FORMING friendships and travelling to festivals all over the world is what the students of the Attridge Academy of Irish Dance get to do.
Celebrating 60 years, the Turner’s Cross-based academy was formed by Nancy Attridge who, at 87, still travels abroad with the dancers where they perform at folk and dance festivals.
Nancy is young at heart, says her daughter, Niamhmarie Gomez, who has followed in her footsteps, teaching dancing, both privately and in 13 primary schools around Cork. She has more than 200 students.
Nancy and her two sisters grew up in Friar’s Walk and learned Irish dancing from a famous teacher called Cormac O’Keeffe.
When Nancy was a 16-year old senior Irish dancer, she started working as a seamstress. After being approached to teach Irish dancing at St Angela’s School, Cormac said he was getting too old and asked Nancy if she would do it.
Nancy asked her mother for permission to teach Irish dancing. She was told to do it on her day off from her seamstress job and to see how she got on.
Her daughter recalled; “Mum absolutely loved teaching dancing. She developed a system of dealing with beginners and more advanced dancers. After six months, she got a call from another school asking her to teach dance and that made her finish her seamstress work and focus on dancing.
“Here I am now. Sixty years have passed and I’m carrying on the tradition.”
Niamhmarie, 44, recently enrolled her five- year-old daughter, Jessica, in Irish dancing.
Nancy actually started teaching Irish dancing in 1948, but it took another ten years to set up the school.
She was asked to enter dancers to Feis Maitiu and to perform dance at the Cork International Choral Festival. The school established itself and is going strong all those years on. What is its appeal?
“We’re very different to everyone else in that we’re not competitive,” she said.
“When I came on board, my ethos was that everyone has a right to enjoy Irish culture, especially nowadays when there are so many nationalities in Ireland.
“With encouragement and praise, everyone can do the best they can in Irish dancing and have friendships out of it.”
The dancers perform for tourists from the cruise liners that dock in Cobh with traditional band, The Irish Weavers.
“My dancers perform for them in the Rochestown Park Hotel, the Commons, Blarney Woollen Mills and sometimes on board the liners. Performance is what it’s all about.”
The costumes are all handmade.
“We have a lovely lady, Mairead Hackett, who comes to us all the way from County Clare to take measurements and look after the costumes. We’re adamant that there is hand embroidery on all of them and a crochet collar and a Tara brooch. We’re like dinosaurs but that’s the tradition of it.
“If I’m standing in front of a whole load of Americans, I’m able to say that what they’re looking at is Irish history with the costume designs coming from the Book of Kells.”
During the summer, Niamhmarie and her dancers performed at festivals in Bulgaria and Malta. Nancy also went on these trips and insisted on getting out of her wheelchair to start a conga dance in Malta when Abba’s Dancing Queen came on.
Niamhmarie says that most of her students are girls.
“Boys like Irish dancing and they’re good at it. But the problem is when they start it as an after-school activity, training for football and hurling takes up a lot of time.”
Did Riverdance increase the popularity of Irish dancing?
“It has made it very popular. Some people think Irish dancing is very diddley-eye. I think it’s important to hold onto both sides of Irish dancing. Part of our tradition is being lost a little bit with Riverdance, but that said, it has had a lot of benefits putting Irish dancing on a global stage. It’s cool to do Irish dancing now. Riverdance has certainly brought a lot of interest to it. From my own point of view, I’d love to keep a happy medium between both, not forgetting where we came from and appreciating the tradition.”
Through her years of Irish dancing, Niamhmarie has travelled widely.
“I was in America when I was two. I saw Mickey Mouse in Disney World when I was six. I’ve been to the Holy Land and I’ve seen the pyramids in Egypt. My mother was way ahead of her time, bringing the dancers everywhere. She is very proud of what she achieved. She organised all the travel with a typewriter and by going through travel agents.”
Niamhmarie’s late father was a carpenter by trade and retired from the former Cork Regional Hospital where he was in charge of maintenance. He was also “roped in” to the activities of the academy.
Niamhmarie, who has two sisters, never felt forced into the family firm.
“I went to dancing at seven or eight and I remember at 12 or 13, going twice a week to see my buddies. It was a social thing. That’s where the love of it came from. Then I became more serious about it. I did work experience teaching Irish dancing at Christ King Secondary School. I started to run a class in Riverstick with my mother sitting in on the class.”
From there, Niamhmarie’s commitment to Irish dance blossomed.
What does she think of the young competitive Irish dancers with their wigs and fake tan, taking part in the world championships?
“That’s absolutely fine if it’s the way you want to go. Everyone for their own. A lot of people think that’s the only Irish dancing that there is. I believe a lot of our history is being lost. The downside of the world championships is if you’re not winning, what are you going to do? Give it up?
“There are beautiful dancers that love to dance for the sake of it. But they give it up when they get to 13 or 14. If they didn’t have the pressure (to win), they would still be dancing.”
John Vaughan is married to Niamhmarie’s sister, Olive, and is a huge admirer of his mother-in-law.
“I was involved in dance for years and finished in 1997. I came out of ‘retirement’ last year to help mind Nancy when she goes away on dance trips. The craic starts on the bus to the airport. The dancers sing on the journey and they take great pride in dancing in front of a live audience, representing their country and feeding off the reaction.
“Riverdance has put Irish dancing on the map globally so when an Irish dance group turns up at a festival, the audience knows what they’re getting.”
John’s daughter, Eimear, aged 21, dances with the academy. John is a great believer in pursuing a hobby for the sake of it as opposed to clocking up trophies and medals.
“But dancing can be like sport. We see boys and girls playing hurling, football, soccer and rugby. There’s almost a line in the sand when it becomes serious and competitive. When a hobby gets competitive, you may not be good enough to be picked for the team. You give up, friendships splinter; it’s awful.”
But the Attridge Academy of Irish Dance encourages finding fun in the pursuit of dance, and enjoying the friendships made and the travelling abroad.
To celebrate 60 years of the Attridge Academy of Irish Dance, past and present students are invited to the Cork International Hotel at 8pm on November 2 for an evening of music, song and dance in the company of The Irish Weavers. For more, email email@example.com or go to the Facebook event page of the Attridge Academy 60th celebration.