Newport This Week

Irish Dance Competition Returns to Newport

Irish step dancers often wear colorful costumes, and don curly hair wigs, a practice said to date back to when girls would curl their hair for church on Sundays and dance afterward.

Irish step dancers often wear colorful costumes, and don curly hair wigs, a practice said to date back to when girls would curl their hair for church on Sundays and dance afterward.

Plenty of Irish eyes will be smiling around Newport at the end of the month, as the City-by-the-Sea will host two Irish step dancing competitions at Gurney’s Newport Resort, making it a Double Feis weekend.

The first-ever Leap Year Feis, sponsored by the Clann Lir Academy, will take place on Feb. 29, followed by the New England Regional Feis on March 1. The word Feis comes from the Irish word festival, and commonly refers to an Irish dance competition.

Irish step dancing is characterized by a stiff upper body, and quick, precise movement of the feet. There is hard shoe and soft shoe dancing, and it can be performed solo or in groups. Dancers often wear colorful, elaborate costumes, and don curly hair, which is said to date back to when girls would curl their hair for church on Sundays and then dance afterwards. Traditionally, girls would sleep in curlers to achieve this look, but thanks to modern wigs, more are choosing this route to save both time and the discomfort of sleeping in rollers.



Anthony Fallon, owner of Clann Lir Academy, will serve as chair for the Leap Year Feis. Fallon was born in Dublin, Ireland and began dancing at age 3. He is a four-time world champion, from 2000 to 2004, and a former principal dancer in Riverdance. He’s traveled the globe and danced for world leaders, including President Barack Obama and Queen Elizabeth. He opened Clann Lir Academy of Irish Dance in 2016 in Middletown. A second location is located in Hingham, Massachusetts.

“We are honored to be building such a strong program here in the Newport area, where there is such a passion for Irish heritage,” he said. “It’s such a wonderful place to perform for audiences and to build our program.”

Irish step dancing has gained popularity in recent years, thanks to world-renowned shows like Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. The Clann Lir Academy has seen tremendous growth over the past few years, with increasing enrollment for dancers from age 3 through high school.

The time leading up to St. Patrick’s Day is a busy season for the Irish step dancing community, particularly in Newport, where Clann Lir dancers will perform at a variety of venues, from nursing homes to pubs, and of course, in the famed St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which takes place on March 14.

Post-parade, the dancers can be found at the Newport Recreation Department’s “The Hut” and White’s of Westport (times to be announced). Other upcoming performances include O’Brien’s Pub on Feb. 23 at 3 p.m., an Irish dinner on March 8 (location TBD), and Portside Tavern in Bristol on March 17 at 5:30 p.m.

Irish dancing has been part of life in Newport for centuries, dating back to the Gilded Age, when many Irish people were employed at the mansions and would gather at the Forty Steps to dance after their shifts. This tradition still exists today, with an annual event during Newport Irish Heritage Month. This year, it will take place on March 29 at 3 p.m.

With its rich Irish heritage and family-friendly waterfront location, Newport is the perfect destination for a Feis, said Clann Lir parent, Meaghan O’Neill. O’Neill said there used to be an Irish dance competition in Newport, and it was something families looked forward to because of all there is to do and see in town. In comparison, these types of festivals are often held in a high school gym or a local church.

O’Neill’s daughter, Oona Edenbach now 7, has been dancing since she was 3 after a friend got her interested. O’Neill sings high praise for its benefits, saying that it has taught her daughter poise, body confidence and “grace under pressure.”

“The biggest part for me is how supportive everyone is,” O’Neill said. “It’s the other lessons that she learns outside of the competition.”

The Leap Year Feis has already sold out at Gurney’s, and is currently booking at the Newport Harbor Hotel. More than 1,000 dancers and their families are expected to attend, ranging from beginners to champion level competitors. Live musicians will accompany the performances, and elite judges from across the United States, Canada and Ireland will be on hand. While these competitions are not considered spectator events, they do highlight the growth and popularity of the sport in our region.

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