A brief history of the Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America
The Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America, Inc. (IDTANA) is a not-for-profit, members-only organization which accepts registration applications from all teachers and/or adjudicators of Irish Dance who live and work in North America (including the USA, Canada, and Mexico) and who are certified as teachers/adjudicators by An Coimisiun le RInci Gaelacha (CLRG; The Irish Dance Commission), which is based in Dublin, Ireland.
The IDTANA came into existence in March 1964, when a small group of Irish Dance teachers from across North America officially organized as The North American Irish Dancing Teachers Association (NAIDTA) and confirmed their affiliation with CLRG. There had been previous attempts to organize teachers of Irish Dance in North America, but this was the first time that an official organization which was brought into existence continued to operate actively.
The IDTANA continues to operate successfully to this day and has over 1,000 members across North America.
Before the 1950s
The earliest known reference to Irish step dancing in America occurred in Philadelphia in 1789, when dancing master John Durang is said to have demonstrated a reel, a jig, and a hornpipe. Other early accounts include the entertainer Barney Williams, a native of Cork, who performed jigs on and off stages across America, as well as Francis Hennessy who taught step dancing in New York City before the turn of the century. However, the more concrete roots of Irish step dancing in the United States today date back to the late 1890’s, when Irish immigrants began to be influenced by the tenets of the Gaelic Revival movement emanating from Ireland. During this time, important dancing schools were established in New York by James McKenna and Tommy Hill. Both of these men were from Ireland’s province of Munster, which was renowned for its traveling dancing masters in the nineteenth century.
New York City was an early hotspot for competitive Irish dancing in North America, and conducted a feis as early as 1911. The “Great 1919 Feis,” which was held at Hunt’s Point and included competitions for the hornpipe, double jig, slip jig, set pieces, as well as three-hands, four-hands, six-hands, and eight-hand reels. During this early period, the most known and undefeated champion in all of the American men’s competitions was Tommy Hill (born 1890), who had emigrated from Cork in 1911. As the competitive scene began to grow, New York hosted a “United States Championship” competition as early as 1927. Soon after, the United Irish Counties Association of New York held more than eighty annual feiseanna at Wingate Field in Brooklyn, starting in 1933. From 1941 onwards, the feis was held on the grounds of Fordham University, located in the Bronx. Around this time period, the profile of Irish Dancing as an art form was elevated by the exhibition of James McKenna’s students at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York. At the same time, in 1939 Tomas O’Faircheallaigh demonstrated Irish step dancing on the CBS radio network’s “Major Bowe’s Program”, which was later broadcasted again by CBS in 1945 to become the very first televised appearance of Irish step dancers.
The Munster style of Irish step dancing that dominated North America between 1890 and 1950 was known for its fast, strong, and battering rhythms made close to the floor. The trend gradually shifted to the Ulster style dancing, which was performed at a slower speed, allowing for more complicated steps. In New York City, that style became synonymous with teachers Peter and Cyril McNiff, along with their sister Joan, who had emigrated to New York in 1948. Many popular national television programs showcased the McNiff dancers in recognition of Irish step dancing as an entertainment commodity. As more teachers who represented this new style emigrated from Ireland in the 1950’s, young American dancers such as Peter Smith and Patsy Early changed to schools teaching this new style, and by the late 1950’s they themselves were teaching only the Ulster style.
Traditionally, Irish Dancing is an art form learned orally and by demonstration, which is passed down in genealogical fashion from teacher to student. An interesting lineage for Irish dancing in North America is that of the famous traveling dance master Jerry Molyneaux, who emigrated to New York from County Kerry in 1903 and set up a legendary dance school in New York City in 1910. Jerry Molyneaux was the teacher of James McKenna (1885-1977), who produced an assistant named Jerry Mulvihill (b.1923), who later opened up his own dance school in 1951. Donny Golden (b.1953), who in 1970 became the first North American dancer ever to place in the top three at the World Championships, learned his first steps at that school and later changed to learn the Ulster style from Jimmy Irwin, who was a former pupil of Cyril McNIff.
Emergence of the NAIDTA
As an early attempted organization of teachers of Irish dance, The Irish Dancing Teachers Commission of North America was founded in 1953. In a landmark meeting held in 1959, the organization agreed to allow two tempos for the reel, treble jig, and hornpipe, in order to help accommodate both the Munster and Ulster styles of dancing, however the dancing community was still very fragmented. Several attempts were made over the following years to better unite the Irish dance teachers who were in the United States, and after years of work and correspondence with CLRG (which is recorded to have taken place in 1963), it was not until March 1964 that some teachers officially became part of the organizational umbrella of CLRG.
Teachers who were already teaching in the United States at that time included Eugene O’Donnell, Una Ellis, Maureen McErlean, Kathleen Collins, Cyril McNiff, and Peter Smith. They had previously tried to unite the teachers in New York and surrounding areas under the CLRG organization, but they were unfortunately unsuccessful. In November of 1963, Cyril and Peter, along with Anna Connaghan-O’Sullivan who came from Scotland in October 1963, tried their best to bring North American teachers under the direction of CLRG. However, that meeting ended in chaos, and Cyril, Peter, and Anna decided to wait until the spring to try once again. Cyril and Peter invited the teachers once more to a meeting in March 1964, in order to make one final attempt to have them discuss a formal unification under the CLRG structure.
On that cold March night, six teachers met on the top floor of the former Irish Institute on 48th Street in Manhattan. Those present were Fedelmia Mullan Davis, Kevin McKenna, Cyril McNiff, Anna Connaghan-O’Sullivan, Phil Kearns, and Peter Smith. Due to the adverse weather conditions, Mae Butler, who had planned to attend and be part of the meeting in favor of creating the organization, was stranded in Canada and was unable to attend.
The meeting was a success, and these seven pioneering teachers established a new organization to better coordinate all aspects of Irish dancing in North America.
The decision was made to call the new organization the “North American Irish Dancing Teacher Association” (NAIDTA). At this historical meeting, several goals were established, including:
- Monthly meetings in Manhattan, regardless of the number of teachers or members attending
- Ensuring the competency of both teachers and adjudicators
- Developing a standard syllabus, which included fair age categories, consistent feis rules, and standards for awards
- The establishment of appropriate solo dancing categories
- Separating boys and girls in open championship competitions
Early Years and Name Change
Phil Kearns was elected as the first President of the NAIDTA, Kevin McKenna elected as the first Vice President, Anna Connaghan-O’Sullivan as the first Recording Secretary, and Fedelmia Mullan-Davis as the first Corresponding Secretary. Cyril McNiff and Peter Smith were elected to be the organization’s liaisons to all feiseanna. Unfortunately, shortly after the first meeting of the NAIDTA, Phil Kearns was forced to resign his position due to health reasons, and so Kevin McKenna assumed the role of President.
As time went on, the membership began to grow as more teachers started to join the NAIDTA. Among these early members were Una Ellis, Maureen McTeggart-Hall, Rita O’Shea Chaplin, Maureen McErlean, Peggy O’Neill, Noreen Flanagan-Duggan, and Maura O’Reilley.
It was later decided to change the name of the organization to the “Irish Dance Teachers Association of North America” (IDTANA), and under this new name the organization was officially chartered in the State of Illinois, and became a not-for-profit organization recognized by the United States government. The IDTANA name has continued as the official and legal name of the organization to the present day.
Early Certification Exams
In 1967, the IDTANA working with CLRG, sponsored the very first exams held in North America to certify Irish dance teachers and adjudicators. Among those who successfully passed their exams at that time were Dennis Dennehy, Marge Dennehy, Mike Bergin, Peggy Bergin, Jim Madden, Steve Carney, Jimmy Irwin, Mary Anne Griffith, Margie McNamara, Margaret Pike, Sheila Butler, and Nancy Kennedy.
The First Major Competitions
On November 30th, 1969, the IDTANA sponsored the first National Oireachtas Rince, which was held in the Tower Ballroom in Woodside, NY. This major competition was chaired by Mike Bergin and co-chaired by Anna Connaghan-O’Sullivan, and became the first qualifier for the first ever World Irish Dance Championships in 1970, which was held in Dublin over the Easter holiday.
For the next eight years, the National Oireachtas Rince was held in New York as a World Championship qualifying event for North Americans, which attracted Irish dancers from all across the USA and Canada to travel and compete.
Creation of the Regions
In 1976, CLRG decided to create five geographical regions in North America for Irish dancing. The five regions were the New England Region, Eastern Region, Mid-America Region, Western Region, and the Canada Region.
CLRG took this crucial step in the interest of equity for dancers across North America. This new structure would allow each region to qualify dancers to compete at the World Championships by competing against dancers in their own areas, instead of qualifying dancers from the North American entire continent at a single event. Having the regions qualify dancers also mirrored more closely the practice for qualifying dancers from the regions and provinces in Ireland as well as England. As a result of this change to regional qualifiers, the National Oireachtas Rince competition was retired in 1976.
Eventually, these regions grew and were split into the seven regions we have today; the New England Region, Mid-Atlantic Region, Southern Region (which includes Mexico), Mid-America Region, Western US Region, Western Canadian Region, and the Eastern Canadian Region.
Origins of the North American Irish Dance Championships
In 1981, at a meeting of the teacher members in the Eastern Region, Patsy McLaughlin made a motion that the members should revive the National Oireachtas Rince and name the event the “North American Irish Dance Championships” (NAIDC). She further moved that this event should be held annually and should rotate locations among the seven regions in North America. Her motions were successful! These motions were then shared with the other regions in North America, who all agreed to support, sponsor, and participate in this new annual event.
In July 1981, after a five year hiatus from a national level competition, the North American Irish Dance Championships were hosted by the Eastern Region at the Meadowlands Hilton Hotel complex in New Jersey.
History Since the 1980s
Presidents of IDTANA
All information found here was received from a variety of sources, who graciously provided this information for the use of the organization in compiling its history. Editing was done to help with tone, structure, and flow. We wish to give credit to:
Dr. John Cullinane, SDCRG, Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing in North America, 1997.
Dr. John Cullinane, SDCRG, Further Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing, 1990.
J. J. Lee and Marion R. Casey, Making the Irish American, 2006.
George Daly, The Life Story of Thomas P. Hill, found in a souvenir journal for the 21st Annual Ball of the Thomas Hill Association, 1937.
Interviews and notes compiled based upon conversations with Fedelmia Mullan Davis (RIP) and Anna Connaghan-O’Sullivan.
Notes prepared by Michael Bergin, SDCRG, for various publications over the organization’s history.
The website of the Mid-Atlantic Region of the IDTANA “About Us” section.
Lastly, we wish to extend our many thanks to Russell Beaton, SDCRG – former President of IDTANA – for his generous help in compiling this history!