High kicking the Irish way at the Kennedy Center

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Entertainment,Music,Marie Gullard

Sean Culkin, founder of the Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance, delivers an interesting anecdote for St. Patrick's Day.

"The late great Irish musician Joe Cooley once said that Irish music was the only music that brought people to their senses," Culkin notes, adding, "There is an instant uplifting feel to the music."

Nearly 40 dancers -- all champions -- from his school perform Sunday on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. Theirs will be an uplifting celebration of an art form dating to the 14th century, complete with a variety of jigs and reels, group and individual performance.

"The music is so special and the dancing so rhythmic, and it's presented in such a way that people are enthralled by it," says Culkin, who began his dancing career at age 6 and started his school (now with 400 students, ages 5 to adult, taking lessons in six area locations) in 1997. "Audiences look at it and say, 'Wow, what's this?' "

Onstage
Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance
» Where: Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, 2700 F St. NW
» When: 6 p.m. Sunday
» Info: Free; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324; kennedy-center.org

"This" is a variety of steps performed in seemingly limitless combinations to the beats of both jigs in fast 6/8 timing, along with reels in what Culkin calls common timing.

His dancers are as beautifully costumed as they are precise, performing both in hard shoe (step dancing, for example) and in soft shoe. Culkin's preferred method of musical accompaniment is live fiddle and accordion, but he often travels with recorded music, which will be used for the Millennium Stage performance. He cites the dancers' discipline and complete adherence to timing as paramount.

"My choreography, what I'm thinking in my head, is a reel; a jig is separate," Culkin continues. "The music tells you what you can and can't do. But the jig is the oldest piece of Irish music that we have."

Culkin keeps his students busy performing. In addition to the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Gaithersburg, where all 400 students are invited to march and dance, there are the World Championships next week in Boston, where 14 of his solo dancers and six teams will compete.

For Culkin, each performance is a special opportunity to share Irish dance and music with the world, which he calls "an incredible cultural gift."

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Marie Gullard

Special to The Washington Examiner
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