If you happened to look through the window of St. Vincent’s Parish House on the right evening, you would have no idea that the young people gathered inside are not just standing around. They are dancing. In the traditional Irish technique, one maintains a rigid upper body while dancing, keeping your arms straight to your sides. These particular dancers are trained and guided by the energetic Fidelma Keenan, who started dancing competitively when she was a 4-year-old in South San Francisco.
“I kept moving up until I became the Western State Regional Champion and retired when I aged out,” she says. After that, Keenan got her license to teach from the Irish Dancing Commission (Coimisiun Le Rinci Gealacha, or CLRG), and set up the Keenan Irish Dance School in South San Francisco.
“I came to Petaluma to teach my cousins,” she recalls, “and expanded the school to Petaluma in the early ’90s.”
Keenan now offers classes in Santa Rosa and Sonoma, teaching children ages 4 to 18, with about 60 students in her Petaluma classes. She credits the popularity of “Riverdance” for putting Irish dancing on the map. Taking private lessons from “Riverdance” creator Michael Flattley certainly enhanced Keenan’s own dance-world reputation.
“My school is known for performing well at the local, regional and international level,” she points out, adding that her dancers make frequent appearances at local events, and regularly travel to Feis (dance festivals) in San Francisco, San Jose, and Sacramento.
“It’s a great experience,” she says. “They get to see what others are doing and how to build upon certain classic moves to branch out into what is popular.”
The best dancers earn the opportunity to compete at the championship level, where both soft and hard shoe dances are required. Tradition dictates that certain rhythms are danced in soft shoes (Reel, Light Jig, Single Jig), while others are done with hard shoes (Treble Jig, Hornpipe, Trebel Reel). The dancers perform both solo and in a Ceili (kayley) groups of eight dancers.
“The higher up you go in competition,” Keenan explains, “the slower the music. This allows the dancer a little more time to perform quicker, more complicated dance steps. You see this at the Nationals Competition in Florida, and when we accompany our under-15 and under-18 teams at the World Dance Competition in Glasgow, Scotland the last week of March.”
But you can watch the Keenan Dancers right here in Petaluma. On St. Patrick’s Day, Maguire’s Irish Pub will host two different dance sets, one at 5:30 p.m., and one at 6:30 p.m.
“These are special dances for this special day,” Keenan says with a laugh. “For when celebrating St. Patrick — and for no other time — the dancers can have their hands on their hips.”
You will even get a rare opportunity to see Fidelma Keenan herself dance. On Sunday afternoon, June 10, the Keenan School Show will take place at the Petaluma Community Center. The day will be bittersweet.
“There are five seniors graduating,” says Keenan, “and one of them is my son. As a thank you, I’ll join the seniors for a classic set — the Forever Dance.”
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What do you want to tell Petaluma?
“I love ya’,” says Keenan. “You could say Petaluma is my soda bread and Irish butter.”