Family: The Willis Clan, twelve Irish dancers

This week a new series "The Willis Clan"  premiered, on Great American Country, featuring the family of 12 kids, aged from two to 21 years, from Tennessee. All of whom are Irish dancers.

Many of the Willis kids are Oireachtas champions and Jeremiah (20) has placed sixth at All Irelands and seventh at Worlds. In 2013, the clan competed in the drama division at the World Championships, placing fourth.

The new series, which runs Thursdays at 8pm, ET, features the day to day goings on in the Willis family as they prepare for the many musical and dance performances that are propelling their family band into a career.

The Willis family is busy getting ready for the premier, but I was able to chat with the two oldest children, Jessica and Jeremiah, about Irish dance, family, and what the future holds for them.

At 21 years old, Jessica is the main singer/songwriter in the family band. She plays piano, violin, and sings, and has written over 200 pieces of music. She has also enjoyed exploring various creative outlets including poetry, novels, costume design, and other visual arts.

Starting off in Irish step dancing, she is now pursuing a wide education in all areas of dance including ballroom, west coast swing, and flamenco.  Jessica has been called one of the last true romantics.

Jeremiah (20) one of the best Irish dancers in the Willis Clan

Jeremiah, commonly called Jair for short, is 20 years old, and plays the acoustic, nylon and electric guitar, cello, uilleann pipes, whistles, flute, mandolin, banjo, and piano.

Jair is a three-time champion in west coast swing and a three-time place winner in the World Championships of Irish dance.  He also is a Tennessee state champion in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling.

Christy:  What is it like living in a family that puts so much emphasis on performance?

Jessica:  A lot of hard work and a whole lot of fun!

We get to travel, meet wonderful people, learn new things and enjoy a very full life. Since we perform so many different styles of music and dance we are able to take elements from all these genres and create a style that is our own unique fusion. The question is, what is coming next?

The Willis Clan is looking to fuse elements of all these influences to create a new generation of music and dance that has Irish at its base and will continue in the great tradition of "Riverdance" that has allowed Irish music and dance to become mainstream worldwide. Irish dancers and musicians should follow The Willis Clan particularly if they study multiple styles as there may be opportunities to be a part of this amazing future.

Christy:  How did you get involved in Irish dancing?

Jair:  Our dad grew up in a family of nine kids, mostly boys, and they all wrestled. My mom and dad decided before they got married that they wanted 12 kids and my dad assumed that they would have 12 sons and he would teach them all to wrestle.

However, he got eight daughters. His thought was, "What in the world do you do with daughters?"  Then my parents saw "Riverdance" and knew what to do with all those girls - Irish dancing!

As it turned out, the boys were all really talented dancers, too. They started the three oldest kids with Julie Showalter at the World Academy of Irish Dancing in Chicago.

Jessica the eldest of the Willis children and
one of eight girls

Christy:  Tell me a bit about your experiences with Irish dancing - where have you performed, do you compete, what school do you attend?

Jessica:  We have performed all over the US and in Ireland. We had the opportunity last year to perform at the O2 arena in Dublin, Ireland, opening for Brad Paisley and The Band Perry. We competed in Irish dance when we were younger, but injuries prevented us from continuing. Jair, Jenny, Jack and Jedi are all Oireachtas champions and Jair placed sixth at All Irelands and seventh at Worlds several years back. We did compete with the Kristin Butke School (Nashville) at the World Championships this year in the drama division.

One of the most beautiful things about Irish culture is the older generation passing the music, dance, stories, history and tradition down to the young people. Sometimes competitive Irish dancers miss this part. If you have never gone to a pub in Ireland during a session and spontaneously got up and danced because you were moved by the music, you have missed what Irish dance is all about.

Christy:  What is it like to have siblings who also Irish dance? Are you ever in the same classes together?

Jair:  Having brothers and sisters to dance with allows us to do so much. Creating choreographies and dancing together takes it to a whole new level. We have our own Riverdance! We have been in classes together and it works out great. We can help each other and encourage each other and then work on it at home.

Christy:  Will we see you Irish dancing on the new show for Great American Country?

Jair:  Absolutely! The cameras followed us to the World Championships in Boston where we competed in the drama division. I think there is a whole episode devoted to it. They filmed the behind the scenes work such as costume making, rehearsals, set design—even some of the set backs and disasters.

Christy:  Do any of you plan to pursue careers in Irish dance performance or teaching?

Jessica:  We are all pursuing careers in music and dancing, but not just Irish. Riverdance introduced us to dance—all styles of dance. We all teach our younger siblings. Since we are on the road quite a bit we can't attend regular classes, so the younger kids in our family have to learn from the older ones.

The Willis Clan family band

Jair is the most talented dancer in our family. He is one of the few young men in the dance world that has incredible star power, and is multi-talented, like Michael Flatley. Jair definitely plans to base his career around dance and music, and with the help of his brothers and sisters, hopes to create a world-class brand of Willis Clan entertainment.

Christy:  Do you have any fun or comical stories about Irish dancing together?

Jair:  We got into swing dance because we did an Irish dance exhibition at a swing dance event and fell in love with that style. There is a cabaret division in swing dance competitions so when we started competing in swing, we always entered an Irish choreography in the cabaret division. One competition had a crazy competition where you put together a spontaneous group, and in 3 days choreographed a number to perform. We took about 15 swing dancers and did a number from Riverdance. In 3 days we taught them how to Irish dance, made costumes and put on a great show, brought the house down - and won the competition. Never had more fun!

Christy:  What advice can you give to a beginning Irish dancer?

Jessica and Jair:  Embrace the whole culture - the music, dance, history, and the older generation. Listen to all the great Irish bands, and learn to play an Irish instrument. Even if you don't become an Irish musician, play some kind of drum so you become really good at rhythm. If you ever get a chance to take a class with Colin Dunne - do it!  He will take your dancing to a whole new level. Baby your feet and try to avoid injuries.

Some parting thoughts from Jair:

One of our family goals in Irish dance and music is to bring back the social element. Live music with social ceili dancing is so much fun and very few competitive Irish dancers ever get the chance to do it. Last year our band played at the North American Irish Dance Championships in Chicago each evening before awards. It created such a fun atmosphere that dancers spontaneously got up on stage and started dancing. There were probably close to 100 dancers on stage at once. We hope to inspire Irish dance events to include social dancing opportunities for all the competitors and their families. Dancing should always be about meeting other people and having fun!

The Willis Clan Dance Drama at World Irish Dance 2013:

The Willis Clan premieres June 27 at 8p/7c on Great American Country (GAC).

All photos courtesy of Great American Country channel.

Readers: Are you an adult Irish dancer or a dance school, competitive or not, with a story to share? Would you like to inspire others to feel your passion for Irish dancing and culture? Do you have a question about Irish dancing? Please visit