For Bronx School’s Dancers, the Moves Are Irish
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You can't watch the movie Bronx Dream and keep a dry eye.
By Elissa Gootman
Taja Garnett's parents are from Belize, but her nickname is "Irish girl."
Ever since Taja, 10, joined the Keltic Dreams, the Irish dance troupe that is the unlikely pride of her Bronx elementary school, she has been so consumed by high kicks, heel clicks and treble hop backs that she practices "on the street, at the bus stop, sometimes at the train station, in the living room, on the bus when I’m standing up and there’s no seats."
Oh, and also in class. In class? That's right, with her fingers, she explained, demonstrating the way her index finger acts as the left foot and her middle finger as the right.
"I look at the teacher," Taja chirped, her eyes gleaming mischievously behind wire-rimmed glasses, "and do it at the same time."
With a student body that is 71 percent Hispanic and 27 percent black, Public School 59 does not seem an obvious home for a thriving Irish dance troupe. And when Caroline Duggan first arrived from Dublin at age 23 to try her hand as a New York City public school music teacher, it wasn’t. Many of her students had never heard of Ireland. Why, they wanted to know, did she talk funny?
Then, to stave off homesickness, Ms. Duggan hung a "Riverdance" poster in her fifth-floor classroom, and one thing led to another. The children pointed to a long-haired dancer on the poster and asked if it was her. No, she laughed, but I could show you a few steps. The impromptu lesson grew into a wildly popular after-school program and, for the first time last year, a trip to Ireland that still inspires dreamy looks among those lucky enough to go.
"The grass wasn't like ordinary grass," recalled Nyiasha Newby, 10. "It was like sparkling and stuff, because the water was on it. It was, like, fresh."
On a recent afternoon, as cars blaring hip-hop music rolled past P.S. 59, on Bathgate Avenue near 181st Street, and neighbors called to one another in Spanglish, the school auditorium swelled with the soaring sounds of drums, fiddles and uilleann pipes.
Sixty growing feet laced into clunky black shoes spun, kicked and hop-1,2,3’d their way across the stage, in routines that Ms. Duggan, now 29, had choreographed, infusing the traditional Irish dancing she was reared on with elements of hip-hop, salsa and African dance. Toothy smiles mingled with the bitten lips of deep concentration. The Keltic Dreams were at it again.
"It kind of took on a life of its own," marveled the principal, Christine McHugh.
There was Anna Perez, 10, her hair pulled back into a tight bun, who wants to be a professional Irish dancer when she grows up. There was Alice Olom, 11, rehearsing alongside third-graders even after having moved on to middle school herself.
"There are some people in here that are very, very shy, so I'm here to let them know that shyness is not an option in Irish dancing," Alice said, her long braids pulled back in a ponytail. "You have to be confident in everything you do."
For years, Ana Sotomayor, 47, had tried to teach her son, Angel Perez, 11, the salsa moves she had learned growing up in Puerto Rico. For years, she recalled, he had shrugged her off, saying he didn't like it and couldn't do it.
But there Angel was, center stage, hands on his hips and baggy jeans flapping as he began a routine with a short solo.
"Every time I see him in a show I cry, because I'm very proud of him," Ms. Sotomayor said. "He's very shy, but then when I see him dance I see another Angel, very secure in what he's doing. He's very different."
Parents agree that the dancing has filtered into other aspects of their children's lives.
"She knows that she has to do good in school to keep up with her Irish dancing," Maritza Rosa, 42, said of her daughter Karilis Javier, 11.
Ms. Rosa was taken aback when Karilis first mentioned her new hobby.
"I thought she would do, you know, the Latin dance, the merengue, the salsa, the English music that's here in the Bronx," she said. "I said, 'Irish dancing?' And then I said, well, something different, something new for the kids."
Now, Ms. Rosa said, she finds herself experimenting with steps. "You see your child perform," she said, "and you get into it."
It has not always been easy. In the months leading up to last year's trip to Ireland, Ms. Duggan had a window into the difficulties in her students' lives. In her quest to obtain passports, which only a few children had, she navigated tricky immigration issues and helped track down a number of fathers who had not seen their children in years.
One student had a tearful reunion with her father in the back of the school auditorium. Another, an 8-year-old, showed up for rehearsal clutching her passport just weeks before the trip; after months of trying, relatives had finally managed to contact her father in Puerto Rico to get his needed signature.
Ms. Duggan had long feared she would never be able to raise enough money for the Ireland trip. That changed two years ago, after she met Tim O'Connor, then the Irish consul general in New York, who put her in touch with a network of Irish-American New Yorkers. She eventually raised $70,000, enough to take to Ireland 32 students and 19 chaperones, among them Mrs. McHugh, who had never been overseas.
The group performed on Ireland's "Late Late Show" and at the official residence of the president, Mary McAleese. They were filmed for a documentary, "A Bronx Dream," which is scheduled to be shown on Irish television on Monday, St. Patrick's Day.
One of Jesely Salcedo's favorite memories, though, is of the visit with Ms. Duggan's mother, who hid foil-covered chocolate leprechauns in her backyard. "We even had our own little treasure hunt," Jesely, 11, recounted.
Now, Ms. Duggan is struggling to raise money for this year's trip to Ireland and preparing her young charges for another big day: The St. Patrick's Day parade in Manhattan on Monday, in which they will march for the first time.
Ms. Duggan has outlasted most of the young teachers she met when she first came to New York, who, like her, had been recruited from overseas to fill shortages. "The administration wasn't supportive or they didn't like their school or they missed their family," she said.
She credits the people of P.S. 59, from Mrs. McHugh -- who welcomed her for Christmas Eve dinner in Riverdale one year when she could not afford a ticket home -- to students like Jesely, who have embraced Irish dancing as though the culture were their own. Which, in a sense, it now is.
"As I get older I'll even show my kids, so that way they, like, can spread it around," Jesely said. "Cause I think like the whole world should know about it."
New York Times
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