On a recent Tuesday night, about 50 people gathered in the basement of the Butte-Silver Bow Public Library. Most were under 18, and they all were Irish dancing.
A few groups practiced their steps off of the dance floor, keeping their upper bodies rigid and moving their feet as fast as possible. One group at a time brought those steps to the designated dance floor, backdropped by a wall-sized mirror with photos of Ireland taped to the top.
Yet another group met in the area just outside of the dance studio, practicing their final number with Butte’s Tiernan Irish Dancers.
This group was made up of the school’s six seniors, perfecting their solo piece for Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day “Handing Down the Heritage” event at the Civic Center. It would be their last time performing with the longtime local Irish dance school.
At the end of that Tuesday’s practice, many of the seniors hugged their younger classmates and wiped away a few tears.
“It’s a really cool art form with a fascinating history,” said senior Margaret LaFave, 17, of Irish dancing. “I love the people. All of my friends are here.”
For LaFave, not only will Sunday be the end of her career with the Butte Tiernan Irish Dancers but also the end of the over-20-year streak when she or one of her siblings has danced at the school.
“I guess I don’t remember a time where one of them wasn’t dancing,” LaFave said laughing, referring to her three older siblings.
LaFave said she’ll miss the people at the Tiernan school and helping out with the younger kids the most, which she saw as a way to pass down her passion for the Irish art form. Senior Kamryn Scully, 18, said she’ll miss some of the same things but mostly the family culture of it all.
Like LaFave, Scully started to dance at the Butte Tiernan school when she was very little. She said she had watched the Irish dancers perform at An Rí Rá when she was in first grade and fell in love.
“I’ve been here every Tuesday since first grade,” Scully said. “I love the people, and I love dance. Most people don’t think it’s a physical thing, but it is… You have to be strong, and it teaches you life skills.”
Those skills for Scully were mostly related to time management, as she commuted to the Butte studio every Tuesday from Deer Lodge. After Sunday’s dance, Scully won’t continue with the Irish art because she plans to run track in college, but she hopes that the St. Patrick’s Day event will help inspire the next generation of Tiernan dancers.
Butte’s Tiernan Irish dance school has about 110 students between the ages of 3 and 18, according to head teacher Kerry Powers. Since she was 3, Powers has danced with the school, which her mom started, and is now working to continue its mission to teach kids the art that honors Irish history and culture.
“Butte is the perfect location for Irish dancing. As Butte kids and community members, we are honored to dance here and understand the importance of how the Irish affected this area,” Powers said. “These kids are the next step to keeping the Irish traditions alive.”
And those traditions have recently resurfaced in another local community with Irish roots just west of Butte.
In 2012, Haley Kenny started the Aisling Academy of Irish Dance in Anaconda to bring back to the Smelter City the art form she participated in growing up.
“I started as a little kid, but once I was older, there was no one to continue it,” Kenny said about her Irish dancing start in Anaconda. So after she graduated college, she started up the Aisling dance academy, which has grown to 30 students between ages 3 and 13.
“We’re really tracing Irish heritage back to its roots through discipline, teamwork, and friendship,” Kenny said.
Like the Tiernan dance school, Aisling dancers also meet every week to practice their steps, and several times a year, they are taught by Connor Ford, a Butte native who got his Irish dancing start in his grandma’s kitchen when he was 3 years old.
“It was just something that would happen on Sundays,” Ford said of the Irish dancing he and his family did. “It’s my obligation to do what my grandparents did… I want to give back to where my dance journey began.”
For the past four years, Ford has helped teach with the Aisling academy, recently flying from Chicago — where he is studying at Loyola University — to Anaconda during his breaks to hold two- or three-day workshops with the Aisling dancers. Ford spent a little over a year performing with an Irish dance group in Chicago but says now he’s dedicated to teaching the Anaconda students in person and through Skype.
“My time to shine is over. Now it’s time to give back to the thing that gave me so much,” Ford said.
And the Irish art form continues to give to those who participate in Anaconda and Butte. One of the Aisling academy’s captains, 12-year-old Isabell Guiberson, said she joined the Irish dance group because there was nothing else to do and she thought it was fun. She’s danced with the academy for seven years and plans to continue with the art form through high school.
“I like it because it helps me come out of my shell and it’s a good way to make new friends,” Guiberson said. “Even though it takes a lot of practice and you may fall a few times, you just keep going.”
Guiberson said she loves the academy’s St. Patrick’s Day performances especially because there is more energy from the crowd, creating a different feeling for the dancers than at some of their summer performances. Reese Westling, 12, echoed similar thoughts but said she also feels a lot of pressure.
“Other performances are more subtle; they’re not a big thing. … This weekend, everyone is excited, and there’s a lot of pressure because people want to see how good you are and how you’ve grown,” Westling said.
Westling started Irish dancing under Kenny when she was 5 and said she loves it because it allows her to express emotion. She is involved in sports too but said Irish dance is different.
“You compete with Irish dance, but in a different way, and you express your feelings in a different way,” Westling said. She hopes to continue dancing through high school and encourages young people to give the art form a try.
“It’s the kind of thing where, when we have practice, I want to go, I want to dance,” Westling explained. “I think I’m pretty good now, but I better keep pushing to be better and better to see how good I can really be.”