At a Bronx school, Irish dance shows students that anything is possible.
When Caroline Duggan arrived in New York City in 2002, awaiting news of where the city’s Department of Education would place her, she felt ready for anything—until she heard she’d be teaching in the Bronx. “All I knew about the Bronx was what I’d seen in movies,” admits the Dublin, Ireland, native. Never mind that Dangerous Minds is set in California; when Duggan envisioned the Bronx, she couldn’t shake the image of that 1995 film, in which Michelle Pfeiffer’s schoolteacher character grapples with a class of tough inner-city teenagers. “I didn’t know America, and this was an area I thought would be really bad. How wrong was I!”
Eight years later, Duggan, a sprightly brunette with an air of natural optimism, couldn’t have more affection for New York’s northernmost borough. It’s here, at P.S. 59, that she has launched the Irish step dancing sensation known as The Keltic Dreams, probably the world’s only group of predominantly black and Hispanic Irish dancers—certainly the only one to have performed for the President of Ireland (twice) and the President of the United States.
How does a group of 7- to 12-year-olds wind up as the St. Patrick’s Day entertainment at the White House? Through the vision of a teacher like Duggan, who refutes the notion of “unattainable.” The Keltic Dreams’ many accolades include an appearance on Irish national TV in 2007, a 2008 concert for the Northern Ireland ministers, performances all over the U.S., and a Showtime documentary called A Bronx Dream tracing their story. But for Duggan, the lesson underlying it all is that no matter the odds, there’s no such thing as an unreachable goal.
Duggan initially came to P.S. 59 as a music teacher, and she continues in that role today. But when her students inquired about her “funny” accent and the Riverdance poster on her wall (“Is that you in the picture?” she recalls them asking), she decided to teach them some simple Irish dance steps, based on memories of what she’d learned as a child. “I couldn’t believe how quickly they picked it up,” Duggan says. After a successful end-of-year recital in 2003 (performed in improvised hard shoes—sneakers with thumbtacks in the soles), she got permission to start an after-school program, and The Keltic Dreams were on their way.
The troupe’s brand of Irish dance reflects the multicultural roots of its 35 members; Duggan is more about blending traditions than adhering to her own. Rhythmic shuffling (all feet, no arms, in the conventional Irish style) might segue into a hip-hop breakdown, punctuated with torso isolations and swaying hips. “I didn’t want to come in and say, ‘Oh I’m Irish. You have to do Irish dancing with your arms by your sides strictly,’ because it’s not their culture,” she explains. “I said, ‘Why don’t you teach me some hip hop and salsa? We’ll bring in African dance, we’ll bring in everything and make it brand-new.’” The result is an inventive fusion, performed with infectious joy and precision, that’s earned the students their reputation as inspiring cultural ambassadors.
To participate in The Keltic Dreams, which rehearses about three days a week during the school year, students must audition and maintain a solid academic and behavioral record. Does that encourage hard work? “There’s no question about it,” says principal Christine McHugh, who has supported Duggan all the way. In a rough neighborhood with a 95 percent poverty rate, dance provides a healthy outlet. “We’ve seen many a child become part of The Keltic Dreams who was on the fence before, so to speak. We’ve seen a complete transformation in their character.”
“Most of the kids aren’t necessarily looking to become dancers,” McHugh adds. “What the program does more is give them the confidence to look forward to doing something.”
McHugh attributes this success to Duggan’s disciplined yet nurturing attitude and her commitment to building relationships with students’ families. When one child’s apartment was destroyed in a fire, Duggan helped raise money to buy him new clothes and ensured he could still dance in the year-end performance. When securing passports for the kids—many had never left the Bronx, not to mention the country—she tracked down several absentee fathers for required signatures.
In 2008, having orchestrated two trips to Ireland—and raised approximately $150,000 to do so, largely through donations from the American Ireland Fund—Duggan felt ready for another challenge. This time her sights were set on performing for the first African-American President of the U.S.
Last March, after two years of tireless correspondence, she received the momentous call. “I literally dropped,” she says. “I said, ‘This has to be a joke.’” But when Mr. and Mrs. Obama greeted The Keltic Dreams before the troupe’s East Room appearance on March 17, the reality hit home. The First Lady complimented the students’ costumes, which Duggan had fashioned by hand from oversized T-shirts. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh it was worth all the work!’” Duggan laughs. “It was just a dream for the kids to hear her say that.”
As for Duggan’s fears of inner-city life? In some ways, they weren’t unfounded. “In the beginning, the greatest challenge for me was coping with some of the stories I heard about the children’s backgrounds,” she says. “I was not used to a child saying, ‘I live in a shelter,’ or ‘My cousin was shot last night.’” At the same time, she has felt profoundly moved by the warmth and dedication of her students and their families. “The children I teach are incredible,” she says. “They have such strength and confidence in themselves.”
“The message I want them to walk away with is that no matter what your dream, you can make it come true,” Duggan adds. “With hard work and belief in yourself, you can accomplish anything.” If her students need any proof, they can just look to their teacher. DT
Siobhan Burke is Dance Magazine’s education editor.
Photo courtesy of Caroline Duggan