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It's mid-afternoon on a Friday when Sarah Donnelly and Ashley Bilyeu drop their backpacks full of dancing shoes on the floor under a table at Market on Front.

After a two-hour dance practice, they've more than earned their lunches, a spicy tuna melt for Donnelly and "Hot Hippie" sandwich for Bilyeu.

"We live and breathe Irish dancing," Bilyeu says after their orders arrive.

In recent weeks, the two have been preparing the 60 members of their Missoula Irish Dancers troupe for a barrage of performances surrounding St. Patrick's Day.

The troupe is dancing all this weekend – in the downtown Missoula parade Saturday and at nursing homes Sunday. Then there's a full day of performances on the holiday Tuesday.

The troupe represents the only Irish dancing school in Missoula, and it has become a fan favorite at summer festivals and fundraisers over the past 10 years. It is, of course, in high demand on St. Patrick's Day.

"St. Patrick's Day is so fun because usually all the classes are all separated. But at the St. Patricks' Day festivities, everyone gets to see everyone in the school (dance) – it is so fun, for the little ones especially to see the older ones," says Donnelly, her leg propped up on a chair with a bag of ice on it to help ease the pain of a shin splint.

In addition to the regular Monday and Tuesday night practices with their students, Donnelly and Bilyeu have spent hours each week dancing together in a studio on the top floor of the MCT Center for the Performing Arts.

This year, the busy Irish holiday comes a month before they will travel to Chicago to take the Irish Dancing Teachers Examination – an exhaustive three-day test administered by the worldwide governing body of Irish dance, An Coimisiun Le Rinci Gaelach.

It's a test few pass on their first try. And, by Bilyeu's count, there are only about 1,600 certified Irish dancing teachers in the world.

Along with a solo dance and an adjudicated session in which Donnelly and Bilyeu will teach from memory two of 30 traditional group dances to dancers they don't know, the women will take a two-hour written exam on their knowledge of Irish dancing history.

"You have to know, like the back of your hand, the counting, the crossing your feet, how to show it and teach those steps correctly," Bilyeu says.

Even for lifetime dancers, it's an intense experience.

"I already have anxiety about it," Donnelly says. "I can't imagine what it's going to be like walking in for testing on the first day in front of judges."

***

Their recent two-hour practice left them weary – the extended session and demands of dancing taking a toll on their bodies.

Donnelly's shin splint flared up, and Bilyeu nursed sore ankles.

Entertaining as it is, one of the first things you notice when visiting a Missoula Irish Dancers practice is that it's not for the faint of heart.

"It's a high-intensity workout," Donnelly says.

Donnelly and Bilyeu draw on a lifetime of experience and practice when teaching their students. Both began dancing in elementary school and have continued ever since, with the exception of several small breaks after injuries or to travel.

In the studio during a school practice, where the heeled, hard-soled shoes used in more advanced dances are permitted, Bilyeu counts the timing of steps for a "fast ending" the troupe will perform on St. Patrick's Day – it's an aptly named flurry of feet that is undeniably fun to watch and hear.

Arms straight at their sides and backs upright, the slap of shoes on the wooden studio floor creates a thundering cadence that keeps time with a catchy Irish song featuring fiddles and flutes.

Donnelly and Bilyeu perform most dances with the troupe during events.

They live by the maxim they instill in their students: "We always tell the kids, 'Don't practice until you get it right, practice until you can't get it wrong,' " Donnelly says. "It can always be better."

Longtime student Katie Resch, 16, helps lead the dancers along with Donnelly and Bilyeu.

She became addicted to Irish dancing after being introduced to it by a friend eight years ago.

"It's really fast, it's upbeat and it's very high spirited. It kind of has that old village feel to it where everyone is dancing out of pure joy," Resch says. "It's really demanding stamina-wise. You don't really learn how to use your arms. It's just really crazy good for the legs."

That may be an understatement: Performing two hornpipe steps – roughly a minute and a half of dancing – is said to be as rigorous as sprinting a mile. And the average formal St. Patrick's Day performance lasts about 20 minutes.

"Irish dancing is serious, you could say. As far as performing, there's a lot to it," Donnelly says. "It's not just about getting through the steps, it's about performance."

The Missoula Irish Dancers don't do Riverdance – the theatrical Broadway-like show with added nontraditional flair, such as additional arm movements. The root of many of their dances is more traditional, though they also perform nontraditional choreographed show pieces. 

***

If you think Irish dance is simply about entertainment, you're missing the point.

"A lot of these dances are preserving a memory, a history. They relate to events in Irish history that they're preserving in dance," Traolach O'Riordain says. "When you look at it that way, it brings you to looking at music the same way, as being a language in a way. A vernacular to learn about Irish culture, the history of Irish culture, the worldview of the Irish. These are all fundamental elements.

"They're not just things that are there for the purpose of recreation or entertainment or for the moment, they're actually there to allow you to enter into a communication with a people and a heritage."

Along with running the Irish Studies Program at the University of Montana, O'Riordain helps facilitate many Irish cultural events in the area as an adviser to the Friends of Irish Studies of the West.

The group has been instrumental in helping promote and grow the Missoula Irish Dancers school, Donnelly says.

O'Riordain recently helped Donnelly draw up business documents to officially set up the school and form a board of directors. And the Friends of Irish Studies is paying for Donnelly and Bilyeu to take the teaching certification exam.

"Their argument is very simple in regard to dance, aside from its artistic and cultural components, it's probably the most popular of the cultural activities in the whole country," O'Riordain says.

In Donnelly, the group has found a hardworking and qualified leader to help continue to grow Irish dancing in the area, he says.

Donnelly founded Missoula Irish Dancers in 2005 after coming to Missoula to study at UM. She grew up dancing in Helena, learning from teachers who would drive or fly into town on weekends.

With the help of fellow Helena native Maria Mullins, Donnelly started the school with just a handful of students, teaching about 10 girls. By 2011, there were close to 25 students.

The Missoula Irish Dancers will celebrate 10 years this fall, and today there are close to 60 dancers ages 5 to 18.

Donnelly studied in Ireland while at UM, a time when both her dance and knowledge of the culture blossomed.

"She went through the Irish studies program, and she's aware of Irish studies not just in the terms of the dance, but the fuller cultural studies. She sees how it integrates with the music, obviously, also with the literature, the language and the history, so forth," says O'Riordain, whose 6-year-old daughter Roisin is a Missoula Irish Dancers student.

Beyond growing the school, the Friends of Irish Studies has big plans for Irish dancing in the region.

"What they are hoping to do here is create a full program of Irish dance at the UM where people from all over the country can come and earn certification," O'Riordain says.

First, they need a set of certified teachers.

***

"Traolach, it's his fault," Donnelly says as she talks about the final stretch of training and studying leading up to the exam in late April. "He's the one that really pushed me (to take the test.)"

When the St. Patrick's Day rush settles down, the rigorous preparation will continue for Donnelly and Bilyeu.

Both carry an official exam syllabus and study books in their backpacks – along with several sets of dancing shoes.

Each must memorize the 30 traditional group dances called ceilis – pronounced "kay-lees" – and be ready to teach them. Bilyeu has color-coded sheets of paper listing the details of each dance, from reels to jigs.

Some ceilis are as long as 528 bars, others as short as 32.

"I would say (memorizing the ceilis) is one of the major ones people struggle with. And teaching. You just have to hope they pick a ceili you're comfortable with," Donnelly says. "I know, unfortunately, I'm going to go into it feeling uncomfortable with several of them. We don't work with our kids on ceilis too much because we're always working on show pieces."

The two-hour written portion of the exam will include questions such as: "Describe in detail how the sixth movement in the Telescope (a traditional ceili) is performed, being sure to describe exactly how hands are held by all dancers throughout the dance."

"If you don't go over them repeatedly, you forget," Bilyeu says.

Donnelly and Bilyeu also are choreographing unique material to dance during the solo performance.

Most dancers pass parts of the exam and have to retake others before becoming certified. The Irish Dancing Teachers Examination is held once every six months – after the exam in Chicago in April, the next one will be in Phoenix in September.

Donnelly expects she and Bilyeu will need to retake parts of it then.

"I feel like this certification is still a ways down the road. Like we've said before, it'd be so awesome to pass this first time but we aren't going to beat ourselves up because it's tough," Donnelly says.

Eventually, certification will officially allow Missoula Irish Dancers students to perform in competitions across the country. However, competition won't be mandatory.

"We'll actually be on the map as an Irish dance school," Donnelly says. "We won't be a straight-up competition school, but then if (students) want to compete they will be able to." 

For Bilyeu and Donnelly, the pressures that come with performing and preparing for the exam are accompanied by an emotional connection to the deep significance dance has in Irish culture.

"I think your heart just gets so attached to it," Bilyeu says of Irish dancing. "I'm excited to experience (the exam). Just go through the whole experience of, you know, being in the spotlight again."

It's tough preparing, Donnelly admits. But it's also highly rewarding.

"I just can't imagine not doing it. It's been a part of my life for so long," Donnelly says. "I could survive taking a couple months off here and there. I would survive but it would feel like something is missing."

Jenna Cederberg is the editor of Montana magazine and Corridor magazine. She can be reached at jenna.cederberg@missoulian.com.

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