Last August, 19 local DC kids, ages 8 to 16 traveled to Ennis, Ireland to represent the United States in the All Ireland Music and Dance Competition in the art of sean-nós dancing. Thirteen of the dancers live on Capitol Hill, including some students from School Within School and Stuart Hobson Middle School. The dance team, from the Shannon Dunne Dance company, was the first set dancers to participate in the annual Irish competition.
“Set Dancing” is a social dance form similar to American Square dancing. Dancers compete with two figures with percussive footwork. Two Full Sets of 8 dancers, including many kids from Capitol Hill, competed in Ladies under age 12 and Ladies under age 15. The third set was a Mixed Half Set of four dancers competing in the under age 18 category, even though they were all under the age of 12. The Mixed Half Set received a special award from the judges and included Capitol Hill kids Eva Lang and Madeline Stevenson.
Three company members participated in individual “sean-nós” competitions — improvisational solo dances in their age group. These dancers were all from Capitol Hill: Christina Dodd, Grace Dodd, and Leah Silverman. Christina placed third and was the second solo sean-nós dancer from the U.S. to place at the All Ireland. In 2016, Ava Silverman, another Capitol Hill local who is a 7th grader at Stuart Hobson Middle School, was the first U.S. solo sean-nós dancer to place in Ireland.
The two sets of sisters have grown up with Shannon Dunne dance; they’ve all been sean-nós dancing since they were four years old. Grace Dodd has been dancing 12 years, Leah Silverman for 11 years, and Christina Dodd and Ada Silverman both for 8 years.
Sean-nós “old style’ is an energetic, improvised, battering percussive dance style characterized by a loose, playful upper body, close to the floor steps and a strong musicality. The dance style has been handed down over hundreds of years in the Connemara area of Western Ireland. For the kids, it’s all about making their own dance and expressing their personal style with improvisation. The kids say, “We make music with our feet!”
In order to qualify for the All Ireland, the dancers competed first at the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh in Parsippany, New Jersey, last May. Shannon Dunne Dance is just one of two schools in the U.S. that teaches sean-nós to children and the only one to ever send set dancers to the All Ireland, an annual festival, called the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Irish, is a week of workshops and competitions drawing 400,000 visitors.
The company owner and artistic director, Shannon Dunne, inspires and encourages every dancer to create his or her own style, support each other, and carry on the tradition. As a sean-nós dancer and Concertina performer herself, Dunne has grown her company from five children 15 years ago to more than 60 students, age five to adult. She teaches at two locations, one in Takoma Park and the second in her new company studio on F Street, NE, near Union Station.
The Shannon Dunne dancers perform year-round all over the DC-Baltimore area at venues like the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival, Kennedy Center, Smithsonian Discovery Theater, and embassies. The dancers will perform at the Maryland Irish Festival — a fantastic weekend event for families — on November 11th at the Timonium Fairgrounds. http://shannondunnedance.com/