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Irish dancers decked out in their fancy and expensive dresses.

U.S. economy deals a harsh blow to Irish dancing

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Irish dancers decked out in their fancy and expensive dresses.

Christina Ryan-Kilcoyne doesn’t normally advertise her dance classes. She doesn’t normally have to.

“I’ve never had to advertise before,” says the fair-haired teacher from County Clare, who came to the U.S. in 1988 and set up a dance school in Pennsylvania.

“The kids just used to come. But this year my beginners’ class is down by half.”

Ryan-Kilcoyne hasn’t started yet, but she’s soon going to put out fliers publicizing her school.

Since the 1990s, and especially after "Riverdance" Irish stepdance has grown wildly popular. But it has also become hugely costly, and in this downturn it is suffering.

Enrolment is low at schools across the country this fall as parents who have lost their jobs struggle to pay for lessons. Parents who have money are doing their best to hold onto it, signing their kids up for fewer classes.

This has had an impact on teachers. Ryan-Kilcoyne is married and the school is not her sole source of income, but others are less lucky.

“For people for whom it’s totally their livelihood, it must be a hard place to be,” she says.

Kerry Kelly-Oster is another teacher whose school has taken a hit. She teaches at her Kelly-Oster School of Irish Dance, based in Brewster, New York. It’s a well-established school and her students win awards at feiseanna across the country, but in this economic climate even that success doesn’t help.

“I can definitely see an impact,” Kelly-Oster affirms. “There’s not as many children joining the classes.”

Last year was even worse, Kelly-Oster adds, saying this year numbers are more level. Now, she says, “parents and families are being more stringent with their choices.”

How schools are faring depends on where they’re located -- whether there’s a strong Irish presence in the area, and, of course, how much the downturn has damaged local industry.

Kathy Egloff, a parent director of the Butler-Sheehan School in Syracuse, says there have been few foreclosures there. Everyone worries about money, but student numbers at the school are about the same as before.

“If you don’t get too heavily into feises, it’s not as expensive as other sports,” she says.

Nor has Sean Culkin, director of the Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance and regional director of the Southern Dance Teachers Association (IDTANA), had any problems. He had 85 beginners this year, and he puts it down to location.

 “We’re a suburb of Washington, D.C., Montgomery County. There’s a lot of government money down here. Generally speaking, we’re not getting hit,” he says.

It’s clear enrolment is something teachers are talking about among each other. Kevin Broesler teaches at the Broesler School of Irish dance, which has classes in New York, New Jersey and Maryland.

His schools are doing fine, he says, but he recently had a conversation with a teacher from Detroit. The demise of the automotive industry has had a knock-on effect on dancing, and stepdance in Detroit is going through a very tough time.

“The teacher said enrolment was down 60 percent,” Broesler says. “The Detroit area has been decimated.”

The thing with Irish dancing is that it’s not just the classes that cost money, as every parent and dancer knows. If you want a top dress, you’ll shell out $3,000. Shoes and wigs all add up too, and that’s before you’ve paid feis entry fees and sorted out transport to competitions.

“I don’t think there’s any other sport where you pay more for the dress than for the class tuition,” Ryan-Kilcoyne says.

Dresses in particular have become increasingly elaborate in recent years, even though the young girls who wear them are bound to outgrow them quickly. Some schools, like the Culkin School, have “dress exchange” sections on their websites, and other sites exist where used dresses can be bought and sold (Dance Again Irish Dance Dresses and the Irish Dancing Exchange are two examples).

But the fact remains that fashions change. This year diamante and bubble skirts are in, but who knows what will be hot in 2010? The parent who spent that $3,000 might hope to get half the value back at the year’s end.

The astronomically-priced outfits are a cause of concern in the dance community. “The commission (An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha) is trying to come up with a solution and make it known that they’ve recognized the problem,” says Kelly-Oster, explaining that the coimisiún is trying to pass the message on to teachers and parents.

She points out, “It’s not the costume that makes the dancer, it’s the dancer.”

Yet some kids, and their parents, still think the dress helps them win. Kelly-Oster says parents will always want their kids to have that “edge.”

Many teachers long for the cheaper, simpler dresses of yore. “I’d love to see it go back to much more simple costumes, and be much more affordable,” says Ryan-Kilcoyne. “You wouldn’t pay that amount for a wedding dress.”

Like Kelly-Oster, she doubts if there’ll be a return to simpler styles.

But now is a good time for parents to draw back from the extremes. Kelly-Oster advises parents to let down dresses, and says children at a school could share shoes to save money.

Other teachers point out that only the top dancers, the ones who’ll attend the worlds, really need those expensive costumes.

“You don’t have to compete at every feis, you don’t even have to compete at all,” Kelly-Oster adds. “You don’t have to spend $2,000 on a costume. Let the children continue dancing, because they’ve made a group of friends.”

Irish stepdance teachers say they’re willing to work with parents who are in difficulties, and they are adamant they’d never turn a child away from class. Some are working out payment plans with parents, or agreeing to settle the bill later.

But what will happen to the teachers? When Kevin Broesler spoke to the Detroit teacher, the other man was wondering if he should give classes for free to keep students involved.

Broesler says, “We were talking about how he could keep his business alive.”

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