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One of the first people IrishCentral spoke with at the Peter Smith Feis in Edison, New Jersey is Mr. Peter Smith himself.
Sitting calmly in a wheelchair, he barely had time to say hello before dance teacher Deirdre Garie whisked him away. I had to run to keep up as she pushed him towards a central stage where Smith was scheduled to watch a contest, but there was nothing unusual in this.
Smith’s every minute was occupied, and during the day, though he is wheelchair-bound and fragile after an accident, he presented prizes to dancers twice or three times every hour.
The Peter Smith School annual feis is one of the biggest in the mid-Atlantic region, with around 1,500 young dancers taking part.
The scale of the competition reflects Smith’s contribution to Irish dance. Not only is his school one of the biggest on the east coast, Smith himself has actively influenced the direction of Irish dance in the U.S., bringing in a style in the 1950s that has held sway ever since.
Smith is one of a family of nine. He was born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, and his older sister Peggy taught him and all his brothers and sisters to dance.
Smith then studied with Peter and Cyril McNiff, two teachers from Belfast who introduced a class of dance from Ireland called the Ulster style. When Smith began to teach, he taught only Ulster style.
“It was a more beautiful style,” he said while sitting in the hospitality area during a brief break at his feis. “There used to be a fast style of Irish dancing in New York and New Jersey. It’s gone completely now, because the new style caught on throughout America.”
In the old style of dancing, the Munster style, musicians played fast and dancers did all they could simply to keep up, their feet battering quick and low on the floor.
The Ulster style Smith promoted allowed for more intricate footwork. “You could see exactly the steps,” he said.
Smith is also a founding member of the North American Dance Teachers’ Assocation, which he and five other dance teachers set up in 1964.
Former Irish dance student and feis adjudicator Patsy McLoughlin explained: “It was different in those days, there weren’t rules and regulations, and feiseanna were hit and miss.”
Aer Lingus stewardesses and Irish immigrants would adjudicate feiseanna, but some of them would never have actually danced themselves. Dancers had to wait a week or two to get their results.
The contests were haphazard and disorganized, and si the teachers association was founded “to make things better for everyone,” McLoughlin said.
McLoughlin now has a school of her own, but she still has fond memories of being a student of Peter Smith. “As a teacher he was wonderful,” she recalls. “He wanted us to enjoy the whole spectrum. It wasn’t about competition.”
Smith is just as popular with current students as he is with his former ones. Caitlin Galli, 15, is a volunteer at the feis as well as a competitor, and she’s also a student at the Peter Smith School. “Peter is a nice person, and he always turns a bad situation funny,” she said.
As for the old Munster style of dancing, where dancers kept less-intricate time to faster music, that’s gone for good.
“Of course, every change has its critics,” McLoughlin said. “But that didn’t matter, because the new style was here to stay.”