Author Archive | Julia Cost

Murphy Irish Dancers: A Family Tradition

The Bay Area based Irish dance company, Murphy Irish Dancers, is family-run and family-oriented. Founded in 1963 by Mary Jo Murphy-Feeney, today she and her daughter Patricia Feeney-Conefrey are co-artistic directors, and among their many students are Murphy-Feeney’s grandchildren. Besides Murphy-Feeney and Feeney-Conefrey, there are two other faculty, Paddy Naughton and Ellen O’Connor, both of whom were Murphy-Feeney’s students since they were five years old. All four women are TCRGs, which means that they have been registered as teachers of Irish dance by the Commission in Dublin, Ireland after passing a difficult three-day exam, thereby proving they can both do and teach every dance in a certified book of Irish dances. Together these four women teach hundreds of students ages four to forty-four in six locations: the DSG studio in San Francisco, Molloy’s Tavern in Colma, the Lions Club in Burlingame, The American Legion Hall in San Bruno, and the recreation departments in San Carlos and San Mateo.

For Murphy-Feeney, Irish dancing has forever been the passion and trajectory of her life, and it has always been highly intertwined with family. Her earliest memories are of parties at her house in San Francisco, in which her mother, an immigrant from Cork, Ireland, taught her dance steps in the kitchen, while other family members played Irish music. She began taking Irish dance lessons as a little girl, and started gaining teaching experience at an unusually young age. Throughout grade school, the Irish nuns at her school encouraged her to teach dance steps to her classmates in their weekly folk dancing lessons. When she entered high school she became close friends with a group of girls who were all dedicated to Irish dancing. They made an arrangement with Irish fiddler Paddy O’Regan in San Francisco to drive them to Alameda every Thursday night to take Irish dance lessons from Annie Slattery, an Irish dancer and immigrant from Dublin, Ireland. This became their social life throughout high school. In 1963 when Murphy-Feeney was just 19 years old, Slattery retired, and Murphy-Feeney took over teaching classes. This was the beginning of Murphy Irish Dancers. Starting with about 15 students and growing to sometimes between 200 and 300 students, this school and performance company has been perpetuating Irish dance in the Bay Area ever since.

In addition to being a TCRG, Murphy-Feeney is also an ACDRG, which means that she is a certified adjudicator of Irish dance. She travels frequently to judge what is called a “feis,” a competition that has various divisions for different levels: first feis (beginner), novice, prize-winner, preliminary championships, and championships. Murphy Irish Dancers are involved in these competitions and many of Murphy-Feeney’s students have gone on to become regional, national, and international champions. This year, Murphy-Feeney’s student Jake Grey will compete in the world championships in Belfast Ireland March 31-April 7. Murphy Irish Dancers will also be attending the North American Irish Dance Championships in Chicago July 3-7. They have also had the opportunity to travel and perform in international events; in 2010 the San Francisco-Shanghai Sister City Committee sent Murphy Irish Dancers’ senior group to Shanghai to perform in the World Expo to represent Irish culture in San Francisco.

These competitions and performances bring dancers together from around the world and create a vibrant sense of community. For Murphy-Feeney, Irish dancing is not just about honing the criteria judged in the competitions (posture and presentation, the intricacy of the steps, musicality and timing, etc). She emphasizes that most important is “the social end of it, developing self-esteem, being able to get on a stage, and creating life-long friends. The students love entertaining, and they love the Irish music and the family aspect of it. You know, it builds community and skill-sets that bring people together. You’ll see grown ups meet and say, ‘Oh did you do Irish dancing? We did too!'” Murphy-Feeney’s mission as a teacher is to develop confidence in her students, perpetuate Irish culture, and facilitate family-oriented social activity that creates lasting friendships. Through the Murphy Irish Dancers’ performances, she hopes to give audiences an appreciation of Irish dance, music, and culture.

If you were wondering, you do not need to be Irish to participate in the activities of the Murphy Irish Dancers. Murphy-Feeney has students from many diverse backgrounds and they are all welcomed as part of the family. She wants the education she provides to prepare students for anything they wish to do outside of Irish dancing, and she believes that if her students can learn the basic steps of Irish dance, they should have the coordination and rhythm to access any dance form.

In addition to teaching classes in six locations and traveling to various competitions and performance events, Murphy Irish Dancers perform throughout the year around the Bay Area. They have a particularly high density of shows in the St. Patrick’s season, late January through late March, performing about 40 shows at libraries, senior citizen centers, hospitals, churches, clubs, and museums. On March 2nd at 12 pm at City Hall, a children’s group will perform a half hour assortment of jigs and reels as part of the Rotunda Dance Series. On March 17th, Murphy Irish Dancers will march for their 50th time in the United Irish Society’s St.

Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown San Francisco. Be on the lookout for future appearances in the World Arts West’s annual Ethnic Dance Festival, where they have performed multiple times over the years.

For those interested in taking classes with Murphy Irish Dancers, adults are welcome to attend Thursday 7 pm open-level classes at Molloy’s Tavern, (Old Mission Road, Colma) and children are invited to any of the Monday afternoon classes (Lions Club, 900 Burlingame, Peninsula) and Wednesday afternoon classes (564 Monterey Boulevard, SF). For more information check out: or call 415-587-7133.

Julia Cost is a choreographer, artist, and dancer. She received her MFA in Dance from UC Irvine in 2011 and moved to the SF Bay Area to get involved in its vibrant arts communities. She will be showing a new choreographic work at The Garage March 28-29. Check out her paintings at

New Center for TheOffCenter

A new space has been attained by an artist community that has existed without physical headquarters since the closing of Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory (MCVF) in August 2010. This community of artists, known as THEOFFCENTER (TOC), collectively ran MCVF for the last 8 months of its existence before the space was lost due to fire code rulings. Though they felt homeless at first, it soon became clear that TOC is a community, not a place, and they continued their work, highly successfully, as a traveling, decentralized incubator.

TOC responds to the needs of an infinitely diverse and evolving community in the SF Bay Area, in particular, supporting anything “queer,” by which they mean anything that disrupts and expands the normative. TOC asserts itself as a maker-focused network, offering a platform for performances as a means of supporting the development of a plurality of individual queer/ed identities. TOC provokes artists to push their thinking and work to new places, sparks dialogue, and builds communities that last far beyond performances. Ernesto Sopprani, Director of TOC and Jorge De Hoyos, coordinator of TOC’s [**]! SPACE were the voices for this article, yet TOC’s development has and will continue to be shaped and facilitated by many in the SF Bay Area maker community and beyond.

In their time as a traveling incubator, TOC has facilitated close to 20 offerings, including 2 theater productions, 5 performance interventions (large group performance scores for public locations), 2 large festivals (including TOO MUCH, a 10 hour queer performance marathon in which 60+ performers took on Mission Dance Center), multiple series of workshops, a blog salon (in which 10 artists write on a given prompt and then publish their writings online to spark open dialogue), 5 SQUARTS (Spontaneous Queer Art events instigated by Laura Arrington, in which participants break into teams and have two hours to make a performance), as well other collaborative partnerships with YBCA, SOMArts, Headlands Center for the Arts, and The Garage. Additionally during this time, Philip Huang instigated the Home Theater Festival, a series in which artists create performances in their own homes. All of these projects are a testament to the power and creativity of the SF Bay Area’s queer community as a decentralized network.

After a year of existing in many locations, TOC received the opportunity to move into 848 Divisadero, a space that has its own rich past as the home of 848 Community Space, which later became CounterPULSE. TOC is excited about inhabiting this historic building, creating a new gathering place for their community, and expanding their programming. They are currently calling it the [**]! Space, a name that is not even pronounceable, because it is in a stage of nebulous possibilities. Sopprani, the director of TOC, De Hoyos, the current coordinator of [**]! Space, and over 20 other art makers have been hard at work painting, cleaning, and organizing since November 1, 2011. [**]! Space is a live work space where various programs will be activated, including a 1000 square foot dance incubator, a library of contemporary SF performance work, and a traveling artist residency project.

In the midst of the excitement, Sopprani and De Hoyos are also cautious. TOC’s use of 848 Divisadero may be temporary, and as De Hoyos says: “we have not been reliant on a space for a while nor do I think we would want to entirely locate TheOffCenter as a platform/organization at one specific address.” They want to make it clear that [**]! Space is just one project of TOC, and that they will continue their wide-reaching work in many locations. As De Hoyos says: “We’ve been carving out space through the intentions set forth by our community, and these spaces can, have, and will continue to exist in traditional theater venues, public areas, private homes, dance studios, etc. TOC will host work in progress, potlucks, film screenings, public actions, dance/improv jams, etc. It’s a model that can move and change size, shape, and feel, or at least that’s the hope. It’s been working so far, and time will tell if it grows roots in the space at 848 Divisadero or if it takes off to the air or another spot. Every opportunity and idea is potential space for us.”

In the meantime, TOC is hard at work developing programming at [**]! Space. One of their newest programs is an Out of Town Residency Program, through which they are currently hosting artists Ruairi O’Donovan from Ireland, and Karina Sarkissova from Sweden. [**]! Space is also the current home of TOC’s long running Tuesday potluck instigated by Rachael Dichter, which “feeds the community in multiple ways,” as De Hoyos says. Lots of future programming is in discussion, including film series, artist talks, symposia, a queer cooking class to go with the Tuesday Potlucks, performative improvisations, Breakfast and Bullsh*t (another gathering for food, friends, and ideas), continued Performance Intervention Series, movement classes, and more resident artists. When available,TOC will also be renting out their studio at an incredibly reasonable $10/ hour.

TOC will evaluate their work in [**]! Space on a quarterly basis, just as they do with all other TOC programs. They have made a year’s commitment to work at 848 Divisadero, during which they will test a variety of new programs. At the end of one year’s time, they will analyze and determine best practices for future development. At the same time, however, they are committed to carrying on their work as a traveling incubator. As Sopprani says, “we will continue to work with other presenting spaces as well as artist groups and community centers in an effort to stay decentralized. We feel we are stronger when supporting not just one venue/ group but many.”

TOC is optimistic about the future, and continually in research mode. As Sopprani says: “We are looking at it as a big experiment to learn whether or not there is a need for a model like this. We think there is. Let’s see what the process reveals.”

Julia Cost is a choreographer, artist, dancer, and teacher. She received her MFA in Dance from UC Irvine in 2011 and moved to the SF Bay Area to get involved in its vibrant arts communities. She is currently choreographing a work to be performed at The Garage in March 2012. Check out her visual art at

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