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Dance the Irish way

By Gina McGalliard

Along Adams Avenue in Kensington, there’s a dance studio that doesn’t teach ballet, tap or even hip-hop.

At Clan Rince School of Irish Dance — “clan rince” is Gaelic for “dance family” — they only do traditional Irish step dancing.

“My mother was born in Ireland and she was so proud of being from Ireland,” said Jeannie Thornton, who owns the dance studio. “She just wanted her children to be connected to Ireland and not forget where she was born and raised. So she always wanted to do Irish things but there wasn’t a lot going on in San Diego — the [Irish] community was very small.”

Then one day, after Mass, it was announced that there would be Irish dance classes following the church service. As first, Thornton didn’t want to attend because she figured she already knew how to Irish dance — her mother had taught her basic steps in their living room — but now it was time for her to have a proper class from a certified teacher, her mother said.

“And I have to say I loved it,” Thornton said of that first lesson in class. “And I’ve been doing it ever since — and that was 40 years ago.”

Soon she was participating in local competitions, known as a Feis, a mainstay of the Irish-dance world. Even though she won nothing at her first Feis, she vowed to keep trying rather than be discouraged. Sure enough, she got better results at her second competition, but the third time proved the charm: She got straight first places.

“I turned into a competitive person I didn’t know I was,” she said.

(l to r) Alisa Dosch and Jeannie Thornton (Courtesy of Clan Rince School of Irish Dance)

At age 15 she attended the North American championships, only expecting to enjoy the experience of it because the competition would be so stiff. Instead, she placed fifth.

“It just ignited something in me,” Thornton said. “[I was] like, ‘I am going to win this. I’m going to win this.’ And so the following year I went back and got first.”

Upon becoming an adult, Thornton wasn’t ready to give up her passion. However, because Irish dance was such a niche activity, opening her own dance school didn’t seem like a viable career option. But then in the 1990s, “Riverdance” exploded onto the world stage, creating massive interest and public exposure for this little-known dance form. And suddenly the demand was there.

“People were knocking on my door. ‘Don’t you do that Irish dance, like that ‘Riverdance’?’” Thornton recalled. “So I started a whole class in my garage and went from there.”

“Riverdance” was also the catalyst for Alisa Dosch — who teaches alongside Thornton — to take up Irish dancing. Dosch, who had been involved in music and dance throughout her childhood, was introduced to the show via a videotape her mother rented. Entranced with Irish dance, which she had never seen before, she and her mother began taking lessons at a local dance school. After two years, she switched to Thornton’s studio, where she also began helping her teach in exchange for paying for lessons as a struggling college student.

“Pretty soon I was going with her every single day to teach,” Dosch said. “And then I was doing the newsletter, and then I was helping organize shows and St. Patrick’s Day.”

Upon her college graduation, she contemplated getting a “real job,” but decided Irish dance was her calling. Dosch also flourished in the competitive arena, even taking second place one year at the regional championships and qualifying for the Worlds in Ireland. After retiring from competition, she took and passed her teacher certification, known as a TCRG, which is the abbreviation for the Gaelic Teagascóir Choimisiúin le Rinci Gaelacha.

For Thornton and Dosch, the community that their studio, which teaches small children through adults, is what makes their career so fulfilling. Best of all, many students find a home in the dance studio they don’t have elsewhere.

“I know that in my life, my dance teachers, my dance friends, their parents, the Irish dance community, it was my community. Everyone has their community,” Thornton said. “And when I first started teaching I realized wow, I’m at the other end now. Now I’m teaching and mentoring kids and I see kids come in my studio door. And some —they weren’t the cool kid in school. But at Irish dance class they were accepted and they had friends and parents would tell me that, ‘You know, my kid has blossomed so much since they’ve come to Irish dance class.’

“This should be their safe zone and their happy place. And that’s what I wanted to create.”

For more information, visit irishdancesandiego.com.

—Gina McGalliard is a freelance writer who blogs at ginamcgalliard.com/mcgalliard-matters. Email her at ginamcgalliard@gmail.com.

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