Irish dance stepping up

Interest in traditional Irish stepdance simmered for many years in New Orleans before the runaway hit show Riverdance in 1994 propelled its stature to new heights. As with so much else however, the displacement and upheaval of Hurricane Katrina derailed that momentum, scattering many of its young and seasoned local practitioners.

But there has been a marked resurgence in the ancient dance form around town these days, thanks to a one-time child prodigy of Irish dance turned teacher. This spring, New Orleans native Joni Muggivan opened her Muggivan School of Irish Dance in a new storefront studio at 901 Veterans Memorial Blvd. in Metairie, giving local Irish dance its highest public profile and most accessible home yet. Muggivan has long taught others, but previously did so from rented space in ballet studios or similar venues.

“People come because they want to engage their Irish heritage, or because their kids saw it somewhere, fell in love with it and now won’t stop dancing,” says Muggivan. “People get so passionate about it, but it’s still the situation where many don’t even know this is out there. That’s why the new studio is so exciting.” 

Muggivan, now 30, started in Irish stepdance at age 4 when it was practically unknown in the region. The scarcity of local teachers meant she had to travel the country to attend workshops and cultivate her talent. By 1998 she became the first Louisiana dancer to compete at the World Championships in Ireland, and she has taken home numerous competitive awards and honors. Today, her students dance at cultural festivals, parades, private parties, museums and concert halls, and they too travel the country for competitions.

The upper body control, the timing and style coordinated with the traditional Irish music, and most of all the quick, precise foot movements give Irish stepdance qualities of art and sport, Muggivan says. Throw in the competitive factor, with dancers traveling around the country to vie for titles, and the costumes and deep cultural roots stretching back to early Celtic ways, and stepdance can become magnetic for its diverse range of devotees.
“Most dancers are very, very fit people, and it becomes so much fun when you reach a certain level with it. There are people who really can’t stop, they’re doing their steps in the grocery store and everywhere else,” she says.

Muggivan also runs schools in Texas and Virginia. For more information, visit www.muggivanschoolofirishdance.com.

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