Kate Habel carefully fixed Sarah Coffey’s Irish curls before a dress rehearsal at St. James the Apostle Church in Kenosha.
“The secret to the wigs is the top ponytail,” Habel said.
Habel, who started teaching Irish dance in the St. James gym in January, is thankful for the new dance venue.
Habel had been teaching the Cashel Dennehy School class at the Boys and Girls Club of Kenosha for about 18 months, but she was looking for a place where dancers could wear hard shoes.
Meanwhile, parishioners at St. James the Apostle church were looking for ways to reach back to their Irish roots. The parish dates to 1839, when a group of 51 Irish Catholics started the congregation.
“Through a friend of a friend, I kind of got connected,” Habel said. “I got a call from St. James-St. Elizabeth people that theywere interested in having someone teach Irish dance at the church, so we kind of both needed each other at the same time. It’s a perfect fit for us, so it has worked out well.”
Irish dance was career choice
Habel, 40, started Irish dancing when she was 7.
“I was dancing at the Milwaukee Irish Fest to some band, and some nice older man said I was doing a good job, so then I was all encouraged,” Habel said.
Habel’s mother, who is Irish, signed Habel and her brother up for the first class that Cashel Dennehy School offered in 1983.
She has been in Irish dancing ever since.
Habel earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Marquette University, but started teaching dance in 1998 after earning her TRSG — Irish dance teacher accreditation.
Want to join?
Cashel Dennehy School typically starts Irish dance classes in September, but if there is enough interest, a new Irish dance class will start this spring at St. James Parish in Kenosha. For more information, visit www.casheldennehy.org or contact Kate Habel at email@example.com.
“I wanted to try Irish dance as my career choice, and so I started, and I never stopped,” Habel said.
She teaches for Cashel Dennehy School in Milwaukee and Madison. However, she moved to Kenosha about 10 years ago and started a chapter of the school in Kenosha once her three children were school age.
Habel’s oldest son, Aidan, 10, is one of her students. There currently are 11 students, ranging in age from 5 to 12, in the two classes that meet on Tuesday evenings.
“I just love that no matter what the age is, they are all treated equally, all respected, and learn the same way. It’s just a really great environment,” said Monica White, whose 6-year-old daughter Brianna is in the advanced beginner class at St. James.
Parishioners, as well as Fr. Sean Granger, the parish administrator, stop in to watch the dancers practice.
“It is so nice to see (Fr. Granger) actually come in and watch class from time to time. Especially my daughter, going to a Catholic school, she loves that to see him there. The priest is wonderful to her. She loves seeing him around. She feels special having him come in and watch. It’s just great. We love it,” White said.
Dancers progress to various levels
There are set moves in Irish dancing. For the most part, every dancer begins with the jig, and then moves onto the reel, Habel said.
As a dancer progresses, steps become more complicated.
“The higher the level, the more quickly their feet are moving and the more difficult the steps are,” Habel said. “There’s always a new challenge for the student.”
That is one major difference between Irish dance and other cultural dances, she said.
“In many other cultures, they have their cultural dance, and that is where it stays. There is not much more you can do with it,” Habel said.
Irish dance, on the other hand, features folk music, with dancers trying to achieve the most complicated steps possible.
“That makes it kind of unique. The dance evolves with the artist,” Habel said.
Dancers work on turning out their feet, toe height and keeping their arms at their sides. They concentrate on crossing their feet and keeping their legs tight.
“There are lots of elements that have to go into one simple move that creates whether it’s superb or strong,” Habel said.
That is where judging come in.
The St. James dance groups have not competed against other dancers yet, but that is likely in their future.
The Cashel Dennehy School’s home chapter in Milwaukee has two teams that won the world championships in the past five years. Last year one of the school’s teams placed second at the world championship.
But Irish dance is not solely about winning championships.
“You are always looking to improve yourself,” Habel said.
Dancing is family activity
“There are a lot of things that I love about Irish dancing,” Habel said. “It’s a great family activity, and it encourages many things that the Catholic Church fosters.”
Irish dance focuses on family activities and keeping kids doing things that are good for them, said Habel, a parishioner at St. Peter Parish, Kenosha.
“You have goals, and you try to achieve those goals. You are working to become a better you, a better person, whether it’s through practice, having those goals and reaching them, or whether it’s through finding good friends that have the same values that your family finds important,” Habel said.
For White, it was important to keep her daughter tied to her Irish heritage.
When Brianna saw Irish dancers perform at Irish Fest in Milwaukee, she wanted to be part of the heritage as well.
“I want to do that, too, I want to be the little girls with the curly wigs,” Brianna said.
When Brianna joined the dance troupe, she got more than an Irish dance outfit. She gained confidence.
“She is very shy, so before she got into dance class, it was hard to get her to open up to people; she wouldn’t leave my side. If we went in somewhere, she would kind of cling to me,” White said.
However, last summer when Brianna performed at Irish Fest, she was fine going without a parent to perform with 100 girls.
“It’s nice to see her growing into a young lady and showing that independence a little bit. I think it really builds her confidence and the discipline,” White said.
For many of the dancers, a favorite part of Irish dancing is getting to wear the dance costumes.
“When you get to a higher level, you get to design your own suit. It’s something in the future I’m really hoping to get,”’ said Aidan Habel, who is pining for an orange suit.
Kate Habel said one of her favorite things about Irish dancing is the friendships that develop.
“The kids see each other working hard and they are encouraging each other to work hard, and they see each other at competition, and they help each other. You make these friends who see you when you are at your saddest if you didn’t do well, and they see you at your best and they are sharing in your joy,” she said.
Madison Loney, 8, agreed.
“My favorite part about it is I get to hang out with my friend Rachael,” Madison said.
Madison’s friend, 7-year-old friend, Rachael Gursslin, admitted she gets nervous when it’s time to perform in front of a crowd.
But once she’s out there with her friends, the nervousness goes away.
The St. James group has several upcoming shows, including a performance at the parish’s St. Patrick’s Day dinner this Saturday. Kenowhere Kilts will be the featured musicians at the nearly sold-out event.