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 have 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: http://murphyschoolofirishdance.com 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 cargocollective.com/juliacost.
This article appeared in the March 2012 issue of In Dance.