Local Irish Dance Company Pushes Traditional Art’s Boundaries

Photo Courtesy of Paul MarshallThe Elmhurst-based Trinity Irish Dance Company performs their modern dance throughout the country and internationally.

When people think of Irish dancing, they think of “Riverdance,” but the Trinity Irish Dance Company is trying to push the boundaries of traditional Irish dancing by adding a modern twist while emphasizing gender equality on the dance floor.

The Trinity Irish Dance Company, a not-for-profit professional performing arts company located in Elmhust, Illinois, is known for its entertaining choreography and talented dancers. It was founded by Mark Howard, a Loyola alum, and is led by Loyola senior Chelsea Hoy.

Irish dancing, which originated in Ireland more than 2,000 years ago but was popularized in the 1990s, is characterized by strong and intricate foot and leg movements and arms that remain by the dancers’ side.

Howard founded the Trinity Irish Dance Company in 1990 as a more progressive group of Irish dancers. Hoy, who has been member of the Trinity Irish Dance Company since December 2013 and is now an artistic associate, said the company is more focused on embodying the dance and incorporating different dance forms, which she says modernizes the choreography.

“In the last few years, we’ve been reenergized,” said Howard. “It’s to create work in the performing arts and the world needs Trinity Irish Dance Company because Irish dancing became so commercialized. We’re in many ways trying to save the art form … We’re able to make a big impact through multimedia to change the dialogue.”

The company does five weekend performances in different cities throughout North America every year. During the summer, it travels overseas to do an international three week tour. Since it’s a not-for-profit organization, Hoy said money can be an issue, but the company pays for its international tours and weekend trips through fees paid by venues that recruit it. Hoy said she’s working with the company’s startup board of directors to plan fundraising events, but she’s still at the grassroot levels.

The company, which typically consists of 18 female and two male dancers, who are full-time college students or recent college graduates, casted Isabel Kaiser in January. Kaiser, who lives in St. Louis but plans to transfer as a junior to Loyola in the fall, is one of the few dancers who travels to Chicago on the weekends to practice with the group.

Kaiser is considered a “late starter” to Irish dancing because she began when she was 11 years old, while most start before they’re six. She said she was drawn to the company because of its challenging “wide range of moves,” and she liked how there was still a competitive aspect to the group even though it was more about the performance.

“When I tried out, I remember being like, ‘This is so difficult.’ It was a challenge,” said Kaiser. “It was so different than what I’m used to … I remember thinking that [this was] something I could see myself doing … [It’s] Irish dancing with more fluidity.”

Hoy said the Trinity Irish Dance Company’s progressive viewpoints are not only based on Irish dancing movements but also on changing the conversation about gender roles within the Irish dance world.

Throughout the heritage of Irish dancing, male dancers are seen at the forefront of the shows performing more technical footing, while the female dancers are pushed toward the back and are expected to fit a specific figure.

Hoy said the company designs costumes with specific cuts and colors to emphasize the dancers’ strength and she said it’s important that dancers feel comfortable, strong and confident on stage.

“In commercial Irish dance shows, women frequently perform suggestive movement in minimal clothing that brings attention to the shape of their bodies in a sensual manner,” Hoy said. “In the Trinity Irish Dance Company, we are dedicated to represent our females not as sexual objects, but as the strong, confident, powerful individuals that we are.”

Kaiser described the gender difference in traditional Irish dancing as the males are given a more powerful role in the routines, while women are seen as dainty.

The company aims to present males and females on equal footing, according to Hoy.

To combat this unequal viewpoint, Hoy started the “We for She TIDC” movement. Hoy said the movement’s goal is to celebrate the company’s members’ determination to empower women on and off the dance floor.

“The ‘We for She’ campaign is something that I’ve really become passionate about this year because there’s so much unrest going on politically and there’s a lot of social things going on and it can feel really easy to feel small and like you can’t make a difference,” Hoy said. “We create a space here where we are bonded by Irish dancing, but the conversations and our intentions expand much more beyond that.”

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