The real March Madness: Irish dancers on The Bluff

By Fiona O'Brien | March 16, 2019 12:25am


Junior Emily Rose Krajewski performed at the Western Regional Oireachtas in 2017. Photo submitted by Krajewski. 

Most college students celebrate Saint Patrick's day by dressing head to toe in green and drinking Guinness. Other UP students choose to celebrate the holiday by honoring their Irish heritage in the best way they know how: Irish step dancing. 

Irish step dancing is a tradition that dates back to the 19th century in Ireland. This style of dance has transformed from a traditional family activity into large broadway productions including Riverdance and Lord of Dance. Several UP students, including myself, have taken part in this tradition. 

Irish step dancing includes two styles of dancing, which are distinguished by the type shoe that the dancers use. There are hard shoes, which resemble tap shoes, and soft shoes, which are similar to ballet slippers. Irish dancing includes different types of Irish steps such as jigs (hard shoe and soft shoe), reels (hard and soft), hornpipe and traditional sets. For reels, jigs and hornpipes, dancers perform an eight count step on the right and left foot. 

I started Irish dancing when I was three years old. Because my mom comes from a very large Irish-Catholic family and they all Irish danced at some point, I really didn’t have a choice of whether or not I could partake. I continued to practice and perform until I was in eighth grade. 

Sophomore Fiona O'Brien performed at the Irish Snug in Denver in 2010 on St. Patrick's Day. Photo submitted by O'Brien. 

I was not a traditional Irish dancer that competed in Feis, festivals that celebrate Gaelic culture, and I didn’t have the big glamourous “championship” dress that many dancers wear. I danced for Saint Patrick’s Day, and nothing else. 

For my dance studio, Saint Patrick’s Day was a big deal and we started rehearsing in November. We would learn new dances, some of them to traditional Irish songs with accordions, flutes and violins. We also did some dances to songs like “Walk This Way” by Run DMC to get the crowd more excited. 

On Saint Patrick’s Day, I danced at schools and nursing homes during the day and spent the whole night performing back-to-back shows in different pubs, but mainly the Irish Snug Pub. I would also dance in the annual Denver Saint Patrick’s Day parade. It was always a really fun day with barely any time to eat or sit down, and my feet always hurt for days afterwards. Usually for these shows our dresses were very simple and not traditional. 

Rachel Stern, a junior biology major, has a more traditional Irish Dance experience than mine. Stern has been dancing for 15 years, and has competed in Feis on and off since then. She plans on going to the Irish Step Dancing National Championships this July in Vancouver, B.C. 

Junior Rachel Stern performed at the Western Regional Championships in 2018. Photo submitted by Stern. 

Stern became interested Irish dancing at six years old when she saw Irish dancers perform at the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in Seattle. She says she begged her mom to let her try a class, and she’s loved it ever since. She still competes and performs with the Scoil Rince Slieveloughane (SRS) school in Seattle. 

“I’ve met some of my best friends and longest friends through Irish dancing and it has been so fun travelling all over for competitions with them,” Stern said.  “I also really like teaching the younger dancers and making up choreography and hope to be a certified teacher someday. Irish dance is also very rhythmic compared to some other dance forms so it is always fun to come up with new steps.” 

This Saint Patrick’s Day, Stern is not able to perform for the first time in 15 years due to school conflicts. However, when she does dance for the holiday, she loves it because there isn’t as much pressure as a competition. Her studio would perform in schools, retirement homes and businesses throughout Seattle. 

Stern has been dancing with another UP student, Emily Rose Krajewski, since she was six. Krajewski, a junior theology major, has also been dancing and competing with the Scoil Rince Slieveloughane school for 15 years. 

Krajewski got into dancing when her friend’s dad, who was from Ireland, had her and her friend take classes. Even though her friend decided to quit, Krajewski fell in love and stuck with it. Now fully immersed into the Irish Dance culture, Krajewski goes to see Riverdance in the theatre and looks forward to every time the group goes on tour. 

For Krajewski, Saint Patrick’s Day has always been very important. Now that she lives away from her dance studio, she says it feels wrong to have school commitments instead of performing on Saint Patrick’s Day. She still tries to perform whenever she can when she gets home. 

“Some years we'd do close to 20 shows during the month of March alone,” Krajewski said. “I never went to school on St. Patrick's day and instead would spend the entire day doing shows at schools, churches, nursing homes and dinner events. We called it the real ‘March Madness.’”

Many Irish dancers can relate to this feeling of ‘March Madness.’ If you want to join in on the madness this Saint Patrick’s Day, here are some places in Portland where you can watch Irish dancers perform this weekend:

Canva graphic created by Fiona O'Brien. 

by Fiona O'Brien / The Beacon

Fiona O'Brien is a reporter at The Beacon. She can be reached at