The Beating Heart of Ireland: Ridgewood Irish Dance students bring vibrant life to this traditional Celtic art form


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From pub tabletops and worn-out barrels, to full stages, complete with flashing lights, detailed outfits and an audience of adoring fans, the rhythmic tapping of shoes echoes through the centuries. The earliest form of Irish dance encompasses a culturally rich mix of populations and Celt folk traditions dating back to more than 2,000 years ago. As time progressed, so did this alluring dance form, sweeping the country, and soon other continents, with competition, upbeat performances and a rejuvenating joy that proudly remains to this day.

For 10-year-old Maura Hesler of Ridgewood, Irish dancing is more than just a hobby; it’s her number one interest. “She lives, sleeps and breathes it,” comments her mother, Kerry Hesler. “I have literally come in and checked on her in the middle of the night, and she is dancing in her sleep.”

At the age of five, Maura joined The Jig Factory in Ridgewood, a highly acclaimed dance school run by the talented Irish dancer and instructor Susan Stanek. This April, Maura and two of her fellow dancers and now good friends, Julia Mastrangelo and Jack Gatens, will continue to keep the beauty of this traditional art form alive as they head off to Drogheda, Ireland, just outside of Dublin, to compete in the 2017 World Championships.

While many tend to associate the Irish culture with green beer, shamrocks and leprechauns, the country’s roots run far deeper, especially when it comes to dance. Greatly influenced by the folk music of Ireland, Irish dance has three main forms: social dance, including céilí and set dancing, seán-nós dancing, which in Gaelic means “old style,” and today’s most popular form, Irish step dance. The 18th century marked the emergence of wandering teachers known as “dancing masters,” who taught peasants variations of Irish dance. Feis, or competitions and small festivals, were held in locations all over Ireland. Dancers performed in cramped pubs and other locations with limited space, resulting in rigid dancing styles. As time went on, this traditional art form evolved into larger-scale performances with added room for movement across the stage. As a result, the Riverdance phenomenon was born, and with it, a whole new generation of Irish dancers.

“When Riverdance started touring over 23 years ago, Irish dance became more popular not just in Ireland, but all over the world,” says Hesler. “There are now thousands of Irish dancers in the United States, girls and boys of all ages.” Hesler and her husband, Patrick, come from two proud Irish families. Her parents were the owners of the beloved P.J. Finnegan’s pub in Westwood from 1980 until 2002, exposing Hesler to “all things Irish” from an early age. Now under the ownership of a gentleman from Dublin, the restaurant maintains its quintessential Irish pub atmosphere that Hesler knows and loves so well. Given her family’s strong connection to their heritage, it should come as no surprise that Maura became interested in Irish dancing the first time she laid eyes on Riverdance. She and her mother looked into several local dance schools, ultimately deciding that Ridgewood Irish Dance at The Jig Factory was the perfect fit. “After her first lesson, Maura fell head over heels in love with Irish dance, and off to the races she went.”

Ridgewood Irish Dance is an award-winning school owned and operated by Susan Daley Stanek. Originally from Dublin, Stanek began dancing at the age of three, and had a flourishing career as a member of an international touring group. Stanek moved to the United States in 1986, eventually settling down with her husband to raise their family in Ridgewood, where she also established The Jig Factory. The studio has a wonderful following, welcoming students ranging from 4 to 18 years of age. From summer camps full of Irish dance, music, history and culture, to private classes, special academy groups, year-round competitions, championships and more, The Jig Factory offers a treasured, authentic experience for all. “Susan is a bit of a celebrity in the Irish dance community,” adds Hesler. “She is hands-on, dedicated, creative and an amazing role model for our dancers.”

For Maura and her classmates, Ridgewood Irish Dance is more than just a hobby; it’s a family. Julia Mastrangelo, who is now 15 and a sophomore at Ridgewood High School, describes the facility as a tight-knit, supportive community. “It’s the only activity I know of where I can be competitive and at the same time, best friends with those I compete against. Despite all the hard work, we have so much fun together,” says Julia, who grew up in an Italian/Jewish household, but never thought twice about signing up for Irish dance eight years ago. According to her mother, Julia is a force to be reckoned with, both in personality and energy. Irish dance provides the perfect outlet. “What I think is truly fantastic is there aren’t just redheads with freckles doing jigs up there, but dancers from all cultures,” comments Hesler. “The Jig Factory has dancers that break all of those stereotypes.” It is because of this melting pot of cultures, that Irish dancing remains so appealing and relevant today.

Before he could even walk, Jack Gatens knew he wanted to Irish dance. He recalls going with his babysitter to pick up his older sister from practice, and being fascinated by the students’ unique skills, which he joyfully watched from his “front row” stroller seat. “I joined my first class when I was six years old, and it was an all-boys class because girls scared me,” explains Jack. He danced for several years, in addition to being on the lacrosse and basketball team, and in the fourth grade began to compete. “When I went to high school my parents asked me to settle on just one sport so my life wouldn’t be as chaotic,” he comments. “I chose dance.” Over the years, Jack has been extremely successful, and even has a couple of championships under his belt. To be able to achieve all this, while also honoring his family’s Irish heritage and having great fun along the way, is truly a blessing. “The best part was, I started to make friends from other dance schools, and I am now no longer afraid of girls!” Maura, Julia and Jack are three of 16 talented dancers from The Jig Factory family who qualify for the 2017 World Championships this April.

Clearly, the history of Irish dance is very much still alive in the hearts of countless young competitors, their families and the entire Ridgewood community. Exposing youth to tradition opens the door to tremendous growth and understanding in the future. As the old Irish proverb goes, “Your feet will bring you where your heart is.” For Maura and her fellow dancers, there is no doubt that each step taken towards World Championships is in sync with the beating of their hearts, the hearts of those around them, and the evergreen heart of Ireland, where this treasured art form began. “We feel blessed to be a part of this wonderful dance school,” comments Hesler. “Our family has forged great friendships and met so many incredible people. We travel together to the many feis, we bite our nails with nerves during competitions, and we share in the joy when one of our dancers makes the podium. We also share the disappointment of defeat when our dancers don’t have their best day. We are one big Ridgewood Irish Dance family made up of every personality imaginable.”


Written by Megan Montemarano

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