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An Daire brings riverdancing to River City

by: David F. Ashton, Four An Daire students show off their Irish Step Dancing skill – which may take them to the international competition

Behind the An Daire Academy of Irish Dance, hidden away in an industrial area of Inner Southeast Portland, is a story of passion, romance, dedication - and Irish Step Dancing.

The international show theatrical production 'Riverdance' popularized traditional Irish Step Dancing, in which dancers take rapid and sometimes acrobatic steps, while their torsos and arms remain motionless.

But the proprietors of this unique Portland-based dance school, Jim Mueller and Lauren Crowe-Mueller, started perfecting their dancing technique long before Riverdance-styled shows became all the rage.

Both members of this husband-and-wife team grew up in Portland, and attended rival high schools - but, in those days, they never met.

At an East Portland Chamber of Commerce function in March, Jim told the group he learned his first Irish steps as a postgraduate hobby, took to dancing, and started instructing.

Meantime, a 1988 Portland Rose Festival Princess, Lauren studied nursing and musical theater, before moving to Nashville, Tennessee, where she took up Irish dance. She progressed, finally dancing with The Chieftains, and performing at renaissance festivals throughout the United States.

'We met in a class taught by Tony Comerford in Seattle,' Lauren said; 'We became engaged at his Feile na Nollaig (Irish dance event) in December of 1999, and were married in our hard [dance] shoes in May of 2000.'

Jim added, 'Thanks to the Comerford School, we became successful open champions, competing at the North American, All-Ireland, and World Championships - in both solos and teams.'

Under Comerford's direction, the Muellers opened a dance studio in Portland in 2000.

'In 2005, Tony said we were ready and able to operate our own school; and, with his blessing, in 2005 we opened the An Daire Academy of Irish Dance,' explained Lauren.

She informed us that instructors must be certified in Irish dance if their students are to enter competitions. 'The examination process was difficult, but we were both certified before we opened our school.'

'Why don't you use your arms when you dance?' is the question they're most frequently asked of Irish Step Dancing, Jim said.

'It started with the church movement in Ireland,' he explained. 'When St. Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, the church was very tied into the state. As the British came into the Emerald Isle, their magistrates tried to suppress the Irish; getting them to submit to their will.'

Because the Irish are such a celebratory people, he continued, the British tried to break their spirit by decreeing that dancing was an offence to God. 'The Irish learned to dance with her hands at their sides. So, if a church magistrate walked past the window, it appeared as if they were just listening to music and having a good time.'

It wasn't long, though, till competitions arose to see who could dance the best steps - with their arms at their sides.

It's only been within the last decade that the Irish dance form has come on par with jazz and ballet, Jim mentioned. 'Irish dance technique is very young. Over in Ireland, it's still 'Shut up, put your shoes on, and dance'.'

Lauren explained that they realized, early on, that poor technique will limit the life of a dancer, due to injuries. 'We want to help dancers enjoy a lifetime of dance, without injury. So, we've created special warm-up exercises and strength training, based on the ballet and jazz. It's a great workout.'

'This year has been especially wonderful,' Lauren beamed, 'because not only do we have dancers going for solo competitions, we also have three teams of dancers going to the 2008 international competition in Ireland.'

Jim added, 'We've got our fingers crossed; we're hoping we can get a team on the [winners'] podium in Belfast.'

Visiting their studio, we learned they also teach Highland dance, and offer music lessons on Celtic and medieval eclectic instruments as well.

'We do a lot of fun things here at the studio,' Lauren concluded. 'All told, we have just shy of 300 dancers throughout the Northwest. If you know anyone who wants this type of musical education, please tell them about us.'