the event’s popularity has exploded around the country. He said there are probably 20 such events in the Chicagoland area.
And in Milwaukee, for example, where there used to be no Irish dance competitions, there are now seven.
“The popularity of Irish dance is booming,” Costelloe said. “There are probably 280 such dance competitions each year across the country.”
He said boys and girls compete in various dance categories, where judges look at such things as leg movements and other footwork and posture (arms and body are kept largely stationary).
Costelloe said dancers who win the Chicago Feis competition qualify for the All-Ireland Championships.
He said one of the best things about the dance competitions is “seeing the smiles on the faces of the kids when they win.”
“There’s no doubt about it, dancing gives these kids so much confidence in life,” Costelloe said. “I have to tell you, I’ve not seen a shy Irish dancer yet. And that has carried over to the classroom where they also do very well in school.”