Irish dance in Lexington: Traditions, history give growth to new community

Irish Dance in Lexington with Bluegrass Ceili AcademyWhen I talk about what I want Bluegrass Ceili Academy’s role in Irish dance in Lexington to be, you’ll hear me describe our goal of being a community-based cultural arts resource for Central Kentucky.  It’s that perspective that we want to share with our dancers, families and supporters.

We’re just days away from the start of our second full year of classes at Artworks at the Carver School and we couldn’t be more excited to welcome both our new and returning students. But before the new year begins, I wanted to share with you more about what Bluegrass Ceili Academy is, where we came from and our mission in being a vital part of the community.

The legacy of Peggy O’Neill

Peggy O'Neill

Peggy O’Neill. Photo courtesy of the O’Neill James School.

In Irish dance, students are the reflection of their teacher, their teacher’s teacher, and their teacher’s teacher’s teacher. The Bluegrass Ceili Academy not only proud of its new beginnings with Irish dance in Lexington, but we’re honored to be a part of the legacy of the late Peggy O’Neill ADCRG.

Born in Mylerstown, Robertstown near Naas in Co Kildare, Ireland, in 1914, Peggy began dancing as a child. She won the local championships multiple times and began teaching other students to dance. In 1935, she left Kildare for Scotland as a qualified teacher and became the first TCRG (certified teacher) outside of Ireland. Peggy first started teaching dancing in Glasgow in 1937 and opened the O’Neill School of Irish Dancing in 1948. Peggy’s students dominated local and regional competitions:  from 1949 until Peggy emigrated to the United States in 1964, the Scottish Championship title was won by her students a total of 12 times out of a possible 16.

When Peggy arrived in the U.S. in October 1964, she was the first qualified adjudicator (judge) in America. In a new country, she started a monthly ceili (social dance) which grew in popularity.  Together with her daughter, Laureen, the O’Neill-James School taught Irish dance to the next generation of students and teachers in the Washington, D.C. area.

Two of those students, Sean Culkin and Caterina Earle, were my Irish dance teachers.

Dancing in DC

Sean Culkin with Culkin dancers

Sean Culkin with Culkin dancers

The Irish community in Washington, D.C., had always been active.  Sean Culkin danced with Peggy O’Neill as a young child.  Caterina Earle discovered her interest in Irish dance as an adult, which was an age group Peggy continued to teach and work with. Sean received his TCRG certification in 1995 and  founded the Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance. I joined the new program as a young adult. In the tradition of Peggy O’Neill, Sean and Caterina, welcomed adult dancers and encouraged us to be a part of “Team Culkin.”

As part of the Culkin School, I was taught Peggy’s legacy through the steps I learned as a beginner, steps I would then teach when I began to assist with classes. It’s the same legacy that today I bring to Irish dance in Lexington by teaching the steps and the history that goes with them.

Culkin School 2009 NAIDC Champions

In 2009, the Culkin School won the Adult Ladies Ceili competition a the North American Irish Dance Championships.

The nearly 20 years I spent with the Culkin School formed me as an Irish dancer and as an Irish dance teacher. It’s why we say that “experience matters.” What started with Peggy and was passed down to Sean and Caterina was what I studied and passed on when I began teaching adult students and teams more than a decade ago. It’s the foundation that helped me achieve my own certification with the Irish dancing commission in 2010.

In the competitive tradition of the O’Neill School, the adult teams I coached at the Culkin School won 23 regional championship ceili titles between 2004 and 2015, and, in 2009, the North American national championship. Today, they continue to dominate at local and regional competitions.

In the summer of 2015, life brought me back to my hometown of Lexington.  Much as Peggy started over after leaving Scotland, I found myself starting over and contemplating what was next for me as an Irish dance teacher.


Irish dance in Lexington

As a child growing up in Central Kentucky, I never had the opportunity to take Irish dance in Lexington — the closest schools were in Louisville or Cincinnati. It was only when I moved to Washington, D.C., in the mid-1990s that the first Lexington Irish dance classes opened up. By that time, I was already studying my newly found art at the Culkin School.

After a few months off from teaching dance classes, I made the decision in the fall of 2015 to get back into the studio.  That’s when the Bluegrass Ceili Academy was founded. We started by teaching ceili dances in our local Irish pub. Last fall, in September 2016, we opened the doors to our studio at Artworks at the Carver School and what a year it was!

Now we’re ready to start year two and welcome new dancers, as well as our returning students, as we share the legacy that brought us to where we are today.

We are more than just a dance school. We’re a community.

Perspective. Experience. Community. Mission. It’s what matters.

What does that mean?

It’s the way we look at things, the experience and legacy we bring to the classroom, it’s building and giving back to our community, and living our mission by providing a supportive learning environment for dancers of all ages and skill levels. If that matters to you, join us this fall for classes with Bluegrass Ceili Academy.

Online registration for Irish dance classes through Bluegrass Ceili Academy is open now and classes begin Monday, Sept. 25. Go here to register. If you’re not sure you want to register, but want to give classes a try, stop by next Monday and try your first class for free.  You can register on site if you decide to join us.