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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Trinity Irish Dancers: Champions and Role Models

Milwaukee company builds on international success

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Trinity Academy of Irish Dance will again represent the United States at the World Championships in Dublin, Ireland, April 17-24. This is the Olympics for Irish dance teams and soloists. More than 4,500 dancers from five continents, all of which have won national qualifying competitions, will compete. Trinity "broke the emerald barrier" in 1987 by winning the first gold medal for the United States. With 10 golds to date, more than twice the number of all other North American schools combined, it has become the world's best-known Irish dance school.

Mark Howard, its founder, believes the secret of the school's success in competitions is that it doesn't put the emphasis on winning. "Our kids are not wound up," he says. "They are taught not to be afraid of the worst outcome. When you're OK with failure, it opens the door to success. Trinity is about the journey. Ninety percent of our kids do it for enjoyment. We are as family-oriented as you can imagine. We're a Milwaukee institution, a national and even international treasure, but most of all we are a children's organization."

Howard is also the founder and artistic director of the Trinity Irish Dance Company, the first professional ensemble dedicated to elevating a dance form traditionally associated with competitions and weddings to a level of choreographic and performing artistry comparable to the Alvin Ailey or Paul Taylor companies. Riverdance is a later commercial adaptation of the groundbreaking progressive Irish dance that Howard originated.

"I was encouraged by Ferne Caulker, artistic director of Ko-Thi, to start a professional company," he says. "These existed for other ethnic dance forms, but never for Irish dance. I began to choreograph for performance instead of competition. I learned from other ethnic groups. I responded to my urban environment, to all the stuff funneling through me. I'm always scared until an audience sees it and likes it. I'm just trying not to be terrible."

Leading Instructors

The son of Irish immigrants to Chicago with "that off-the-boat desire to hold onto roots," Howard was a champion dancer when he started to teach at age 17. He's bequeathed his values to his academy. These include hard work, belief in dreams, team building, commitment, sportsmanship and professionalism. Most of his staff members are trained as child educators.

"We have the best instructors in the business," he says. "In particular, the two pairs of sisters who lead our Milwaukee program: Anne and Mary McCarthy and Laura and Michelle McNamara are strong female role models for the girls and boys and very well respected."

The McCarthy and McNamara sisters warmly welcomed me to the Academy's three-studio facility (252 E. Menomonee St.) in Milwaukee's Third Ward. All have succeeded in each of Trinity's three styles of dance: team, solo and performance. All have enjoyed traveling to festivals and competitions worldwide. All love teaching.

"In our work," Anne begins, "we come face to face with hundreds of children. We grew up in the Trinity program and want to live up to our own instructors."

Mary continues, "We do this for the 5-year-old that was too shy to say his name, and now has the confidence to speak up at school."

Laura agrees: "Trinity did that for all of us. At my first class, Mark Howard taught us a step and then told us to do it as fast as we could. He declared me the winner and it changed my life. I discovered I could do that!"

"And no one our age gets to travel like this," Michelle adds.

Building self-esteem in youngsters of all income levels and ethnicities is the sisters' proudest achievement: "We encourage our students to set realistic goals for themselves. There is always something new to reach for. But no one has to compete. You can just come and dance."

While a solid number of boys attend the school, the majority of students are girls. "And when those girls walk out the door," the sisters agree, "they are empowered!"

For Trinity's public performances in the Milwaukee area in March, visit www.trinityirishdancers.com/show-schedule.

John Schneider is grateful to the Irish who inspired African Americans to create tap dancing, which he does sometimes with his pop jazz band The John Schneider Orchestra. He teaches at Marquette University.