Mary Kay Heneghan calls it the journey of Irish dance, the path taken by the high-stepping students of Rince Na Tiarna. Many of her dancers begin lessons at age 4 learning in Gaelic to count the steps they will perform on stage. Heneghan, 46, started Rince Na Tiarna 27 years ago, taking its name from a Gaelic phrase that means “Lord of the Dance.”
Each week Heneghan teaches at one of five locations, splitting her time among South Buffalo, Williamsville, Kenmore, East Aurora and Erie, Pa. Performing the individual dances may take only 90 seconds, but the learning process requires hours of drilling that will build muscle as well as confidence. Heneghan’s success may best be measured by the skills of her students who have won solo and group titles competing on an international stage.
Next week, Heneghan will take her troupe to Boston to compete in the World Irish Dancing Championships, often called the Olympics of dance. Today, some of her students will be performing in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which kicks off at 2 p.m. from Niagara Square on Delaware Avenue.
People Talk: What kind of dancer were you?
Mary Kay Heneghan: I wasn’t really pushed competitively, and I really wish I was. I always wonder, what if? We would go to the competitions, and we would never do well. My parents’ perspective was also different from a lot of the parents. School always came first. It wasn’t like we would drive to New York for a competition. My mom made my dress. Now it’s a whole new ballgame.
PT: How has Irish dance changed?
MKH: “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance” made it popular, which is great, but now the competition side which I love – the dresses and the wigs – are so expensive. I look at these beautiful girls and they put these wigs on.
PT: Did you wear curly wigs?
MKH: No. It was the ’80s and I had a perm, and I would wear my hair off my face. Then they decided it would look like we bounced more if we had curly hair because Irish girls all had this wavy pretty hair. But where do the parents have the time to roll their daughter’s hair? Then came the wigs.
PT: So you wished it wouldn’t have gone this way?
MKH: Yeah. I always feel terrible when I see a really talented kid, and their parents can’t afford the $2,000 dress. Not all of them cost that much. My beginner dresses cost $70, and you can resell them, but the next level is $495. Then you get the kids who are going to the World Championships. Their dresses come in from Ireland, and it’s 1,500 British Pound Sterling, and covered with Swarovski crystals. On stage it sparkles. They’re original for every child. The kids pick their favorite styles, designs. The wigs cost about $100.
PT: Don’t you love the beginners?
MKH: I love when I have kids who walk into their first dance class and don’t know anything and they leave knowing just a step of the jig that they will show their teachers on St. Patrick’s Day at school. Whether they look like dancing leprechauns, I just love that because it’s a first step on the road.
PT: Which is a better workout: Irish dance or aerobics?
MKH: They’re different workouts. They’re both aerobic but the amount of muscle you use – the abuse on your feet from Irish dancing – makes it different. But it’s good cardio. We do stamina training where we dance their full routine three times in a row without stopping.
PT: Are there stage mothers?
MKH: Oh yeah. I love a parent who is supportive of their child. It’s when there’s a disconnect between what the child and parent want to do. Stage parents won’t let the child enjoy that journey. They need to control things, and children need to earn things. Don’t just buy them that $2,000 dress.
PT: What can go wrong in competition?
MKH: Endless possibilities. You may be dancing onstage with someone who stops and throws up, and you’ll have to come back and re-dance. You’ll have two to three dancers performing at a time on stage in front of three to seven judges.
So you have to make sure you’re noticed by each judge while avoiding bumping into the other girls. It becomes a precarious dance.
PT: What did you learn about reality TV from your appearance on TLC’s “The Big Jig”?
MKH: It’s real but it’s definitely directed, and I wanted to protect the legacy of Irish dancing. I did not want it to become another “Toddlers & Tiaras.” These kids were very realistic about the way they perform. I don’t know what it is about the discipline of Irish dance, but there’s such a respect. So no one will be stealing someone’s shoes. It’s a different kind of climate, and that’s one of the things the producers were saying: They had never come across such well-behaved children.
PT: Explain the significance of international competitions.
MKH: You have people from all over the world who slowly work their way toward qualifying for this event. Dancers from Shanghai, South Africa. There will be 2,600 competitors. We have an entire Eastern Europe council that promotes Irish dance in Russia, Germany and the Netherlands.
PT: What role does dancing play in students’ lives?
MKH: They come in and have fun and they stay and learn something. I’ve had so many of my own students take their teaching exams and open their own schools. There’s one in Texas, one in Connecticut and several in Buffalo alone. Most of them end up staying and teaching for me.
As a female business owner, I like being a role model to young ladies. You can pick whatever path you want in life. I’m not married; I don’t have children. The parents may not always like my decisions, but I’m not some crazy lunatic.
PT: You have a degree in counseling. How often do you use it?
MKH: It comes in handy when dealing with teenage girls, and their parents. It helps me keep my cool.
PT: How do you vent?
MKH: Boot camps and yoga. I love being in someone else’s class.