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Central Minnesota's Irish Connection
By Marisa Helms
August 10, 2000
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Only about 16 percent of Minnesota's population traces its ancestry to Ireland. But the connection to Irish culture is strong, especially in Saint Paul. This summer, central Minnesota is getting a taste of things Irish with visiting theater artist Peter Quigley. Quigley, who's from Belfast, is an artist-in-residence at the Paramount Theatre in Saint Cloud. He's been giving classes on Shakespeare, mask making, and Irish stepdancing.
At the Stroia Ballet studios in Waite Park, just outside of Saint Cloud, Peter Quigley teaches a group how to look a little something like Riverdancers.
(MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)

PETER QUIGLEY is a long way from the streets of Belfast but this traditional Irish folkdancing style is now a familiar sight wherever he travels. Riverdance is Ireland's most visible export; the inescapable dance spectacle has been selling out theaters for several years across America.

At the Stroia Ballet studios in Waite Park, just outside of Saint Cloud, Quigley is teaching a group of mostly young girls, how to look a little something like Riverdancers. Flying feet and determined looks define the dancers as they work with Quigley on some pretty complicated step combinations.

Quigley explains this traditional dance is not too difficult to learn if you have a sense of rhythm because step dancing is rooted in just three or four basic steps. Telling characteristics of Irish stepdancing are a clomping sound of many feet in unison, and dancers who hold their arms straight and close to their bodies. Quigley says the practical reason for that is rooted in the past.

Quigley teaches the lore as well as the dance moves to his students. This studio in Waite Park is a converted industrial building, on the edge of a farm field. In it you'll find not just Quigley and his Irish stepdancers, but owner Carlos Stroia, who's from Romania. Stroia says having the Irish Quigley in town has inspired him to bring more international dance to his studio. It's the global scene for semi-rural Minnesota that Stroia envisioned 17 years ago when he set up shop.

"A lot of people say, 'Why here? Why not New York, Why not L.A. or San Francisco?'" he says. "If we all think that way, what about the rest of the world?" Especially when the world can come to Waite Park.

Six year old Kathryn Moehling admits she loves to wear her special-heeled dance shoes as much as she loves the dancing.

"When I'm dancing, I feel like I'm a professional dancer that I really would like to be," she says.

It's not just Kathryn Moehling who's enthusiastic. The interest in Irish step dancing is part of a pattern, says James Rogers, who works with the University of St Thomas Irish Studies program. He says Irish arts and culture are hot, both in academic study and the dance studio. Rogers says people are asking him all the time where they can learn how to "do Riverdance."

"I have backed away from my original rather arch-superior smug attitude toward Riverdance and I actually think it's a pretty wonderful thing," he says.

Rogers says the brilliance of Riverdance is also based on its interface between Ireland and other cultures. Riverdance mixes ancient celtic influences with calypso, tap dancing, and spirituals, giving it mass appeal.

Paramount Theater artist in residence Peter Quigley knows the value of those worldly influences. As a storyteller and traveler, Quigley's passing on a lively tradition of Irish stepdancing to eager students in a cornfield in Central Minnesota.