The earliest known reference of Irish Step Dancing in America occurs in Philadelphia in 1789 when dancing master John Durang demonstrated a reel, jig and hornpipe.The entertainer Barney Williams, a native of Cork, performed jigs on an off the stages across America. And Francis X. Hennessy taught step dancing in New York City before the turn of the century.(1) But the roots of Irish step dancing in the United States today date back to the late 1890s when Irish immigrants began to be influenced by the tenets of the Gaelic Revival. Important dancing schools were established in New York by James McKenna and Tommy Hill. These men were from Ireland's province of Munster, which was renowned for its traveling dancing masters in the nineteenth century.(2)
New York City held a feis as early as 1911. At the Great 1919 Feis held at Hunt's Point in New York City there were competitions for the hornpipe, double jig, slip jig, set pieces and three, four, six and eight-hand reels. During this period the undefeated champion in all the American men's competitions was Tommy Hill (born 1890)who had emigrated from Cork in 1911.(3) New York hosted a United States Championship as early as 1927. The United Irish Counties Association of New York held the first of more than fifty annual feiseanna at Wingate Field in Brooklyn in 1933(See 1934 & 1938 UIC Syllabus/Curtesy of Mrs. Sheila Keady)(from 1941 it was held on the grounds of Fordham University in the Bronx). (4) The art's profile was raised by the exhibitions of James McKenna's students at the 1939-1940 World's Fair in New York. In 1939 Tomas O'Faircheallaigh demonstrated Irish step dancing on CBS radio network's "Major Bowe's"program.(5)CBS also broadcast the first television appearance of Irish step dancers in 1945.
The Munster style of step dancing that dominated North America between 1890 and 1950 known for its fast, strong battering that was danced low to the floor, gradually shifted to the Ulster style that was danced at a slower pace that allowed for more complicated steps. In New York City it became synonymous with the teachers Peter and Cyril McNiff (RIP) who had emigrated to New York in 1948. Many popular national television programs regularly showcased the McNiff dancers in recognition of Irish step dancing as an entertainment commodity. As more new-style teachers emigrated from Ireland in the 1950's, young Americans like Peter Smithand Patsy Early changed schools, by the late 50's they themselves were teaching only the Ulster style.Irish step dancing is an art learned orally and by demonstration. It is passed on in genealogical fashion from teacher to student. The famous Kerry traveling dance master Jerry Molyneaux taught James McKenna (1885-1977) who emigrated in 1903 and set up a legendary dancing school in New York in 1910. McKenna's assistant Jerry Mulvihill (b.1921) opened his school in 1951, where Donny Golden (b. 1953) learned his first steps. Golden later changed teachers, learning the Ulster style from Jimmy Erwin, a former pupil of Cyril McNiff. In 1970 Donny Golden became the first North American dancer to ever place in the top three at the World Irish Dancing Championship.
The Irish Dancing Teachers Commission of America was founded in 1953 and in a landmark meeting in 1959 agreed to allow two tempi each for the jig, reel and hornpipe to accomodate the Munster and Ulster style. Although several attempts had been made to unite the Irish Dance Teachers already here in the United States,and correspondence with An Coimisiun had taken place in 1961, it was not until March 1964 that some teachers officially united and came under the umbrella of An Coimisiun. Teachers who were already teaching, Eugene O'Donnell, Maureen McErlean, Kathleen Collins, Peter Smith, Cyril McNiff and Una Ellis had tried unsuccesfully to bring teachers in the New York an surrounding area under An Coimisiun. In November of 1963, Cyril and Peter along with Anna Connaghan-O'Sullivan who had arrived in theUSA in October 1963, met in the Tuxedo Ballroom in New York City and tried once again to bring teachers underAn Coimisiun. This meeting ended in chaos and Cyril, Peter and Anna decided to wait until springtime to try once again to unite the teachers. Cyril and Peter contacted teachers again that a meeting was going to be held and asked them to attend. On a cold March evening six teachers met on the top floor at the former Irish Institute on 48th Street in Manhattan. Fedelmia Mullan Davis (Derry, who had arrived in the USA in January 1964), Kevin McKenna (Belfast),Cyril McNiff (Belfast), Anna O'Sullivan (Scotland), Phil Kearns (RIP/Scotland) and Peter Smith (New Jersey). The decision was made to call the new association The North American Irish Dancing Teachers Association. Due to adverse weather conditions in Toronto, Canada, Mae Butler (RIP)was stranded at the airport and did not make the first meeting. At this meeting it was decided that monthly meetings would take place in Manhattan regardless of the number attending. The associaton had a goal of assuring the competency of teachers and adjudicators and on developing a standarized syllabus, fair age categories, feis rules, awards, the establishment of solo categories and seperating boys and girls in open championship. These six teachers and Mae Butler established the Irish Dancing Teachers Association of North America to coordinate all aspects of Irish Step Dancing in North America.(6) Phil Kearns was elected President, Kevin McKenna Vice President, Anna Connaghan-O'Sullivan Recording Secretary and Fedelmia Mullan Davis Corresponding Secretary. Both Peter and Cyril were elected liaisons between the feiseanna. Unfortunately, shortly after the first meeting Phil Kearns had to resign due to ill health and Kevin assumed the presidency. Membership grew when other registered teachers joined the association, some of these included Una Ellis (New Jersey), Maureen McTeggart-Hall (Cork/California), Rita O'Shea (Galway/Massachusetts), Maureen McErlean (New Jersey), Peggy O'Neil(RIP/Kildare/Scotland/Washington D.C.) Noreen Flanagan-Duggan (Dublin), Maura O'Reilley (New Castle on Tyne).
In 1967 the IDTANA sponsored the first TCRG and ADCRG certification examinations ever held outside of Ireland. Some of the dancers who successfuly took the exams and joined the association were Dennis and Marge Dennehy, Jimmy Erwin, Mike Bergin and Peggy Bergin (RIP), Jim Madden, Stephen Carney (RIP), MaryAnne Griffith(RIP), Margie McNamara (RIP),Margaret Pike, Sheila Butler and Nancy Kennedy. On November 30, 1969 the IDTANA sponsored the First National Oireachtas Rince which also became the qualifier for the first World Championship to be held in Dublin. This was held in the Tower View Ballrom in Woodside, New York.The Chairman was Michael Bergin and the Co-Chair was Anna O'Sullivan. For a period of eight years this qualifying was held in New York, with dancers traveling from various parts of Canada and the United States. In 1976, An Coimisiun made the decision to create five regions in North America. These regions were to run their own qualifiers for future World Competitions. In 1981 at an Eastern Reginal meeting Patsy McLoughlin made a motion that was passed unanimously that the members of the Eastern Region should revive the North American Championships and that they should be held annually, rotating the location amongst the regions in North America. In 1981 after a lapse of five years the North American Championships were held at the Meadowland Hilton, in New Jersey hosted by the Eastern Region.
Special thanks to Anna O'sullivan, ADCRG AND Fedelmia Davis, ADCRG for their recollection of the establishment of the IDTANA
Special thanks to J.J. Lee and Marion R. Casey who compiled these facts in "Making the Irish American", 2006
1) John Cullinane, Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing in North America, 1997
2) Cullinane, Aspects
3) George Daly, "Life story of Prof. Thomas P. Hill" in Souvenir Journal for the 21st Annual Ball of the Tommy Hill Association, 1937
4) Cullinane, Aspects
5) John Cullinane, Futher Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing, 1990
6) Previous to the establishment of the IDTANA the feiseanna were run by their organizers. The Gaelic League Feis used former dancers who had immigrated from Ireland as their adjudicators. UIC would have former dancers and Aer Lingus stewardesses some whom had never danced as their adjudicators. There was no solo categories such has beginner, advanced beginner, etc. Everyone danced in his/hers age groups. Age groups were usually under 10, 13, 16 and 16 and over. Only first, second and third where awarded, even in competitions with over 100 dancers. Results were never anounced on the day of the feis and dancers would have to wait a week or two for the Irish Echo to publish the results. In the mid to late sixties other organizations began running feiseanna and they were all held outdoor in the summer. Around this time Anna O'Sullivan held the first of many annual class feiseanna. Shorthly thereafter Fidelmia Davis ran her first feis. These were the first teachers organized feiseanna to be held indoor.