Shamrock-strewn floats, Irish dancers and Celtic music are sure signs that a St. Patrick's Day parade is on the move. This year, four Washington-area parades are scheduled in Alexandria, Gaithersburg, Manassas and downtown Washington, D.C., on weekends before the March 17 holiday. For viewers, they've become a toe-tapping spring rite as well as a chance to wear the holiday's customary green.

But there's no need to harness that lively energy to one day. Irish dance lessons can extend the holiday throughout the year.

Allie Battista, 13, and her sister Molly, 12, first saw Irish dance at the Nation's St. Patrick's Day Parade in Washington, D.C., six years ago and fell in love with it. They remember being fascinated by the young performers, with their colorful dresses and intricate steps.

"I told my mom, 'That's what I want to do!'" says Molly.

Irish dance has become increasingly popular around the world, thanks to the stage show "Riverdance" and documentary "Jig". The Washington area is now home to 15 Irish dance schools, so it wasn't difficult for the Battista family to find a studio - the Hurley School of Irish Dance - close to their home in Olney, Maryland.

Judith, the girls' mother, praises the many benefits of Irish dance (musicality, goal setting, vigorous workout) and ranks pleasure and participation in a "wonderful community" at the top for her daughters. Her youngest child, Franny, is also clearly smitten. The four year old copies her sisters and can hardly wait to start formal lessons next year.

Allie sees the positive impact of dance in other areas of her life, including friendships with fellow dancers, focus and stamina in sports, and confidence in performing on musical instruments. Plus, she appreciates that feeling of working hard to reach the next level. Allie threw herself into dance practice this past year, she says, and improved to such an extent that she, along with Molly, will be competing at a national competition in July. The persistence "all paid off," she says.

Rooted in Family

Irish dance has its roots in family and community. It evolved from neighborhood gatherings in Ireland where people of all ages danced and socialized. Though many of the youngsters taking lessons today are also competing, most contemporary schools also host informal dances called ceilis, which are open to the whole family.

"It's a great time for everyone," says Annie Hurley Morrison, the founder of the Hurley School. Morrison herself took lessons in Maryland as a child and frequently qualified for world competitions. Now, her children, Gina, 6 and Molly, 5, take lessons, and Timmy, 2 "loves the music" and does his own version of steps, says Morrison.

Sometimes a child's enthusiasm can inspire a parent. That's certainly true for the Smigel family of Falls Church, Virginia. Jason Smigel started taking "secret dad lessons" when he saw how much Aden, 12 and Gigi, 9 loved the reels, jigs and hornpipes they were learning at the O'Neill-James School of Irish Dancing in Arlington, Virginia.

A Lively Time

Irish dance "is very aerobic and athletic," says Smigel "and lots of fun." He and his family have enjoyed traveling and performing in venues around the country and will be heading to Rhode Island this summer for Aden's national competition.

Conor O'Siadhail, 9, is drawn to the athletic aspect of Irish dance and the chance to compete. He dances with the Maryland-based Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance. Along with dance, he also plays soccer, tennis and basketball. As the top-ranked boy in his age group in the region, he will be competing against dancers from all over the world next month in Montreal, Canada.

Perhaps Laureen O'Neill-James, director of the O'Neill-James School (established by her mother in 1969), best sums up the wide appeal of Irish dance: It is a "great way for people of all ages to enjoy life. When you hear [that] lively music … your feet tap and you want to be out there on the floor."

Things to Know Before You Visit

Parades: Check for parade routes Alexandria, Va. (March 7 at 12:30 p.m.), Gaithersburg, MD. (March 14 at 10 a.m.), Manassas, VA. (March 14 at 11 a.m.) and Washington, D.C. (March 15 at noon).

Irish Dance Schools: You can often begin at any age, with most classes starting in September, January and June. Check the website greenfeet-dc.com for information on schools offering Irish Dancing in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance: With Maryland locations in Bethesda, Glen Echo, Kensington, Rockville and Silver Spring, there are many convenient choices. Call 301-593-9600 or visit culkinschool.com.

Hurley School of Irish Dance: Located in Laytonsville and Urbana, MD. Call 301-367-4890 or visit hurleyirishdancers.com for more information.

O'Neill-James School of Irish Dancing: Based in Arlington, VA. Call 703-241-1978 or visit oneilljamesschool.com to learn more. Look for director Laureen O'Neill-James in the Alexandria St. Patrick's Day parade. She will be serving as the Grand Marshal!


Children's author Mary Quattlebaum and her family enjoy Irish dance.