Archive for Sunday, December 9, 2001

Dancers give new life to old Irish steps

December 9, 2001


Jean Denney's black dance shoes show the wear and tear of her profession.

Their fiberglass reinforced heels and tips have been eroded by drums, cross keys, rallies, rocks, butterflies and boxes the basic foot movements in Irish step dancing. A piece of gray duct tape binds one shoe, while the other is cinched tightly by laces.

Battered shoes are a sign of the passion Denney has for Irish step dancing and her own style of choreography that blends the traditional form with elements of modern, tap and jazz.

"I'm thinking about creating a dance company," she said. "But space is hard to find in Lawrence."

After leaving her position as a program consultant with the Kansas Arts Commission a few months ago, Denney has resurrected the Denney School of Irish Dance and is commuting to Overland Park to teach classes in the basement studio of a ballet teacher's home.

Inspiring others

Denney also teaches a handful of private dance students, including Kansas University dance majors Jeff Potter and Christine Scott. On this day, the trio is practicing step sequences to music created by Denney's husband, fiddler Dan Grotewohl, in the Elizabeth Sherbon Dance Theatre in the Robinson Center at KU.

Grotewohl, who describes himself as a "greengrass" rather than a bluegrass player, said he enjoys working with the dancers.

"I crave to see visual interpretations (of the music)," he said.

In turn, Denney's creativity is fed by the melodies.

"I'm driven by the music," she said, describing how she creates her Irish step dances. "I'm more collaborative than dictatorial."

After connecting to the emotion or ideas of the music, she advances into the movement phase of the choreography, tapping into skills and techniques she has learned over the years while welcoming input from individual dancers.

Potter, 19, who grew up in Great Bend and taught himself the basics of Irish step dancing from a video, said his dancing has improved since he began studying with Denney more than a year ago.

"Since I've been working with her, I've come a long way," he said.

In her roots

Denney, who grew up in Fredericksburg, Va., said she was introduced to Irish step dancing through her family.

"I come from a revival household," she said.

She remembers going to Irish ceili dancing classes with her parents, and learning to Irish step dance at the age of 12 in the kitchen of a family friend. After her family moved to Washington, D.C., she started taking dance lessons and began performing in parades.

"(Irish step dancing) was very clandestine until 'Riverdance,'" she said. "But there's thousands of dancers in the United States."

Denney directed the Denney School of Irish Dance from 1988 to 1993 in Baltimore and York, Pa., and was artistic director/choreographer for Damhsoiri Duibhne and the Celtic Company from 1990 to 1993.

"Then I left Irish dancing," she said.

She earned a master's degree in modern dance from Arizona State University and became a certified movement analyst with the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies.

Denney was drawn back into Irish step dancing because the art form is grounded in social interaction. Over the years, she has danced at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Smithsonian Institution and numerous folk festivals in the United States and Canada. She has performed with the Chieftains, Billy McComiskey and others.

In addition to starting a dance company, she and her husband are working to establish the Tallgrass Folk Project, a nonprofit folk arts agency for the promotion and preservation of traditional music and dance. More information about the project is available at

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