Aine Walsh Kelley never dreamed she'd be in America teaching children traditional Irish dance.
Born in the city of Cork, Ireland, in 1971, Walsh Kelley grew up with traditional Irish dancing. Her mother was a dance teacher and made sure her nine children knew the basic steps.
"My mother was a believer that someone else should teach me the more complicated moves," said Walsh Kelley. "I loved dancing and competed professionally for 12 years" in Ireland.
In 1994, Walsh Kelley moved to south Charlotte, where her aunt and uncle lived. She originally was in the U.S. on a visa but said she loved the country too much to leave.
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"It really is the land of opportunity," said Walsh Kelley. "I loved the weather, the people, everything about it."
In 1998, she married an American, Shawn Kelley, and settled in Ballantyne. Walsh Kelley, 39, now lives in the Cobblestone neighborhood with her husband and 6-year-old son, Liam. The couple also has two older children: Jessica, 20, and Dillon, 18.
Although dancing always was in her home as a child, Walsh Kelley's own children haven't taken to it as she did.
"I never wanted to force it on them," she said. "If they wanted to dance, they could."
In 1999, Walsh Kelley's desire to teach children traditional Irish dance became a career. She opened the Walsh Kelley School of Irish Dancing off Providence Road with six students she had been teaching casually through the Irish Society of Charlotte.
"It really took off fast," said Walsh Kelley. "Now we have 140 students in our Charlotte location and 50 in our Greensboro studio."
For St. Patrick's Day this year, students from the school will perform at 17 different venues. They will travel throughout Charlotte and into Rock Hill to dance at events.
On March 19, they will take part in the 15th annual St. Patrick's Day parade and the Charlotte Goes Green Festival. They will march in the parade and then perform two dances at the festival.
"We stay very busy," said Walsh Kelley. "But the (students) have such an amazing bond and friendship that, for them, dancing is a social and emotional experience."
While the majority of her students are from 8 to 13 years old, Walsh Kelley also teaches students as young as 4 and older than 18.
"Some students are here to learn to dance competitively, but some are here just because it's fun," she said. "It's a great recreational activity and workout."
Walsh Kelley is the only instructor and teaches classes ranging from 45 to 90 minutes every day. The cost is $50 a month for once-weekly beginner classes, $60 a month for once-weekly advanced classes and $150 for unlimited classes.
Walsh Kelley said the unlimited classes usually are for those students competing in "Féis," or Irish dance competitions. She said sometimes they are in class seven to eight hours a week practicing.
"I don't think people realize how much stamina, determination and discipline it takes," said Walsh Kelley. "These kids love their art form. They take a lot of pride in it."
The school holds its own "Féile Rince Charlotte," or Charlotte Dance Festival, every June at the Blake Hotel. At last year's competition, 600 participants from the Southern region competed. Walsh Kelley said the event brought nearly 2,000 people to the area for the weekend.
The school brings eight certified adjudicators to judge the Féis. During the event, participants compete by dancing in lines, or groups, and in individual performances. Sometimes the lines can be as long as 199 dancers and are judged on posture, execution, timing and choreography.
"Posture is very important because as Irish dancers we don't look down at our feet and keep our entire upper body still," said Walsh Kelley. "Timing is also crucial, because (the competitors) are dancing in a line and need to keep up with the steps."
This year, the event will be held June 4 and 5 and will include musical competitions and performances. Vocalists and musicians will perform traditional Irish folk music.
Walsh Kelley also travels with her students to compete. Most recently, she and four of her students, ages 11-13, traveled to Killarney, Ireland, for the All Ireland Championship. Dancers from Ireland, New Zealand, England, Australia and the U.S. came to compete.
"The students were in awe of the dancing," said Walsh Kelly. "I tried to explain to them what it would be like but when they got out there it was totally different."
Although the four dancers didn't place, they did make it far enough to bring home three medals.
The experience "is about more than just placing," said Walsh Kelley. "It's about the memories they have of the trip ... about the shared time together and the friends they made."
Walsh Kelley said the students have come home more driven.
"They want to do better," she said. "They had never been around world champions, the cream of the crop. It inspired them."