Penn’s Tír na nÓg Troupe Highlights Irish Culture Through Dance
Even though it is not a part of her own cultural heritage, University of Pennsylvania junior Kristen Pearson began learning the art of Irish stepdance when she was 11.
Pearson is a Mediterranean archaeology major in the School of Arts & Sciences and an assistant editor for Expedition Magazine, the publication of the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. She grew up in Norwich, Vt., where Celtic music and dance were popular.
“I fell in love with the music first and when I saw there were Irish dance lessons in my town, I knew I wanted to sign up,” Pearson says.
Her dance teacher, Mary Connolly, has influenced Pearson’s perspectives about sharing the tradition of Irish dance with others.
“It wasn’t a competitive dance school,” Pearson says. “We had performances around St. Patrick’s Day, but the emphasis was on dancing for fun and the love of the music.”
Today, Pearson is one of the co-captains of Tír na nÓg, the Irish stepdancing troupe on campus that showcases Ireland’s history and culture while embracing community engagement. An Irish Gaelic phrase that translates to the “Land of Youth,” Tír na nÓg references a place without sorrow, where nobody ages.
Pearson’s co-captain, Emily Romanello, is a Penn alumna who now works at the School of Social Policy & Practice. As a part of the Penn Irish club, she started teaching dance lessons in 2013. Soon after, the Penn Irish club dissolved, but she wanted to continue to highlight Irish culture through dance.
Together, Pearson and Romanello founded Tír na nÓg as a separate entity in 2015.
The Student Activities Council officially recognized the organization that fall and the group’s first Irish stepdance show took place the next semester.
Today, Pearson handles the group’s public relations and creative direction, while Romanello teaches lessons and manages the scheduling.
Tír na nÓg’s 15 members include undergraduate and graduate students, staff and alumni, who range in skill from beginners to advanced-level dancers. They practice at the Platt Student Performing Arts House and the ARCH building, but only a few have been dancing as long as Pearson and Romanello. Most of the members had never tried Irish dance before joining Tír na nÓg.
“We make it a point to offer free, beginner lessons to anyone who wants to try Irish dancing, as its not something that people tend to get into as adults,” Pearson says. “We want to change that.”
As part of its outreach, Tír na nÓg hosted a spring Ceili Dance, a traditional Irish social dance with live music. In the effort to embrace the Gaelic phrase Céad Míle Fáilte, offering “100,000 welcomes” that Tír na nÓg embodies, the group invited Penn’s faculty and staff and the surrounding community an opportunity to participate in the fun.
“Ceili dancing is similar to square dancing, in that it’s a style of dance where several couples all dance together in a larger group,” Pearson says, “and it’s easy for anyone to enjoy, regardless of age or level of experience.”
Irish stepdancing is a way of bringing people together. Just like her own dance teacher, Pearson says when she shares Irish dance with members of the community, she focuses on the fun.
“It’s amazing to see a group of total strangers cooperate with each other as they dance a ceili,” Pearson says. “People always make mistakes, rush to catch up to the music, and forget when to start. The challenge of it all encourages everyone to work together. Everyone’s smiling at the end.”
Tír na nÓg performs at venues across the city and is already at work planning their 2018 show centered around Irish mythology.