Two sisters bring Irish Dancing to area youth

photo by Mya-Lin Lewis

photo by Mya-Lin Lewis

by Jacquelyn Giambalvo
photography by  Mya-Lin Lewis

Front feet turned out, toes pointed, arms to the side. The accordion plays a couple warm-up notes, then the cultural passion is turned on, and the dancer whirls across the stage with her classic Irish movements. Irish dance is both visually pleasing as well as extremely powerful with its tap sounds. Originating in Ireland, Irish dancing is a traditional dance that includes performance and social opportunities. It encompasses a wide variety of styles from solo, pairs and group dances. You know it when you see it. There is nothing like it. And you cannot take your eyes off of it. Even if you are not Irish, you still appreciate the beauty and artistry just by watching and listening. Irish Dance is recognized by its emphasis on intricate footwork and technical jumps and kicks. Dancers perform with a stiff upper body in order to accentuate the complexity of their footwork, and dance to simple musical instruments such as a fiddle.

Julia Straszewski and Tasha Straszewski, two sisters with a passion for all things Irish, have brought this dance feast to San Dimas through their studio, Tamora School of Irish Dance. They teach boys and girls from age 6 to 26 how to do the “slip jig” and “horn pipe,” among the many unique steps in this unique dance style. About 50 percent of the young dancers have Irish heritage. The other 50 percent want to enjoy and start mastering this very unique dance form.

Both Julia and her sister Tasha are certified Irish Dance instructors as well as Cal Poly Pomona alumnae. Julia has danced the Irish Jig since she was 12 years old; she says she never thought she would one day open her own dance studio. “You can’t predict where your path might lead, but you listen to your heart, and I went where it took me,” Julia says. She held different jobs, but being a dance teacher was her desire. At the age of 4, Julia did ballet and tap dancing. After watching “Riverdance” when she was 12, she and her sister took an interest to Irish dancing. Michael Flatley changed the face of Irish dance in 1994 with his creation of Riverdance. He broke the mold of traditional Irish dance by incorporating upper body movement and different rhythm patterns.

Julia says she likes Irish Dancing because it has a sense of community, and you make long-term friends. She has won several awards in international competitions. During competitions, she says she sees friends from different places all over the world. “My favorite competitions have to be the North American Nationals in the Summer and the St. Ambrose Fall Feis in Los Angeles. They are well-run and local.” Julia has also traveled to Ireland and Scotland for dance competitions. She flew to Belfast a couple times a year to train and compete in competitions. “The competitions over there are so different compared to the ones here. You feel like a fish out of water, and they are more intimidating because it’s the motherland. Everyone there is so good.”

Julia practices dancing around 20 hours a week, including going on runs at the Claremont Wilderness Park loop and doing home workouts for additional exercise. Julia has also known Micheal Ryan, guitar and songwriter professor at the University of La Verne, since she was 12 years old. Her first dance show that she ever did was with Michael Ryan and his band. They still keep in contact, and she dances with him every January. They have become long term friends that support each other by going to fundraisers and events.

Julia’s favorite part of Irish dancing is the aspect of community and the hard shoe dance. Her favorite dances are “Hornpipe” and “Three Sea Captains.” She loves rhythm and the movement of her feet because she can hear any rhythm, and just dance along to the different rhythms. Due to COVID-19, Julia and Tasha’s studio is still open by teaching classes through Zoom or in the parking lot of the studio, always separated six feet apart with masks. They had to change how they do things but are still making it work for their students.

Although Irish dance has been Julia and Tasha’s life, not everyone is familiar with its origins. Irish dancing is a traditional Gaelic or Celtic dance originating in Ireland and dating all the way back to the 1500s. Throughout history, these dances were not documented because England’s harsh rule over Ireland outlawed traditional Irish practices. Despite this ban; however, dancing continued behind closed doors. In the late 1700s, dance masters had a huge impact on Irish dancing and culture. A dance master would travel within a county, stop for about six weeks in a village and stay with a family. He would teach Irish dancing in kitchens, farms or crossroads. Each dance master had a repertoire of dance steps, and the people created new steps over time.

Dances can be performed solo or in groups of 20 or more. It can be part of a social dance or part of formal performances and competitions. Musical instruments like the fiddle, accordion, Celtic harp, tin whistles and banjo form the background of Irish dance music. During the 20th Century, Irish dance evolved in terms of locations, costumes and dance technique. During the period of the dance masters, table-tops, half-doors, and crossroads functioned as stages. Modern stages are now much larger and competitions are held indoors at hotels, schools or fairgrounds.

Shoes and Costumes

There are two different types of shoes dancers wear; hard shoes and soft shoes. Hard shoes are similar to tap shoes, except the tips and heels are made of fiberglass instead of metal and are bulkier. The soft shoe, which are called ghillies, are black lace-up shoes. They are only worn by girls, while boys wear black leather shoes called “reel shoes” which resemble black jazz shoes but with a hard heel.

Irish Dance schools generally have school dresses, worn by lower-level competitors and in public performances. Each school has its own design, featuring an embroidered pattern copied from the medieval Irish. As dancers advance in competition, they are given solo dresses of their own design and colors. Costumes are heavily integrated into the Irish dance culture. Men wear a shirt, vest and tie paired with black trousers. There are 38 set dances and traditional set dances, each is its own unique tune and name. A set dance is danced to a specific tune with a set number of bars. The dances are names for the tune they are danced to. Set dances are performed by championship dancers and are choreographed by the dancer’s teacher to suit that level, style and strength of each particular dancer. The higher the level the dancer, the more unique their set dance will be. Traditional sets have a specific tune and set dances. The difference is traditional sets use choreographies that have been passed down from generation-to-generation, as they were created by the dance masters of the 1600s. Of the 38 set dances used today, only seven of them are traditional sets. The seven traditional sets are called: “St. Patrick’s Day,” “Blackbird,” “Job of Journeywork,” “Garden of Daisies,” “Kind of Fairies,” “Jockey to the Fair” and “Three Sea Captains.”

Following Grandma’s Irish Lead

Giambalvo finds her heritage at the Feis

Jacquelyn Giambalvo, a public relations major at the University of La Verne, credits her grandmother for introducing her to Irish dancing. Jacquelyn shows off her competition medals that she has won during the past 13 years.

I am an experienced Irish dancer. It has been the only sport I have done my entire life, and it has taught me lessons on time management and working hard to achieve goals. My grandma had her own Irish dance studio in San Diego, and everyone in my family has followed ever since. I first fell in love with dance from watching my cousins perform and thought how cool it would be to be able to do that. I thought the dance was so unique and beautiful that I wanted to give it a try and it was what I grew up on. I had the great opportunity to be at the Tamora School of Irish Dance and learn from amazing teachers. During class, we would start off by warming up and stretching. Then, we would do little leg workouts to help our legs get stronger. We would go over each dance, then the teachers would have the students practice a particular dance that needed the most help. They would watch us do the dance and look at specific movements that needed the most work. We would do the dance multiple times to make sure we got it down. Before a competition, which is called a “Feis,” we would do a mock Feis in the dance studio, and my teachers would pretend to be judges. We would cover the mirrors and try to make it as real as possible. Learning the steps was the easy part; learning to perform them well in front of an audience was much tougher. My friends outside of the Irish Dance world looked at me crazy when I would describe how much money I spent on dresses, wigs, crowns, and how many miles I would travel for a competition. I can’t put a price on the friends I have made, and the memories I have shared with loved ones, and the teachers who have become my mentors and role models in my life. Knowing that my grandma was watching down on me beaming with pride made my heart full of joy, and I know she’d be proud that I continued her legacy of Irish dance.