2015-03-05 / Front Page

Nevin Dancers Prepare to Kick Up Heels

By Olga Enger

The Nevin Dancers will perform in the March 14 parade as well as the post-parade celebration at The Hut from 1 – 4 p.m. The Nevin Dancers will perform in the March 14 parade as well as the post-parade celebration at The Hut from 1 – 4 p.m. Of all the participants in the Newport St. Patrick’s Day parade, few are as emblematic of Ireland as the Nevin Academy student dancers. With their ringlet wigs and rhythmic high-steps, the students perform an Irish tradition that dates back to at least the 16th century. Maura Nevin and her daughter, Tara Oliver, carefully watch their students warm up with kicks and jumps, as they have every Saturday morning for the past 25 years.

“Dance is just part of life,” shrugged 12-year-old Nevin dance student Katherine Straka, of Newport, during a break. Straka said to avoid pre-performance nerves, she concentrates on the dance steps she has studied for five years.

Nevin's students, both girls and boys, have performed in the parade, since she founded the school 25 years ago.

“The parade is the big social event of the year,” Nevin explained. “We have been in all weather: snow, rain, and cold. It never dampens their spirit though. They really enjoy it.”

Stella Garcia, 13, of Newport, said her favorite part of performing in the parade is that it gathers her family together. “My cousins, aunts, they all come to town,” she said.

Growing up, Nevin’s father was a policeman and a member of Irish clubs in their hometown of Waterbury, Conn. Nevin began dancing in the clubs as a little girl, and was teaching by the time she was a teenager. When Nevin married 40 years ago, she opened the Nevin Dance Academy in Hingham, Mass. She also taught at Hibernian Hall and later opened a Portsmouth studio, which filled a local void.

“There weren’t any Irish dance schools here, so my mother opened it initially as a favor. But we got a lot of students and the school really grew,” recalled Oliver. The mother and daughter team still commute from their home in Hingham, Mass. every Saturday to teach at the Aquidneck Island studio. They say their students devotion makes it worth the drive.

“We have some really exceptional students. It’s a strong school. We are really lucky to have such talented dancers,” said Oliver.

The exact origins of the dance are unclear it evolved during the 18th and 19th centuries, as Irish dance teachers, or dance masters, would perform in confined places during fairs, such as tabletops. Because of this, the style developed into a contained dance, with hands rigid at the sides. Today, there is a list of 30 dances for competitions, which are called “book” dances, which have been standardized by the Irish Dancing Commission.

“Even though the music is the same, the choreography is different in each school. This makes it very personalized per school and dancers' abilities,” said Oliver. Although the dance is pulled deep from Irish tradition, a lot has changed since Nevin first opened the academy, including their distinctive ringlet wigs.

“When I was little, my mother spent hours putting my hair in rag curls the night before a competition," said Oliver, who has been dancing since she was four. “It mimics customs in Ireland, getting ready for a special occasion.”

The wig replaced the natural curls not only because the process was tedious for parents, but also to accommodate the growing interest in Irish dancing across different ethnicities. Some dancers may have hair that doesn’t curl.

Irish dancing became popularized in 1994 by the show Riverdance. The increased popularity not only influenced the costumes, but also made the genre more competitive.

Today, there are more opportunities for dancers to attend competitions, called "feis" (pronounced “fesh”), which is taken from the Irish word for festival. Top dancers compete in the most prestigious level, the world championships. This year, two students from Nevin’s Rhode Island school will compete in the championships in Montreal, Canada. For team dancing, each school designs and wears its own costume, which typically features a lace or embroidered pattern copied from the medieval Irish Book of Kells.

“If you see the dancers in costume at the parade, that is our school costume,” explained Oliver. The more competitive dancers wear their Nevin Academy warmups for the annual parade. “They are prize winners. So they compete in solos and have their own costumes. They might cost $3,500 to design and make,” she said.

Students may begin classes as early as four years old, and may stay until high school or college, depending on their interest.

“Some of the older students stick with it since it’s a very athletic dance,” said Oliver. "Not everyone dances competitively.”

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