1964 to 1980
Mary McCormack eventually became a pillar of the Irish dance community, in part because of her perseverance. She taught Irish dancing in Arizona from 1964 to 1998, an amazing thirty-four years. Through those years, the Valley experienced growth that it is still continuing. Irish cultural events slowly began to draw more participants. For many of these years, Mary McCormack was the only Irish dancing teacher in the area, and her dancers were the only group in town. Margaret Cunningham commented:
The only teacher that persevered through that time was Mary McCormack.
Many of the people interviewed were very interested in making sure that Mary McCormack had been interviewed. Fortunately, she was the very first person I interviewed for this book. Margaret McNulty asked:
Wow. You are doing so many. Are you going to do Mary McCormack?
Mary McCormack recounted her beginning years as a teacher:
As a result of the parties, the Donegal Dancers got started in 1964. We came up with that name because a couple of priests being from there, and my parents had come from the north of Ireland. I wanted to give a north-of -Ireland name to the group. My mother was from Tyrone, and I couldn’t see [it being] the Tyrone dancers.
It started in 1964, when I taught in the porch of my house at 48th Street and Indian School Road. We moved here to Vernon in 1965, and continued to teach in the screened in porch at my home. The class started with 5 or 6 local St. Theresa people. In 1964, we danced again at the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, and Father O’Grady took us down to Sacred Heart Homes, to visit the Little Sisters [Daughters of Charity of Vincent de Paul] and the elderly. There were a couple of other nursing homes that Sterling Briggs got involved with. We went to nursing homes and parish dances. Father Mc Hugh invited us to Most Holy Trinity. Of course, if St. Theresa’s had a party we went there. Jim Murphy was involved with the Friendly Sons, and he had us come out to the American Legion. Word of mouth got around, and every year around St. Patrick’s Day, we got invited to dance. As more people saw the group, I got more students.
Mary Doyle Lanz was one of Mary’s long-time students and later an adult dancer with the McElligott School, as well as the mother of Eamon Lanz. Both the McCormacks and Doyles went to St. Theresa’s elementary school, which is how they became acquainted. Mrs. Lanz recalled her days in Mrs. McCormack’s classes:
I started dancing with Mary when I was seven years old, so that had to be probably 1964. I started dancing with her because her daughter Ann was in my class in grade school. It was something we did after school. We walked over to her house and her mom taught us on the back patio.
I think she charged us 50 cents a lesson, maybe 75 cents. It was less than a dollar.
I danced with her from the time I was seven until I finished college and moved to Tucson in 1977, so that was 13 years. She was a lot of fun. All of her daughters stopped dancing, and I still danced with them. I really enjoyed it. It was a fun hobby. Nobody ever mentioned competition... They certainly weren’t here in Arizona. Nobody ever suggested that your teacher should be certified, nobody had any idea about any of that. We just did it for fun.
Mrs. McCormack had a philosophy; I don’t think she ever turned anyone down. We danced at nursing homes, we danced at retirement parties, we danced at retirement centers, we danced at schools, we danced at churches, we danced at anything that asked us. We danced at all the international festivals in town. I remember that we danced on TV a few times.
She was a very patient woman... She seemed to tolerate the noise and the hubbub of the dance class. We would run out in front and play when she was working with somebody else, and then she would come out into the driveway area and call us in, or out into the backyard, where we were playing, and we would go in and dance. She would line us up and show us the step facing us, and turn around and show us the step from behind, and make us all do it. Then she would stand in a line between us, one on each side, and we would do the step on the right and left foot. She would go down the whole line. We would all have to hold hands. That’s how we would learn the step. Then she would put the music on, and we would try it to the music.
Of course most of the kids were Irish Catholic, but certainly not all of them.
There was Sheila Martin. She went to Xavier High school, and I think she then went on to the U of A. I danced with her a lot in high school. She was one of the main dancers through my high school years, which would be 1970-ish to 1975. There were a handful of us who danced for Mary that had danced for a long time.
She wasn’t what I would call a real hard taskmaster. I mean, I have never watched Tom Bracken teach, and I have never watched Pat Hall or Sharon Judd, but I have watched Heather teach. Heather always gives pointers about ‘lift your leg higher, point your toe more, pick up your back foot, stand up straighter, whatever’. The finer points. I don’t remember Mary doing that. My guess is she did some of it, but we weren’t competing. I don’t think anybody conceived of competing. We were doing it more for fun. She had the same rules that most dance teachers have. No gum in class, no gum at performances - Those types of things. But that’s how she would teach us.
She used to tell us to hold our dress, we were instructed to hold our dresses.
She always had long hair pinned up in a bun and she always wore a skirt. I never saw her in a pair of pants until, forever. I always think of her in a dress.
She was a teacher. She had a grade-book, and she had all our names like we were students in a class. She would have it all lined up by month and date, and when you came in, she would check you off and check if you’d paid. She had a little box you would stick your money in. I would take my 50 cents or whatever it was and drop it in the box, and she would check us all.
[For music we used] My Ireland, By James Galway. It was a great big 78. It had almost everything on it that you would need to practice to. That was a big deal to get your parents to go buy it for you. Of course that was back in the “dark days”, when malls were real far away.
She was very patient. We worked always on both solo steps and figures, in the same class. I know a lot of the teachers today break it up. You pay for figure and you pay for solos. Back then, we just did everything.
Mary Lanz also alluded to the nature of the Irish community at that time.
Back then, the Irish community and the Irish clubs were rather political, and there was a big schism, a big split, and all kinds of political stuff. My parents weren’t interested in the politics. They wanted to do the cultural heritage part of it.
Mary Lanz was able to make pocket money throughout high school performing for Mary McCormack and with Sterling Briggs and Sol Rudnick.
I went with Sol [Rudnick] even out of state, on a couple of expeditions where we performed.
Margaret Cunningham talked about some of Mary McCormack’s other pupils:
Maureen Mullins always studied with Mary McCormack, and she danced with her school for a long, long time. Her daughters study with Sharon Judd. And then the McMorrows came in the scene, Pat McMorrow, and his kids.
The Donegal Dancers performed all over the city, from Mayor Hance’s new Brown Bag Lunches to the “Bedpan Circuit.” Mary McCormack recalled some of these:
When Margaret Hance was Mayor of Phoenix, she started the brown bag lunches. On a Friday near St. Patrick’s Day we got invited to dance and perform there. At that time, Sol Rudnick had come to town, with his fiddle, and he and Sterling Briggs and Owen Keating got involved with the dancers, and performed downtown, outside of City Hall. Eventually, it moved over to Patriot’s Park. So that was a big deal, and it always collected a big group of people. We got pictures in the Phoenix Gazette and the Arizona Republic with the dancers doing their thing on St. Patrick’s Day. We also got invited to the Festival of Nations in Scottsdale, the Firebird Festival in Encanto Park... They also had a Celebration of the Arts down at Symphony Hall once a year. It was [a group of] cultural, ethnic performances. Theresa Perez was involved with that. We always went down to perform and represent Ireland. At this point, too, the McMorrows got involved with playing and being part of the entertainment. All during the 1970s, we always called it the Donegal Dancers, if we needed some representation at Irish goings on, to represent Ireland during those years.
They called it the ‘Bedpan Circuit’... We went to the Jewish home, we went to the Catholic home...
We went to California with a Moose. They had a Moose Lodge here in town, and there was a Moose convention. Sterling Briggs was involved with the Moose, so we took a bus over to California with a Moose, and we danced at Disneyland.
Mary Lanz remembered the shoes the dancers had worn.
We wore ghillies... I actually had a pair of ghillies. We had hard shoes, but we had what we call flamenco taps put on them. I still have a pair of hard shoes with the nails driven into them. That’s what we danced in for the hardshoe, but they had heels on them.
Ironically, Una Ellis’s classes at the time had the reverse types of shoes. They had actual hard shoes and then ballet slippers instead of ghillies.
We were using the hard shoes with the buckles on them and ballet slippers…little ballet slippers.
Mary McCormack’s costumes recalled Una Ellis’s first costumes.
In the beginning we started off with just little green dresses and gold belts, and then we had white skirts, black velvet jackets, and a white shawl. Then we went into a traditional dress with embroidery all on it and lace collars and cuffs. That was black with white, and the embroidery was green and gold.
Mary McCormack spoke about her school costumes, which were generally very simple and stayed largely consistent over the early years.
I always liked the white costume. I was partial to white, and it just made sense to me out here in Phoenix. The kids that I had, the little ones started with a white blouse, and we made a full circle skirt with a little bib, and straps, and a button. I had a lady who was a dressmaker make the pattern, and then the parents just made their own dresses. There was no embroidery . When I went to Ireland on my first trip in 1974, I tried to find Celtic knot patterns, to do some simple embroidery. I had the hardest time trying to find a store that had transfer patterns. So, I finally found one. When I had this gal make a dress for me, I did have embroidery on it. But they just had green dresses. We wore black stockings, because that’s what they had worn back east. I made the ‘boys’, if you danced the boy’s part, you wore a kilt, and, if you were a ‘girl’, you wore a dress. So they had a green kilt and a white blouse, and a black velvet vest, and the ‘girls’ had the green dresses with the white shawls.
Margaret McNulty’s daughters started dancing at the end of the period during which Mary McCormack was teaching children.
We emigrated here in 1978, and one of the first Irish events that we went to was a picnic in Scottsdale. Mary McCormack had her dancers were there, and I saw the kids dancing and figured that would be a good way for them to keep some [connection to their heritage]. That’s how we got involved in the first place. That’s when the McMorrows were [small], and they were singing, and there were a few dancers there, not too many. I think Mark was one of them. [Fiona McNulty Behan’s] now-husband was one of the dancers. I think there were about ten; it was small.
[Mary’s class] was very relaxed, and it was a lot of fun. It was a social time for the parents who went down there too. We just sat around and visited. We were outside on the patio.
Margaret McNulty and her daughter Fiona talked about Mary’s use of live musicians such as Sol Rudnick, Marshall Rakowsky, and Sterling Briggs.
Margaret- She did have Sol Rudnick, when they were dancing at shows. She had taped music for practice. But he would come to practice every once in a while if there was a performance coming up. You guys would dance at the Festival of Nations and things like that.
Fiona Behan - That was fun because he was really nice.
Margaret- Always a lot of fun, yeah.
Fiona Behan- He was really nice and calm, so that was good. He was at every performance we did. And he would have somebody with him, too, a guitar player, with him. Remember his “Turkey in the Straw”?
According to Mary Lanz:
On Sol Rudnick’s album, [you can hear] Mary dance.
Mary Lanz talked about the differences between Mary McCormack’s dancing and the modern style.
When I hear a reel, I hear a certain set of steps that nobody in town does. It’s something Mary taught us as children that we did, that nobody else does. Whether its right or wrong - I don’t really know. They fit the music. They look nice.
The jig is probably the one that is the closest to what we learned, although the figure dances are pretty much the same or pretty close.
I almost freeze when I get up to dance for Heather and I hear a reel. I have to really think about it because that’s not what my feet want to do. After 20-25 years of doing the same steps, it was a real hard habit to break. The hornpipe was different, the reel was different, our jig steps were different. We didn’t do what they call a hard jig now. We called it the double jig and it was different. It was a lot simpler than what they do now, because, with those kinds of shoes you couldn’t do a click... I think the dancing looks more exciting now, much more alive. We danced heavier on our feet... It was just what we did.
Eventually, Mary McCormack wanted to hand over her dancers to a teacher who had more experience and who could take the children to a higher level in dancing. She was able to encourage all three of the next group of teachers who took over children’s Irish step dancing in the early 1980s.
It was around [the 1970’s] when I had a full time job teaching school and a good size class of students. I was looking around to see if I could find somebody who would take the class. Maybe in the late seventies, Dottie Flynn, Nora Pearse, and Kathleen McCafferty Dobyns were in town. All of them knew, of course, that I was teaching Irish dancing. I had approached Dottie, since she had a big class back in New York, and knew what it was all about. Kathleen McCafferty was involved with her family in Cleveland, because some of her brothers were teaching, and she had been a championship dancer. And Nora had moved out from Philadelphia, and she had been a championship dancer. They all knew what was going on.
Kathleen McCafferty Dobyns remembered meeting Mary for the first time, and being persuaded to begin teaching.
We moved to Arizona in 1979, and I tried to figure out what was going on as far as the Irish community [goes]. Around St. Patrick’s Day of 1980, then, was my first exposure to actually seeing things on the news, where Irish dancers were going to be and things like that. I first ran into Mary McCormack [then], and her group. I saw her dancers and their limited exposure to Irish dancing, and I thought, ‘Well, I could probably help her, and get the kids sort of up to speed, bring them up to the ‘80s, formalize costumes, or whatever’. I got with Mary, and I explained who I was.
At the time, they had Nationals, but they didn’t have the regionals. You know how they have the Midwest Oireachtas, and the Western Oireachtas, they didn’t have that. They would just have the Nationals. The first competition I ever danced in, there were 75 kids in it, the very first year. I won the Nationals five times, and then I just stopped. Then I had to go, I was done, I was too old, whatever. So I was pretty confident that I had the skill level that I needed to help out here.
So Mary was pretty glad to have that, and she said, ‘Well, I have all these people who call me with all these beginners that I am not doing’. So she said, ‘Why don’t you call these people, and start taking the beginners’. She was keeping with the older kids or the older adults. So, in September of that very year, in September of 1980, I called all of the people she had given me on the list, and introduced myself.
Peg Cunningham talked about Nora Pearse:
When Nora came to Phoenix, she missed her Irish dancing, and so she danced with Mary McCormack. Mary talked her into starting her own school.
Mary Doyle Lanz had also continued to take classes from Mary McCormack, and she was encouraged as well to begin teaching.
The last two years I danced for her I taught the little kids for her... I taught the little ones at my dad’s place of business, in that same general part of Phoenix... I think she let me keep the money; I don’t really remember. Whatever it was, it was probably a dollar a lesson. It was not really anything significant. I just did it because I really liked doing it. I have always liked kids, so that part was fun for me.
The sixties and seventies followed a pattern of slow but steady growth. However, soon thereafter, the Irish dancing community in Arizona would soon thereafter see a blossoming into three distinct schools. The Irish community would soon establish a feis and parade, both of which helped to promote dancing and raise the competitive of dancing in Arizona.