Claire Gutschenritter plants the roots of a legendary dance tradition in the soil of Kalispell. She recently launched An Daire Academy – named after the Irish term for ‘oak tree’ – to teach local students traditional Irish dancing.
“It’s meaningful if it connects to your heritage,” Gutschenritter said.
Gutschenritter’s Irish background served as the seed from which An Daire Academy grew. Growing up in Chicago, Gutschenritter remembers his grandfather having a strong connection to the family’s Irish roots. On Sundays, her family would seek out jam sessions in Chicago pubs where they could partake in Irish dancing. Gutschenritter was so passionate about the dance style that she joined a formal group when she was around 7 years old. She trained and competed until she went to college, although she continued to occasionally do an Irish dance move as a celebratory trick.
After graduating from the University of Montana, she found Irish dancing groups in Missoula and then Kalispell. “I realized there was a little scene in Montana for that,” she said.
Around St. Patrick’s Day 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic began to eliminate opportunities to dance and do many other things. Gutschenritter, a fifth-grade teacher at Hedges Elementary School, has taken advantage of the remote learning trend. She partnered with An Daire Academy in Portland, a group that offered its curriculum digitally in response to the pandemic. An Daire is directly linked to an Irish dancing commission in Ireland.
“Without Covid, this probably wouldn’t have happened,” Gutschenritter noted.
In the summer of 2020, Gutschenritter began giving classes in person and socially distanced from his garage. “He just grew from there,” she said.
Now the group that started with five students has grown to four classes with a total of over 30 students. Gutschenritter moved from his garage to a rented studio at the Northwest Ballet School and Company.
“It was a really fun trip,” Gutschenritter said.
An Daire Academy offers four different levels: “Acorns” for children aged 2 to 4, Beginner and Beginner 2 for older children, and Intermediate for dancers who have been practicing Irish dancing for a few years.
All classes are nearly full, Gutschenritter said. As the sole instructor, Gutschenritter had to limit class sizes to ensure the quality of her teaching.
In the future, however, she would like to offer more courses, including an adult course.
An Daire’s classes follow a standardized progression that closely follows the traditional Irish dance style. Many other Irish dancing groups, Gutschenritter said, have modernized and moved away from strict traditions.
“Their efforts are aimed at preserving the traditional form,” Gutschenritter said of the Portland organization that helps guide its classes. “They try to really celebrate their traditional culture through it. [Irish dance].”
An Daire’s style of Irish dancing is characterized by specific steps, arms at the dancers’ sides, and toes facing outward at all times. “It gives us our distinct look,” Gutschenritter said.
These details are part of a tradition that “goes back hundreds of years,” she added.
Gutschenritter and his dancers enjoy practicing the whimsical footwork that has been central to Irish dancing since the practice began. “It’s all about the feet,” Gutschenritter said.
But one of the biggest draws of Irish dancing is the music. “Everyone loves music,” Gutschenritter said. She said even the toddlers in her Acorn class were excited about the unique musical style that accompanies Irish dancing.
For Gutschenritter, the benefits of Irish dancing transcend the activity itself.
“Learning to dance, learning to play applies to so many aspects of your life,” Gutschenritter said. She believes her classes help her students develop courage and a growth mindset that they can take with them into their daily lives.
Gutschenritter hopes to bring the benefits of Irish dancing to a wider audience, starting with some pop-up performances for St. Patrick’s Day. During the Celtic jam at Kalispell Brewing Company, the dancers of An Daire will stage a spontaneous public performance, returning to the roots of dance in Ireland.
After that, Gutschenritter hopes to orchestrate ceilis, which are traditional Irish group dances.
“It could be a really fun way for our community to come together for something cultural and active,” Gutschenritter said.
An Daire Academy is located at 1411 1st Ave W, Kalispell, MT 59901. For more information, call 406-871-5690 or visit https://an-daire-irish-dancers-of-the-flathead-valley.business.site.
Journalist Bret Anne Serbin can be reached at 406-758-4459 or [email protected]