An annual competition hosted by a Charlotte-based Irish dance school is changing locations this year.
Last year, the school Rince na h’Eireann attracted so many dancers from the Carolinas it moved its South Charlotte site to the Charlotte Rugby Center on South Tryon Street near Interstate 77.
This year, Charlotte Feis (pronounced “fesh”), RNE’s annual competition, has gotten so large it is changing venues.
Marking its 15th anniversary, the Charlotte Feis will be held Nov. 7 at the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center in Concord after spending more than a decade at the Hilton Charlotte University Place.
“We’ve been preparing for this (feis) for a while because our school is hosting it,” said 13-year-old dancer Shay Rooney. “But it’s also good practice for us with regionals coming up in December.”
Rince na h’Eireann, which translates from Irish Gaelic to Dance of Ireland, is the name of the schools owned and operated by 51-year-old Fort Mill resident Sandra Connick, a native of Ireland. There are RNE locations in Huntersville, Raleigh, Columbia, and Spartanburg serving about 250 students.
When RNE students compete, they perform under the name Lynn-O’Grady-Quinlan-Connick School, which is a conglomerate of Irish dance schools reaching to New York state. Connick is well-connected to the Irish Dancing Commission (CLRG), the sanctioning body in Ireland that governs the feises in which RNE students compete.
RNE students are in the midst of their competition season that spans from September to December. The Charlotte Feis serves as a warm-up to the Southern Regional Oirechtas competition that will be held in early December in Dallas, Texas.
“This competition is just before our regionals,” said 12-year-old Maggie Olsen, a soloist who competed at the world competitions three years ago. “It’s a foreshadowing of how we’ll do at our regional and will tell us if we need to practice more.”
Dancers will compete in six solo levels and with small and large teams. To prepare, high level competitors may spend upwards of 15 hours a week practicing.
Irish dance competitions are marked by the decorative cultural costumes the dancers wear and their elaborate hairstyles, which are often supplemented by wigs. Dancers say it can take more than an hour to get the right look.
RNE students participated in a feis in Greensboro three weeks ago hosted by Charlotte’s other Irish dance school, The Walsh Kelley School in South Charlotte and owned and operated by Connick’s sister, Aine Walsh Kelley.
Connick opened RNE in 1994, a couple years after moving to Charlotte from Ireland with her family. By the late 1990s, a growth in Irish dance’s appeal was generated by the popularity of the Riverdance and Lord of the Dance stage shows.
“I went to a performance of Riverdance,” said 12-year old Kailey Britt. “I was mesmerized by it.”
Connick doesn’t advertise her school much. People learn about the school when they attend performances held at Irish pubs, parades, school assemblies, cultural events and halftimes of professional and college basketball games in the Charlotte area.
Pam Pierce met Connick at a St. Patrick’s Day parade in the early 1990s. Both women grew up in Ireland and were Irish dancers through their teen years. Pierce eventually quit her job to become a full-time dance instructor at RNE.
“To me, it’s a total cultural experience,” said Pierce, who lives in the University City area. “We have a lot of children that have Irish ancestors … It’s grown so much. We dance at parties, weddings, and wakes.”
Joe Habina is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.