Irish dancing is a very important part of the heritage and culture of Ireland and the Irish-American community, and no one knows that better than Patsy McLoughlin.
Patsy Early McLoughlin founded her school of Irish dance in 1968 in Inwood, New York, and now, 50 years later, she still teaches her students that Irish dance is as much about family and friendship as it is about slip-jigs and set dances.
The years have “gone by in a flash,” said Patsy when we spoke on the phone recently.
Much has changed in the more than 50 years since Patsy first set up her school. The Riverdance and Lord of the Dance phenomena of the 1990s took the world by storm, increasing enrollment and attracting students from different ethnic groups. “They weren’t of Irish heritage, but they loved the dance.” And the dancing itself changed. “It’s become as much a sport as an art form. You’ve got to train like an athlete if you want to be up on that top podium, as well as learn all your dance steps and make it look good,” says Patsy.
Over the years, many of Patsy’s students have been up on that winner’s podium as regional and national champions. And in 1997, McLoughlin dancer Theresa O’Sullivan became the first American female to win the world championships in Irish dance.
But winning isn’t everything. At the McLoughlin School, the teachers maintain a healthy balance of competition and comradery. “We don’t make kids compete. If they want to – yes, then go for it. And obviously, we’re training them to be the best prepared for that competition. But if winning takes over the emphasis on enjoyment, you lose the sense of kindness and community that is the essence of Irish dance,” says Patsy.
The number of competitions has grown tremendously since Patsy started out. There are 200 dance competitions scheduled for the U.S. and Canada for 2019. Compare that to when Patsy herself was a student in the 1950s and ’60s. “There were three or four local competitions in a whole year. You had the Gaelic League Feis and the United Irish Counties Feis, and most were held outside,” Patsy recalls with a trace of nostalgia in her voice. “There was no schedule – you went to the feis when it started in the morning and stayed all day. There were always races, music, singing competitions – the kids took part in everything. It was a whole day of activity.” Dancing competitions were announced as the day progressed, with the senior championship dancers at the end. “If the day ran long, cars would be driven up to the side stage and we’d dance in the headlights.”
Results came later – four days later or longer. “My father would get up at five o’clock in the morning the Wednesday after a feis when the Irish Echo newspaper was delivered. He would come home, wake me up, and tell me I got third in my jig.”
Born in Manchester, England, to Irish parents, Patsy began learning the fast-paced, hard-hitting, traditional Munster style of Irish dance at six years old. When the family immigrated – first to Massachusetts, then to New York – she continued to study dance with the legendary James McKenna who emigrated in 1903 and set up a dancing school in New York in 1910. However, when Patsy first saw the McNiff Dancers at the United Irish Counties Feis, she fell in love with the new style of Irish dance that brothers Peter and Cyril McNiff had popularized in New York: a slower-paced Northern-Irish interpretation of the dance that allowed for more complicated steps and lighter, more graceful movements. Patsy was soon taking classes from Peter Smith, a student of McNiff school. Her younger brother Jimmy and younger sister Karen also began classes.
Patsy loved the new style of dance so much that she would get to class early and help with the beginners. Eventually she ended up taking over entire classes and assisting with the school in general.
“I just loved it. Having my own school was something I always wanted.” She was barely out of her teens when she opened her school, which became the Early-McLoughlin School when she married Chris McLoughlin, an immigrant from Belfast. Her brother Jimmy came on as a teacher eight years later, followed by her sister Karen Conway and fellow champion dancer of Peter Smith’s Elaine Greenan. They continue to teach together to this day.
As Patsy’s own family grew, she moved to New Jersey and eventually moved her classes there, too. Currently, the school offers classes for students ranging from beginners to open championship dancers five evenings per week in five locations in New Jersey and New York. Patsy taught her own three children to dance – her daughter Deirdre won her first national title at nine years old and her grandson competed in his first world championship this year. More than 20 of Patsy’s students have gone on to become teachers and adjudicators, some even opening their own schools.
The newest dancers, however, still hold a special place in Patsy’s heart. “When the little ones come in and don’t know their right foot from their left, and you think maybe they’re never going to get it – and then suddenly it clicks and they’re dancing! I’m as proud of them as I am of the champion dancers.”
At Patsy’s classes, seasoned dancers are expected to encourage and support their newest team members, and a competition achievement for one is an achievement for all.
It’s that sense of family that has former students often returning to help with classes, enroll their own children, and even come back to teach. “When my daughter expressed an interest in Irish dance, there was no question but I was bringing her to Patsy,” says Linda Walsh. “She embodies it all – the dance, the culture, family and community involvement. She’s always cooking a meal or visiting someone who needs looking after.”
Patsy’s caring nature is something she inherited from her parents. “Even when we lived in a three-room apartment in the city, if there was somebody out from Ireland who didn’t have a place to stay or didn’t have a Thanksgiving dinner, they were welcome,” she remembers.
Her parents drew tremendous enjoyment out of Patsy’s dancing. “My father used to come to the school dance and talk to everybody. He really, really loved it, so I guess that was where we got the love of all this from as well. I’ll never regret that they put us into dancing – it not only gave me a career, but over 50 years of friendships.”
In celebration of this golden milestone, Patsy was honored at the Mid-Atlantic Region Oireachtas (Irish dance championships) and named the 2019 grand marshal of the Bergen County, N.J., St. Patrick’s Day parade. Decades of former students also gathered to celebrate her at the school’s annual dinner dance, including Cherish the Ladies’ frontwoman Joanie Madden. “I, too, took Irish dancing with Patsy McLoughlin. And I wanted to be here to say a huge congratulations to Patsy. Hasn’t she done an amazing job? What a legacy she’s created.” ♦