Stompin’ on the Westside
Irish step enthusiasts bring Emerald Isle culture to Atlanta
STORY: H.M. Cauley
PHOTO: Stephen Payne
In 1995, when Riverdance ignited a mania for Irish dance, Emma Burke and Erin Connolly were part of the craze. Both Burke, born in Dublin, and Connolly, born in Toronto to Irish parents, came to Atlanta as youngsters and became fast friends in dance class.
Together, they worked their way through various levels of serious competition, but eventually life intervened. Burke headed to Mercer law school; Connolly went to the University of Illinois for a master’s in architecture.
After 10 years of being Facebook friends, the two reconnected about seven years ago and found they were still mad about Irish dance.
“Erin said she missed it and asked if I wanted to start teaching together,” says Burke. “I thought of it as a hobby. We started one day a week at a church hall in Virginia-Highland, but it soon grew to two nights. Then we added a westside location.”
That was six years ago. Now, the Atlanta Irish Dance by Burke Connolly studio on 14th Street pulses seven days a week with more than 100 students stomping and pounding to the distinctive dance form, often compared to tap or clogging.
“In Irish dance, we don’t use our arms, only feet,” says Connolly. “There’s a heavy rhythm, and it’s about the different types of tap you do with your feet. It’s very athletic.”
In fact, Irish dance is considered more of a sport than a cultural art form, says Burke. “It’s treated like that all over the world. There are schools in China, Germany, Eastern Europe, New Zealand. It requires a high level of athleticism to get this fast-paced, very rhythmic style down.”
The partners have found no shortage of Atlantans from 4 years old through adulthood who want to master the intricate and demanding moves. And being Irish has nothing to do with it.
“One of our top dancers is of Jamaican descent,” says Burke. “The vast majority of kids have seen a performance live or online, and when they tell their parents, ‘I want to do this,’ a lot of parents don’t even know what it is. Many kids tired of ballet, or found it boring, but develop a love and passion for the artistry and athleticism Irish dance combines.”
Neither Burke nor Connolly compete anymore. Burke, a new mom who lives in Buckhead, recently gave up her law practice, and Connolly, who lives in Ormewood Park, is the mother of three younger than 5. But both have left their professional careers to focus on the dance studio. In that capacity, they travel to competitions around the world as coaches of budding talent.
“We’re both certified with the governing body of Irish dance that permits us to teach and compete,” says Burke. “Our passion is with the kids.”
On November 6 and 13, the partners are giving shoppers at the Ponce City Market farmers market a display of the talent they’re coaching. And they’re offering mini-lessons to give kids and adults alike an idea of what it takes to be an Irish dancer.
“As yet, we haven’t not been able to teach anyone to Irish dance,” says Burke. “It’s all about coming with an open mind.”
Atlanta Irish Dance by Burke Connolly
349 14th St., 30318