Those superfluous, bouncing curls may not be authentic, but the smiles, passion and intensity are. Backstage—or on it—the Campbell Academy of Irish Dancing puts on a real show, with colorful, fancy dresses and fast feet hitting wooden floors to a lively beat.
They’re real successful, too. Three of Campbell’s dance teams have qualified for the World Irish Dancing Championships (Oireachtas Rince na Cruinne) taking place April 5-12 at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia. It’s the first time the United States is hosting the event, which last year drew 4,000 competitors to Belfast, Ireland.
“It’s an honor to have such a renowned event held in my home city,” says West Chester’s Erin Miller, who’s part of an over-16 team that also includes her sister and six others. “It will give my friends a chance to see this fantastic part of my life—
and to begin to understand why I enjoy it so much.”
Campbell Academy founder Helene O’Malley Campbell has devoted 40-plus years to developing world-caliber Irish step dancers. The school began in the basement of her parents’ rowhome in Southwest Philadelphia. Her neighborhood once had a vibrant Irish culture. In fact, her parents used to move furniture aside and “take up the rug” for dancing.
Campbell began dancing as a first grader at Most Blessed Sacrament School in Philadelphia after she took notice of a classmate doing a few steps in the schoolyard. Each Friday thereafter, her father transported her by trolley, then by bus, to dance classes with Donegal native Sean Lavery, who charged 50 cents a lesson. By age 14, she was furthering her training under reputable fiddler/dancer Eugene O’Donnell, a Derry native.
After graduating from West Catholic High School, Campbell studied education at Cabrini College. For almost 10 years, she taught kindergarten at St. John the Baptist in Manayunk.
As a dancer, Campbell became one of the original members of the Philadelphia Ceili Group. She married accordion player Patrick Campbell, a native of Mountcharles in Ireland’s County Donegal. They met on a dance floor. She was stepping her “threes and sevens” while he was playing with the Commodore Barry Band. Today, her husband provides live music at Campbell Academy practices.
Of their four children, the two youngest, Roisin and Deidre, are carrying on their mother’s work. In fact, her kids were her first students. Before long, she had a class of 15. Today, the academy works with more than 75. Under her guidance, shy girls evolve into poised, graceful, confident dancers—and young women.
“I love it,” Campbell says. “I like creating and being around children who force you to come up with new things. I hope to be involved as long as I can.”
At 67, she finds inspiration in her 6-year-old granddaughter, Rory Nilsen. When Campbell was that age, and dancing, every performance was traditional, with no curly wigs or ballet slippers—just tap shoes.
“The wigs came out in the past 15 or 20 years,” Campbell says. “Years ago, children set their own hair. You’d have two or three sleeping overnight with their hair set in curlers. It wasn’t enjoyable, so the wigs came out.”
Dresses—which run upward of $2,000 each—have changed, too. “The styles were becoming flashy, but now they’re settling down,” she says. “Different styles are always being refurbished and recreated. This is an art form.”
Campbell Academy’s world championship qualifiers were determined at the national championships and a regional competition. Between the three teams, 24 girls will represent the school, which practices in West Chester and Havertown. Among those who qualified, Alison Silverman is one of Campbell’s prized pupils. She started Irish dance at age 8, though she’d been involved in ballet, tap and jazz.
“Eventually, I decided to try Irish dance lessons because of my cultural ties,” Silverman says. “I realized that my other dance classes were extremely boring. In ballet, tap and jazz, there weren’t any competitions. I quit all forms of dance except for Irish.”
The Irish style came easily to Silverman. She moved from the beginner to preliminary championship level in just one year—then hit a speed bump. “Once I arrived in preliminaries, my easy progress didn’t continue,” she says. “After several disappointing feiseanna [Irish dance and culture festivals], I discovered that in order to advance, I needed to practice.”
Soon, Silverman was practicing at least an hour a day. That disciplined approach aided her in other areas, too. “My grades rose, and I soon started placing well in dance competitions,” she says.
After three long, “exhilarating” years in preliminaries, Silverman earned the two required first-place titles to move up to the “open championship” category. She competed last year in Belfast.
“I can honestly say that I never thought I’d achieve the honor of dancing on the world stage,” Silverman says. “It was so inspiring and motivational to see the world’s most talented and hard-working dancers together in one place.”
As such, Silverman would love to take her dancing as far as it can go. But she knows it must end one day, which may—or may not—come before college.
The Campbell Academy’s Erin Miller began Irish dancing when she was 5. Like Campbell’s children, Miller and her sister, Stephanie, were motivated by the involvement of their mother’s family in the form. Miller’s drive to compete led her to Belfast last March.
“I’ve continued dancing for 10 years because it’s so fun and interesting,” says Miller, who attends Villa Maria Academy in Malvern with both her sister and Silverman. “There’s a social aspect to Irish dancing. I’ve met many lifelong friends.”
For Stephanie Miller, it took just a single lesson to fall in love with Irish dance—and she’s been at it for 12 years. “In addition to all the blood, sweat and tears that go into every practice and every routine, Irish dancing has shaped me as a person,” she says.
Campbell Academy isn’t the only local school competing at the World Irish Dancing Championships. Eight soloists from Edgemont’s McDade School of Irish Dance will make an appearance, including Fiona Fay, Kathleen Roszyk, Siobhan Dougherty, Alesandra Doughty, Alexander Reichl, and sisters Bridget, Sinead and Fiona Egan. McDade will also present three teams of 20 dancers, each vying for the dance drama victory.
Led by Sheila McGrory Sweeney, McDade also originated in Havertown. In the 1990s, it opened a Chester County branch, and last summer, the two studios combined into a single larger one.
Certification from the Irish Dancing Teachers Association of North America is required for all instructors. Campbell has had hers for decades. In November 2006, she was honored by the IDTANA for her lifelong dedication to the discipline.
Campbell Academy received the Walter Garvin Award for Outstanding Children’s Irish Dance Group in 2003 (as part of Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Parade). The school often appears on local television and at nursing homes—even performing for the president of Ireland.
Organized Irish dance dates back to the late 1920s and early 1930s. Today, nine regional councils oversee a network of dancers in Ireland, Britain, North America, Continental Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Influence is also spreading to South Africa and South America.
The World Irish Dancing Championships began in 1970 in the tiny theater of Coláiste Mhuire in Dublin’s Parnell Square. Following its visit to Philadelphia, the event is set to return to Glasgow for a third time.
To learn more about the World Irish Dancing Championships, visit clrg.ie.