Dottie Flynn Wood, Mary Doyle,
and the Phoenix Feis:
The Early 1980's
By the beginning of the 1980s, Mary McCormack had been able to convince Kathleen McCafferty, Nora Pearse, and Dottie Flynn Wood to begin teaching the children. Mary McCormack maintained a group of adult dancers. Mary Doyle moved to Tucson and began teaching briefly in the mid eighties, before Pat Hall began teaching there. After seeing competition in other states, parents began to organize the Phoenix Feis, which was roughly concurrent with the establishment of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Prior to this, John Corcoran had formed an Irish festival at Encanto Park. Irish dancing institutions in Arizona began to resemble those maintained elsewhere.
Kathleen McCafferty née Dobyns described her dancing past:
I actually come from a large family of Irish dancers. There were six of us, four boys, two girls, and we all danced. We were all champion dancers. As we became adults, my sister had a school, my brother and his wife Judy had a school, and then I had opened a school, in the Toledo area, but that was brief. That was around 1977. I also, as I moved around the country, helped other teachers, because I really wasn’t interested in opening my own school. That’s a whole life, that’s a pretty big project, and I was never really sure that I wanted to do that.
We all started dancing pretty much when we got to be five. The majority of my career was spent with Tessie Burke. She was certified, out of Cleveland. She tapped into the talent that was there, and she made me into what I was by the time I stopped dancing competitively. At one point, in our family, we were split among three schools. In the end, we were all at Tessie. My whole life revolved around Irish dancing. All of it. That was all I did. Didn’t care to study, didn’t care to do my homework. All I wanted to do was dance.
We traveled a lot. They have a lot more competitions in the east than they have out here. Every single weekend, we went somewhere in the summer. We never missed, and every weekend, we were somewhere else. My parents bought a motor home in the end. As well, my mother went to work at an airline. One time, it was after the very first Oireachtas that was ever held in this country, there were only Minor, Junior, and Senior Championships, and when I danced in that Oireachtas and I won first, I was the only dancer there not from New York. They didn’t have the trophies, so we came home from that empty-handed. The trophies came, and they were having a dinner dance in New York, to present the trophies. I remember to this day my mother coming into my room that Saturday morning and saying to me, ‘Would you like to go to New York this afternoon to accept your trophy?’. I [was] there. so we packed up my little costume, and we stayed with another dancer’s family. All of the first place winners danced. I probably came home the next morning. Apparently my parents thought that they were just not going to have any part of having one person missing out of that rather select group.
I think the last three years I danced, I never got a second.
As previously mentioned Kathleen McCafferty was quite the champion, and she was even subsequently mentioned in John Cullinane’s Aspects of the History of Irish Dancing in North America because of this. She competed in the World Championships and danced extremely well for an American of her era.
I danced in Ireland in the Worlds, about three times. At that time, in the late 1960s, and the early 1970s, pretty much Ireland and England had it all sewed up. There just were no winners from America.. We were actually some of the first dancers to come over there, and dance, and we were totally out of our league at that time. Just like when I took the kids to California, that’s how you bring back a better standard. We started bringing that back. I did win one thing, and that was Best Overseas Dancer, and that was pretty exciting, because that included all the kids from Australia and England. Apparently it was anybody overseas at all. So that included that Canadians, the Americans, [and the Scottish].
Kathleen Dobyns was thus probably the most accomplished dancer that Arizona had seen at that point in time, aside from the one visit that Mary McCormack recalls that a certain famous duo made to the “Valley.”
Mick Maloney was coming through [for a performance], and he had these two young lads dancing with the group [Donnie Golden and Michael Flatley].
Kathleen Dobyns classes started in an inauspicious manner, continuing along the path that Mary McCormack had set. Mary McCormack recalled:
It wasn’t until 1980 that Kathleen decided that she would take my group. She was working full time and going to school, so she came to my house on Saturday mornings and [held class], until she found a place to hold lessons. That was maybe six months down the road. I guess some of them didn’t continue with Kathleen, because they had other things going on on Saturdays. Saturday morning was maybe not as good as a weekday night for some of the kids. So some of them dropped out.
Mrs. Dobyns described:
It started through Mary, but then Matt’s dad and I became very active in the social clubs around town [Irish American Social Club]. And then it became simply word of mouth, or they would see the kids somewhere, or something like that. There was no direct line or anything. Some of the kids had joined somehow or another through school. I had a bunch of girls who were in high school, and I don’t think they were Irish by nationality. They just got hooked up through school. They were fun. They were nice little dancers, but then they all went off to college.
The class never got very big. There just wasn’t a market in the valley at the time. I taught beginners, and each year the kids would advance. They got better and better.
I just taught pretty much traditionally. I taught as you are taught to teach if you are going to take the exam. There are certain things you need to do. I taught appropriately, by the book. My sister-in-law, Judy, started giving me set pieces, she would teach me set pieces, and some steps, and I was starting to bring those back.
I don’t know how it came up, but I started dancing with the kids. We got a call to dance at Symphony Hall in summer. We had this really nice six-hand, and one of my kids was in Ireland, and I thought, ‘Oh, man! I can’t pass up this opportunity’. Well, I was as tall as the kids, and the kids’ costume was the same as my costume, so I just got my costume out, and we did the six-hand. After that, every once in a while, I would dance with the kids. I usually just did a set piece. Not very often. I wasn’t comfortable doing it.
Kathleen Dobyns talked about the costumes that her dancers wore:
In the meantime, we got costumes, and we went from black tights to white socks, because they were wearing black tights when I got here.
Those were Tessie Burke’s costumes, and, sweet woman that she is, she never said anything. I never had any problems with that. I realize now that was probably not the smartest thing to do, but it was a beautiful costume, and it had beautiful colors, and it just looked really nice. I was so far away from her, I definitely posed no threat. My kids would never be going back east to dance. Kids just weren’t motivated to do that then. You couldn’t say that now, kids will go anywhere. People are so much more mobile.
Christine Bell’s mother would bring me back all the shoes. They went [to Ireland] every single year. We just fitted the kids, and then I told them where to go, to the stores that I bought my shoes from.
Getting costumes together was initially pretty tough, because I had a lot of trouble with the fabric stores, and a little trouble with the parents. When the kids got paid for engagements, they got money, which went into a bank [and] was never, ever touched by me. That money then bought their costumes. I would go to the fabric store, give the money and say, ‘I want six bolts of this green’, and then I would tell the parents that they had to go to [a particular fabric store, at a particular location], and buy that fabric, that it was set aside for us. The parents would get the name of the fabric and think that they could get it from their local one. Sure enough, the green would be off. That kind of stuff used to just drive me crazy.
Matt’s dad embroidered most of my costume. He did a fabulous job. But I remember him just sitting around embroidering.
Kathleen Dobyns was not fully certified and this led to some difficulty between her and some of the Western teachers.
I wasn’t certified, because I never took the exam. I was issued a conditional certification, based on the need of the area. In other words, because this area did not have a teacher, they would give that. You could not get a conditional certification in Los Angeles, but you could, at that time, get one here. I doubt now, that someone could get a conditional certification in this city, but you could get one in Flagstaff. The problem with [An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha] is that, at the time, they said, ‘you must go and take the exam where we say and when we say’. First of all, I’m an American . They are Irish, and sometimes, I am not really fond of being told what and where to do something. I do remember that I went over to Los Angeles, for a Western Oireachtas, and I had dancers dancing. When I got there, I found out that they were giving the exam. I refused to take it, because I didn’t study. I didn’t know they were giving the exam, and I just didn’t understand why they didn’t notify me that the exam was being given and I would be required to take it. I could have studied. There was no way I was going to walk in there cold. I could have done everything but my books, because I just wasn’t strong on my books. I thought it was very unfair of the Western teachers, because they did know it was being given and they didn’t notify me.
Kathleen McCafferty Dobyns was the first teacher to take Arizonan children to out-of-state feiseanna.
I remember taking a very small group over to California, to their first feis in California, saying, ‘This is a feis. Everybody sit down and pay attention’, and brought them back. When you do things like that, when you are exposed to competition, then the standard of dancing will rise. And it did. The kids started winning medals, and then they started winning trophies.
According to Janet Corcoran:
Kathleen Dobyns was the first one to take dancers over to California for competition. We went to San Diego and Escondido.
The McNulty family remembered this aspect in particular detail.
Margaret- She went to her first [feiseanna] with Kathleen. It was very relaxed. That was the introduction to your first feis was with Kathleen. There were no [feiseanna] with Mary [McCormack].
Fiona- For the experience, she put me in the Nationals competition, but I was very nervous. It was just for the experience. I was a decent dancer, but I wasn’t spectacular or anything. It was the normal Nationals, but I didn’t get called back.
Margaret- She didn’t even had a solo costume. We took Kathleen’s class costume, and put a white band on the middle, and put a white band on the sash to make it look like a solo costume. There were no solo costumes in Phoenix then. I remember Kathleen had them wearing knee-high white socks. I remember Ron Plummer, or somebody, one time, at a feis told Kathleen, ‘Get those kids out of those socks! They look bow legged!’ Then she put them in black tights. And then it was poodle socks from then on.
Kathleen Dobyns remembered the limitations of being so far away from the rest of the Irish dancing world.
I was starting to run out of material. As you know, probably a lot of teachers bring teachers from Ireland, or they have dance camps, or they buy their set dances, if they are not a very creative person, they will pay for set pieces. That goes on to this day. That was the point I was at, and I had a very little school, and the economy of that school would not support that kind of behavior. There were not a lot of kids, Irish dancing was not very popular, and I couldn’t make the kind of money that the teachers in the valley today are making. When I started my dance class, it was a dollar a lesson, and I felt terrible when I changed it to two dollars a lesson. And then I started kind of gradually raising it up. It was a little side project, that’s all.
I didn’t have any champions. I wanted to have champions, but I just wasn’t there yet. In order to have champions, you have to have competition. You have to have it on a regular basis. You have to have competition within the school or within the city, where you are dancing against the same kid all the time, so you can just raise the bar and raise the bar. It just wasn’t going to happen.
The McNultys also saw this separation from the rest of the dancing world as affecting Kathleen’s steps.
Kathleen and Mary’s styles were more simple. There weren’t any complicated steps, or anything like that. When we started out early, Kathleen didn’t have material once we got to a certain level, to help us advance.
However, Mrs. Dobyns also recalled feeling a particular sense of success on certain occasions:
[Christine Bell], who was in Ireland, called me from Ireland. She had won in one of the competitions in Ireland, and it was like one of the best moments I had ever had. I remember I was in tears, to think that one of my kids from this little rinky-dink community could actually medal in Ireland. That was kind of exciting.
I had nice dancers. I remember Sarah McNulty was my first dancer to win a trophy... [but otherwise] it was just a real mom and pop organization.
Both Mrs. Dobyns and Mrs. McCormack described the particular persistence of a dancer from Tucson. Kathleen detailed:
I had one family that would drive up to Phoenix [from Tucson] for lessons. I gave that girl private lessons, essentially, because she came so far. She deserved to get three or four hours worth of work. I used to teach her at the house. I gave a lot of lessons out in the garage of course, every teacher does. Then, when Pat [Hall] came, she wasn’t working, so she was able to go to Tucson and just stay there. Then, of course, she got a class going down there.
Mary McCormack added:
She was from Tucson. I think she was coming up to Kathleen for lessons because it was at a point in time when Pat Hall was not there. Her name was Tanya [Lloyd].
Leisl Shaughnessy had already moved into the Phoenix area and began taking classes with Kathleen. She commented briefly on Kathleen’s style.
I did [continue with Michael Smith] until I was probably, I think I was ten when I moved out here. [that would be about] 1983, I moved out here, but I don’t think I started dancing here until [I started] with Kathleen Dobyns. I danced with her maybe close to a year. Then Pat Hall came to town with McTeggart, and that was who I danced with until I was nineteen.
I think Kathleen was a little more traditional. Pat grew up in Fresno, California and I think some of what she did was some traditional with a little more newer style.
Kathleen was a mom at the time. She was just a very sweet person, very easy going... I grew up with a teacher who threw jig shoes across the room at us, and [yelled] at us. I love the man; I think he is a wonderful teacher, but the kind of stuff that happened there would not happen here. Parents would not have gone for that.
At a certain point, the stresses of being an Irish dance teacher began to interfere with the rest of Kathleen Dobyns’ life. One particular event, in particular, took it’s toll on her and she decided to stop teaching.
Around St. Patrick’s Day, pretty much the whole month of March was pretty miserable for me. Just awful. We had all variety of things. A pretty fair amount of private parties, parties in people’s homes, and little television spots here and there.
Very few teachers hold other full time jobs, because it just turns into such a full time job.
I didn’t have the class very long; I stopped in December of 1984 [when I was 30]. What happened was, I became pregnant, and I was working full time in an intensive care unit. I would work ten hour shifts, and then right after work (I would go in at 5 a.m.), I would drive straight to dancing class, and then teach all night. [It] was not too bad until it became very late in the pregnancy. The baby was due April 5th, and he was born the week after St. Patrick’s Day. The week before that, the doctor had said to me, ‘You can’t work any more, you have to go home, and you have to stay in bed for the remainder of the six weeks of your pregnancy’. I said, ‘Well, I can’t do that, because it’s St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and I have 17 engagements, and the kids have to march in the parade’. I bargained with him, and I said, ‘Ok, I’ll skip the parade, I’ll skip the engagements on Friday and Sunday, but I have to go to the engagements on Saturday’. I think [that] was actually St. Patrick’s Day that year. Well, five days later, I gave birth to that child. I should never have done that. When the doctor says, ‘You go to bed’, you go to bed. But that is how Irish dancing is, it can kind of take over your life if you’re not too careful. He was born and he had to spend a long time in the neonatal intensive care unit and all sorts of things, and I thought, ‘This is nuts, this is crazy, I almost lost a child over this’. So, that fall, I started calling teachers to come and take over the class. I called actually three teachers, and I had one teacher accept, and that was Pat Hall. So, at the Christmas party, unbeknownst to any of the parents, I just stood up and said, ‘effective when we come back from Christmas vacation, I’m not going to teach the class anymore. This woman is coming from California. I’m going to stay home and raise my son. And that’s what I did. That was the end of the class. It was very short lived.
Even after ending her school, Kathleen Dobyns did not entirely stop teaching Irish dance, and she stayed active in the Irish community.
Some families I am still very close to. I know that after I closed the class, I had two families that would call for five years, to ‘please come back, please start again’.
I tutored Tricia and Mary Cunningham. Every once in a while I would get a call for somebody who wanted tutoring, and I would do that.
Around this time, Mary Doyle Lanz moved to Tucson and found that there were no Irish dancing teachers in the area. She began teaching to a small group.
There was not really a cohesive Irish dance community in Tucson [around 1977 or 1978]. There was an Irish community, but certainly not a dance community. There was Scottish country dancing, and that was fun. They also had some highland dancing. And I don’t remember how, but somebody somewhere talked me into teaching people what I knew about the Irish dancing. I’ll have to admit, I was probably fairly reluctant, just because I didn’t want to take upon all that work. I love the dancing and I love sharing it, and I think the dancing should always be for everybody of all generations, from any culture. It seems to me it’s a fun thing and it should be shared, but actually choreographing it and thinking about it, and teaching it, and making sure costumes were done, and all that was not exactly what I wanted to do. But anyway, somehow I got talked into doing it.
I think it was from 1982-1984, and we called ourselves the Emerald Isle Dancers. I probably charged a dollar or two dollars a lesson; I’m sure it was very little. I was a lot of fun. I had kids and I had grownups. We danced around town a couple of times. We danced at “Tucson Meet Yourself”. I remember we were filmed for a Norwegian show that of course we never saw. We were in the paper once. I would say [we had] maybe 20 dancers. I had two or three adults. Most of them were kids, I want to say 10-15? Not old enough to drive. No guys.
We did some solo dancing, but we did a lot of figures, and a lot of ceílís. That’s what people were interested in. Frankly when you do shows, I think people want to see the group dancing more than they want to see an individual.
In 1984, I was pregnant with Eamon and I had my other son. So I had a not quite two-year-old, and I was very pregnant. So I said, ‘You know what, guys? I just can’t do this anymore. I don’t have the time or the energy. I have a full time job otherwise, and this isn’t a moneymaking proposition for me’. About that time, Pat Hall came to Tucson to teach. So I was grateful. I felt like I hadn’t left anyone out of the loop. If they wanted to dance, she was there... I just said, ‘You know, I’m going to shut down, guys. My understanding is, she’s a certified teacher. You are going to learn. If you are going to go somewhere with this, she is the person to do it with’.
Back in Phoenix, there were two other teachers that also taught small classes, Dottie Flynn Wood and Nora Pearse. But both had students who danced in the locally emerging Phoenix Feis, and both made a specific impact on the dancing in the “Valley.” Patricia Prior had the opportunity to see the teaching styles of Dottie Flynn, Nora Pearse, and Kathleen McCafferty.
I saw them all teach. They would only allow you in for a few minutes, but I saw them all teach at some stage. They all had their own methods. Kathleen was the first to show discipline. Mary was gentle with the kids. I’m not saying that Kathleen wasn’t gentle with the kids, the kids loved her. [But] she had the discipline for Irish dancing, and it came through in the dances. That’s why the dancers were very good. They really were very good for that time.
To watch [Kathleen’s and Nora’s] styles, you could tell they were totally, totally, different. Kathleen was more traditional... She got the kids to flow. Whereas [Nora’s style] was more heavy. Dottie Wood started her school about the same time, so we had three schools going at that time... All three were completely different. Dottie Wood’s was very, very old fashioned, with a little bit of country lilt to it... Nora was quite good, but she had a different style as well.
It was fun to watch because they all had such different styles of dancing. Even growing up in Ireland, I didn’t realize there was such a thing as a different style of dancing. We thought there was just one style and that was it.
Mike Flynn, the son of Dottie Flynn Wood, remembered his mother’s dancing training, during which she was taught by one of the most influential teachers in the New York area, Professor McKenna, who John Cullinane has dubbed the “father of New York Irish dancing”. Professor McKenna also trained Kathleen Mulkerin, Jerry Mulvihill, and Peggy Smith, as well as her brother Peter Smith, and many more famous names of New York Irish step dancing. Joey Flynn was also a notable student.
As far as her dancing, she was dancing since she was about five years old. My father (Joey Flynn) and [she] met [because they were in] the same neighborhood in New York City.
Professor McKenna was the one that they learned it from back in the thirties, I guess. He retired in Florida. I have pictures of him. After a while, he wasn’t too well, either, so he would sit down and he would just do the movements with his feet while he was sitting, and the kids had to learn that way. So it goes back a long way.
Mike Flynn spoke more about his parents’ careers as teachers:
My father was Joey Flynn, who was a step dance teacher back in New York, and then [Dottie] was a teacher also.
It was competitive. There were the McNiffs and the Smiths, and they were big Irish schools also, with the Flynn School, back in New York. The style was different then; it was more of a hard step. It was just different off-of-the boat kind of stuff, so a little different, but the competition was always serious in the [feiseanna], I danced them myself. It was always the Flynns against the Smiths and the McNiffs. They were great teachers in those days. A different style I can say, though.
They were on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Johnny Carson Show and the Merv Griffen Show, when those guys were first starting up, all of the TV shows in New York…[they were] smaller shows, before they became big-time and went to Hollywood and all of that. They performed at all of the local shows. When Johnny Carson was starting out, they were on the show. Mostly local New York talent at the time.
She did some American tap, of course, we all did that. But then she had a few people that went on to do Brigadoon on Broadway, and things like that. And then some went out to do the movies. Gene Kelley did a movie, I believe. There were a couple of students that did Brigadoon, in the 1960’s, on Broadway. There used to be a lot of talent that would come out and they wanted some of the Irish background, step dancing, to use in the movies and stuff like that. She did a lot of things through the years. Knew a lot of people. I think they danced for Nixon, and a lot of commercial work, Budweiser, [etc.].
She had quite a lifestyle, with the TV and the shows and the politicians, and everything else back in New York. It was nonstop when I was a kid. If we weren’t going out to do a show, we were in class. And, of course, [as they were both] teachers. I’d take class five days a week, because I had to go with them.
She taught the whole five boroughs of Manhattan, and they performed up and down the East coast.
After that, with my father, putting [feiseanna] together and festivals and things like that. Then she came out here and did the St. Paddy’s Day parade, and the Colleen Ball, and the whole thing; they all got started together. So, she did a lot of work in the community, too.
She came out here in about 1978, 1980. My father still had classes back east, when she came out here. They had separated at that point. Lifestyles had changed, they had separated, and she had met another fellow, and things weren’t the same back on the east coast. The work had changed. So she had gone out west, where she had wanted to go, anyway. Jim Wood [was the person that she married afterwards]. She kept my father’s name because of the school, mostly the background of the Irish step dancing was the Flynn School, which both of them had [taught for].
Mary Moriarty, who was a child living on the east coast when she knew Dottie Flynn Wood, said, off the cuff:
She had reddish-blonde hair, she had glasses, she was thin, and she was a damn good dancer.
Kathleen McCafferty Dobyns spoke about Dottie Flynn Wood:
Dottie Flynn had a lot of trouble. She never enjoyed good health. I can’t remember what happened to her school. It just kind of dissipated. I think that some of her kids went to Pat Hall.
I lost a couple of families to Dottie. Dottie had a very distinct style. It was very New York, what I would call flatbush. She had a very distinguished style of dancing. It was a little looser. It wasn’t as meticulous as my class, the style that I employed. It was just a lot looser. It was a little wilder, but much different. It’s probably not anything you’ve seen.
Dottie was much, much older than me, like 30 years [older].
The Corcorans also talked about Dottie’s style:
John- Dottie had good steps, but Dottie was relaxed. With Dottie you were out for fun. There was no competition with Dottie. She taught because she figured, ‘I learned this; I’ll teach it to the kids’. Dottie was very loose about money. It could be two dollars a lesson or something. She wasn’t strict about the position of the hands or the back. As long as you did the steps, Dottie was fine. She was very relaxed that way.
Janet- But her steps were so outdated. They were really old and outdated.
John- Yeah but you still see her son dancing today; Flatley-type.
Janet- You can tell he’s a good dancer, but very outdated steps. He does the sevens almost like a double jig type.
Mike Flynn also remarked on his experiences in dancing and the style of dance:
I did [compete in the Nationals], years ago, early, I guess it was 1966, ’67. I have a Nationals championship trophy.
My style of dancing is just totally not there anymore. I guess I would be more of a pub dancer today if I went [to Ireland, etc.], instead of the way that these kids are so talented today. The style has changed. I don’t think I could compete anymore; well, Dottie’s style of dance would be… I don’t even know if they would accept it anymore. It has changed so much through the years. They started, I know my dad and Dottie started changing the style, he took some classes on it, but he wanted to stay traditional, McKenna style...
Mike Flynn spoke about Dottie Flynn Wood’s classes in Phoenix, and her other activities in the area:
She only had about 30 kids all together [in Phoenix].
She didn’t continue for too long because of her health reasons. She didn’t have the health for it. She did it for a few years and we had some good dancers, but then she got ill and we kind of let it go. She got more active in doing the other things, but the dancing she got away from. She did some promotions, when she was out here, there was a gal who came over from Ireland, to do some singing. She was trying to get her started out here in the business. She did a lot of [promotion]... She brought a few Irish show bands over [to New York], back in the 1960’s, when they were popular.
Mary McCormack spoke about Dottie Flynn:
Dottie Flynn only taught for two or three years. Her health was not too good. I think she had to have heart surgery. Also, she needed to turn her class over to a registered teacher. If we were having these [feiseanna] that we were registering with the Western Region, we needed to have a registered teacher. So she called Ron Plummer, who was from Canada. He flew out from Canada to San Diego each week, she knew that. She talked him into coming to Phoenix in addition, and teaching one day a week.
Late into Dottie’s career, she taught children of Margaret McNulty.
Dottie Wood was before Ron. That was just for a little while. We left Pat Hall. There were some personality conflicts. That was the first time that we left a school. And then the kids weren’t dancing at all, and Dottie Wood said it was such a waste, and so she started working with them. She didn’t have many kids, did she? She only had about a half dozen of the girls that [were] dancing at that time. I’m pretty sure she taught in St. Gregory’s.
She was very loving and very caring, and that is where Anne Marie would watch you guys dancing at Dottie’s. She would start a little when she was about a year and a half. She would start doing her little steps as soon as she would start walking. Yeah, Dottie was nice. She knew that she could not take them where they needed to go, so she got Ron Plummer to come into town, and then Ron took over.
[Dottie] was in bad health. She had had couple of bypass surgeries and things.
Unfortunately, Dottie Flynn Wood passed away in 1990.
Peg Cunningham’s daughters were students of Nora Pearse. She talked about Nora’s style, and she recalled the makeup of the group.
Nora was just in her twenties. Dottie was older than me. Nora was a very wholesome [and] very well liked. She was a young married woman, a lovely, lovely girl. [She was] a person you’d want to have your children to be around; to have them look up to her as a role model. We were sorry to see her leave. And once she left, she had just heard about the Maoileidigh school, and had recommended for the students to go to the McTeggarts, or to give the Maoileidigh school a try. [Most went to Maoileidigh.]... She was homesick…She wanted to go back to Philadelphia. Her husband was going to work at a printing company back there.
I can describe it (Nora’s style) as very traditional. She mixed it. She did everything. She did solos, and they really worked hard when it was time for a competition. She would put her heart and soul into it, and really expect the best by them. Her figure dancing was pretty good; the children competed against good schools and did very well with it. They got to use it a lot, because they were always out performing– not just nursing homes, but other places... country clubs and whatnot. She built up a nice reputation; people always wanted her school back.
[The Pearse costume was a] brown and a yellow blouse, a toast colored vest, and a green skirt.
The age range was from six, seven to thirteen, fourteen. They were outside of the Irish community, and it wasn’t until the Daughertys joined, and their children, and I joined, that they became aware of an Irish club, and of the Irish community. No, they were outside of it, and the majority of them stayed outside of it.
Mary McCormack recalled:
Nora started out around 1982 or 1983, out on the west side where she lived. Dottie Flynn started her own group around 1982 as well.
Kathleen Dobyns also remembered Nora Pearse, who had been a contemporary of hers back in East Coast competition.
Nora just had a really nice style. She had a really nice little class. I let Nora’s kids dance in competition. She didn’t have a conditional. I didn’t care. So long as I was being active in running the feis and on the committee, no child should ever be turned away from a dance competition. That’s just the way that I saw it. This was a little tiny town, at the time. Anything else would just have been less than I ever would have wanted. Some of the teachers on the West Coast had a problem with that, and I do remember that there were some actual protests on the feis field. They were dancing, and that was all there was to it. If this particular teacher didn’t like it, then they should not come. But I just could not turn away my neighbor. I don’t think Dottie had a conditional either. [ed. note- She listed in advertisements that she had a conditional.]
Peg Cunningham talked of the manner in which Nora began having her students compete. Nora, as well as all of the other teachers of this period, was more reticent to put her students into competition than most teachers of today.
Nora Pearse was kind of talked into having the children compete at a feis. She didn’t start out wanting to do that. She would have a lot of performances. They went to a nursing home maybe once a month, and they got to do a lot of their figure dancing. They got quite good when they would be competing in [feiseanna] with their figure dancing.
[With Nora], we never went to even one out of state feis. I’d say the only feis we ever went to outside of Phoenix was in Arizona. She wasn’t really into competitive dancing. She was pushed into it by some parents, reluctantly. She didn’t really want to get into that. I guess she didn’t feel ready for that. Considering, her kids did quite well here, in Arizona, but other schools would come in, the Plummer School, the Houston school from Canada would come in every other year, down to Tucson, and they would just blow everyone else away. They were just better.
Heather Stewart, a former student of Nora Pearse who is currently working in California with Doireann Maoileidigh, also remembered Nora’s reluctance to enter the children in competition, and also shed some light on Nora’s own background and skills.
[Nora] was cool. Her whole reason for teaching Irish dance was just to do something for fun, something cultural. She wasn’t into competition at all. As a matter of fact, she encouraged us not to do competitions.
It was just so cutthroat, and it took away from her whole... She loved Irish dancing so much, and she wanted us to enjoy it as much as she did. She went to the Worlds and All-Irelands and all that stuff. She grew up doing it back east, and it was just die-hard. How the kids treated each other when they got to championship level, she said it was horrible. She didn’t want us to ever have to get involved in something like that. If we wanted to be champion dancers, she pushed us, but it wasn’t something that was her main goal.
Heather also spoke about the way in which she found out about Nora’s classes:
Back then, you had to look for Irish dancing classes. It wasn’t like now, with Riverdance and Lord of the Dance and so forth, so there weren’t that many people that found out, unless they belonged to the Irish social club there, or something. My family is Scottish, so I did Scottish dancing. I went to St. Simon and Jude, which was run by the Irish nuns. On every St. Patrick’s Day we had a huge festival, and Sister Raphael, the principal, would get out there and do her hornpipe. She grabbed me out of the audience one day and said ‘Heather come out here and do this with me!’. That when I was in 5th grade. She gave me Nora’s name and I just started taking [classes].
Back then, it was always that their parents were from Ireland, or they belonged to the social clubs, so they wanted their kids to dance.
Carrie Haney was a very young student of Nora Pearse’s. She remembered that Sol Rudnick also played for Nora’s dancers:
Sol was our fiddler. He went around to a lot of our shows, and dressed up as a leprechaun and fiddled. I was six years old, but it seemed like every time I saw him, he was in leprechaun outfit... [Do you] see his leprechaun ears?
Anne Daugherty was also a Pearse parent, and describes Nora’s sense of discipline:
Nora was the one that definitely did not want the parents in the classroom, although she did invite us in a couple of times so that we could see the steps... so we could know what the kids were supposed to be practicing. Basically, she was pretty good with the kids, because the kids all liked her... I liked Nora. She was a very nice young lady... She gave the boys time-out a couple of times, and she kicked them out a couple of times for being disruptive. Six and seven year old boys just don’t quite have that concentration.
Peg Cunningham recalled a particular piece of choreography that the Pearse dancers would always do at shows. This is something of an unusual happening, because most of the teachers simply had their dancers perform ceílí or stepabouts (solo steps, generally in a line).
She and her sister, who is an accredited teacher in Minneapolis, choreographed this dance that had the American flag and the Irish flag in it, and they did a beautiful figure dance [with it], with the majority of the students in the school.
She did figure dancing, the two-hand, three-hand, four-hand, and six-hand. Haymaker’s jig.
Heather Stewart also remembered the dance fondly:
[The flag dance] was the show piece, the finale piece. It was really cool if you were the two front people, because you got to hold the big flags. One got the American flag, which none of us wanted to hold, and the other one got the big Irish flag. All the other little ones in the line, there were like six other ones in the back of the line, had little Irish flags. We would do a choreography, but it was sort of like high school flag teams. We would touch them. It looked really cool. It was just something Nora wanted to do for her show piece. [It was] dangerous, because we would flick them around in people’s eyes, but it was fun. We loved doing the flag dance.
Stewart also talked about the extra practice the group might do in preparation for competition and special events:
Nora taught once a week [in gymnastics and dance studios]. When it was coming up to [feiseanna], she would have extra Sunday morning classes on her Patio... She always had popsicles and Kool-Aid.
Eventually, Nora Pearse moved back east. Heather Stewart transitioned to the Maoileidigh School.
Nora moved back to Pennsylvania in the beginning of the summer, and Doireann came out [about] two months later.
Nora Pearse wrote each of her students a letter when she left.
At the end of each letter she wrote who she thought it would be best for us to go to. She told me that there [was] another teacher in town, but this new girl, Doireann, is coming out and she is from Ireland. She’s a champion dancer. she said, ‘I would like to see you go to her, because you can get great things from her’. So I did.
During this period, Mary McCormack continued to teach, but her focus shifted to adult dancing. Anne Daugherty became one of her students.
It is all Mary McCormack’s fault [that I got into Irish dance]. Actually, and I don’t remember how old Ryan was, but it was at a Phoenix Feis and I had learned Ryan’s two-hand light jig, so that I could practice with him at home, so that he could practice and it would go well. My sister-in-law talked me into doing the adult-child competition, and Ryan and [I] took a fourth place. Mary McCormack came over to me a little bit later, and she said, ‘My house, Thursday nights, be there!’. And I said, ‘Mary, I live on the west side, you live on the east side, I can’t do this’. She said, ‘Sure you can, the traffic’s all gone by the time you need to leave your house. You just go home from work like normal, eat your dinner, and be at my house at 7:30'. Okay. So she called me up and she gave me directions, and I went to her house that Thursday. That’s how I got started. I loved to dance with Mary.
How did Mary teach the adults? Well, gently. It is not that she couldn’t push us, because, on occasion, she did... We would all show up, we would go to the back room, and we would all start stretching and warming up. She had some little warm up exercises…standard stretching exercises…that she would have us do, so that our muscles were all ready and warmed up. Then she would just start class. Sometimes she would say, ‘Okay, can you take this one and this one and teach them such and such a step’ to the more experienced dancers. The first night I went, Sharon and another girl threw me through a three-hand. Literally threw me. That was how I learned Mary’s three-hand. She probably pushed part of the time up a little bit more than the adult was ready for. I danced, oh... probably a month and a half before my first performance. Okay! Gee, that was fun... Scared to death!
She had a lot of patience, because 90 percent of us adult dancers had not done it at all as children. You sit there and you are going, ‘You want me to do what with my feet that fast? Ha ha ha’. People talk about being fumble-fingered.. We were definitely fumble-footed.
When I first started, she was pretty much bringing everybody along at the same pace. She only had like 6 or 7 people, and then we kind of blossomed all of a sudden. We had probably about 20 people at one point. I know that we had enough people to put an eight-hand [or two six hands] on the floor for several [feiseanna]. She had people help others who were struggling with a particular step. I danced with her for a year before we even discussed hardshoe. She wasn’t even teaching any hardshoe dances. All of a sudden, it was like, ‘okay, yeah, I’ll teach you guys hardshoe. We’ll start with the hornpipe!’.
Mary’s dance style was very, very traditional, and it stayed that way throughout my time dancing with her. She was innovative in that she would change her steps and that sort of thing and make up new ones, but she wasn’t into things like butterflies, double clicks, shiver jumps, bird jumps. She wasn’t into those kinds of stunts. [That] was good because as chronologically challenged folk, it’s better not to be trying that kind of stuff, if you have never done it before...
[Mary] did some things that, when I started with Heather [McElligott], Heather said, ‘Not a chance was anybody doing that in [my] class’, like the having your right foot behind your left foot, and then bringing your right foot in front for a cut [a whip]. Heather said, ‘I don’t understand how you guys can do that, and why you don’t end up tripping yourselves!’. And now we have those maneuvers in Heather’s steps.
Sharon Judd was introduced to Irish dancing as an adult, through Mary McCormack.
I was dancing with Mary in the early 80s. [Around at that time], Flannery was dancing, Noreen Gibney, Maureen Ciasi [nee Mullins], Mary Wolfe, Pat Winthrop.
As far as I know she always had them at her house. She had a den that was always wide open for dance class and that’s where she had her ceílís, and she did old set dancing things there, and people would gather up... I think the original group of Irish that came to Phoenix, you know like Peg Cunningham, and all those people would gather and do ceílí and set dancing there. We would do hardshoe out on the patio.
They used to have this Christmas party. Santa always came and they had a piñata, and they had parties around St. Patrick’s Day, and the Irish Foundation, when that first started. A lot of feis committee meetings over there, at Mary’s house.
Mary talked fondly about her adult students:
At this big gala they had, the first Irish St. Patrick’s Day dinner dance that they had at the Civic Center Plaza, they wanted some Irish dance entertainment. At that time, in 1983, I was teaching adults. I had started with an adult class, because some of the now older kids that I had taught were then young adults and they wanted to continue dancing. At that St. Patrick’s Day dinner dance, in addition to the schools, the adults danced. So the Donegal Dancers got reorganized. [It was] probably in 1986 or 1987, when there was adult competition going on, and we had an adult competitive class. The dancers wanted to compete, so they did. I think the year we started, we did it at the ceílí, at night, and, before the ceílí, we had whoever wanted to dance get up and dance. One of the judges did a little job. It was not a big deal. Then, the adults started coming in from California and whatnot, and there was more competition. It was great. I always enjoy seeing the adults dance.
Although Chris Locke never took class with Mary McCormack, she noted that Mary was such a feature in the Irish dance community that there was really no person who didn’t take something away from her. Chris Locke remembered:
[Mary] always seemed like she was a very proper and a very kind person. I would have been very surprised had she every done anything improper in public. She was just a very giving person. I think that was part of how she commanded a lot of respect. I don’t remember her ever really talking very much in front of groups. I think that she was always a force that reminded people of what the basis and tradition of Irish dance was. She enjoyed doing ceílí a lot, and I think that she did some calling or teaching group dances at ceílís.
Because of the burgeoning new schools, people started to think that perhaps Phoenix should have its own feis. Children were starting to get to levels at which they were competitively viable, and the new teachers, reluctant as they were to have their students compete, had for the most part come from backgrounds steeped in the competitive tradition. Some parents did not want to be entirely reliant upon trips to California for their children’s dancing growth. So, after starting with a festival, the Phoenix Feis was started. John Corcoran was very much involved in this process. At the same time, the St. Patrick’s Day parade was started (and would be very successful, attracting approximately 50,000 attendees), as well as the accompanying Colleen Pageant. John and Janet Corcoran remembered trying to begin the process.
John– We started with a couple of festivals first; no dance competition; just exhibitions over in Scottsdale.
Janet- We had a festival there, and of course we also had that little thing that you tried to get going at Encanto Park. Pat Tierney was the Scottsdale organizer.
John- We went over [to California] basically to see how to organize our feis, our competition. We went over to watch the Tierney feis, the Hibernian feis in San Diego. We talked to Pat, and Mary and Jim, and we watched how they put on the stages and how they controlled the numbers, and that’s what we based our feis on, so we knew that it would run smooth on the stage. And they had the same thing as we had then. They were in August?
Janet- No, they were in June. They used to be early in the summer, because we would go back in August for the second one. We would go for two [feiseanna] in San Diego, which was great because it wasn’t that far.
John- That first year Mary was just into dancing so we just went to the water.
Janet- Kathleen didn’t put her into [feiseanna] until she had already been dancing. She wasn’t quite 7 yet when [she was put into her first feis] but she had already been dancing for 2 and a half years. She started when she was 4 and a half.
John– If it wasn’t for Father Gillespie I don’t think we would have ever had a feis here because we started out with no funds. There was nothing.
Janet– The Irish American social club loaned some money so that the first feis could go, and then we paid them back. They had given the seed money to start things up.
John– When we had the festivals the year before I think we turned in about a thousand dollars, and then... We didn’t know anything about medals. We didn’t know how to go about it. We got some medals from Ireland, but I don’t think we ever really used them, because then we got our own medals.
Janet– Well, the medals we got were hideous. And once you get going to [feiseanna], then the other [feiseanna] tell you what you can do, and how you make your connections. Then when you join the feis commissions, and you get on all the mailing lists, and they send you stuff, like one book with teachers’ and judges’ names. We didn’t even know how to get judges. We had just known the names of some of the judges from them having been good dance teachers and having had a good reputation. That’s how we got them out here.
John– And, of course, back then there was no requirement that there be 3 judges for championships. We just had one judge, one musician. And we only had one stage, so it wasn’t that hard! We had maybe 30 people in any one competition, and that was usually the special.
Mary McCormack was, of course, involved in the Phoenix Feis from its inception.
It was right around that time that each of the Irish groups... The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick became the Irish American Social Club. The Irish Foundation of Arizona became a separate club. Irish Northern Aid was a group, Irish Human Rights was another group. Around St. Patrick’s Day, each of these groups had their own Irish party. So, I guess, around 1982 to 1983, that there was a feeling that they needed to get together and have a big, official St. Patrick’s Day celebration, which would be a parade and a big dinner-dance. Out in Scottsdale, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help did have an Irish Festival in 1982, which went very well. It was run by Pat Tierney, who was a resident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. He was the organizer and the driving thrust behind that first Irish festival. I have kind of a recollection that it was a two-day affair. The McCaffertys and Nora Pearse had dancers at the festival.
In September, 1983, the big St. Patrick’s Day committee was in full swing, and, with Dottie Flynn being the full thrust for a feis competition to be held in Phoenix. She wanted to get a feis organized. So, in that fall of 1983, there was a feis committee set up, and we planned a November fund raiser at St. Gregory’s [where Father Gillespie was] where the dance classes were going to perform. It was a festival. We had other entertainment in addition to the dancing. There was no competition, there was no judge or anything, it was just a fundraiser to get the feis started. It was exhibition dancing and other entertainment.
1984 was the first parade, and in 1984, we had our first feis. I don’t know that it was registered with anybody, because Kathleen was not a registered teacher, Nora Pearse was not a registered teacher, nor was Dottie Flynn. But Pat Hall was down in Tucson, I think, at that time, and her mother Maureen was a registered teacher, so I guess because Pat’s class had begun, she could send dancers from Tucson and California to our feis. They also came from Colorado. Dennis Dennehy was the adjudicator and Patty Moriarty was the musician. It was a festival. It was the feis held at St. Gregory’s, and it was Irish entertainment. The first one was held in Gordon Hall and in the cafeteria, and the festival was outside.
We put up a stage outside, and had the quadrangle for people to watch the competition on the outside stage. That was really an ideal situation because there was more room outside, and people were not eating and visiting. So it worked out really well, until one year when we got rained on. I don’t remember what year that was, but last minute on Saturday, we had to move the feis inside to Gordon Hall. The food was still over in the cafeteria, so people had to go over there to eat....I guess maybe the next year, we came out again, but, as it got bigger, we just felt that it wasn’t [a very good strategy] to plan on having [good weather].
I guess there were some comments; some Octobers were very hot. Gordon Hall was too small. I don’t remember what year we had to move from St. Gregory’s, but we did. We had to go to a hotel.
They used to put out a St. Patrick’s Day Parade newspaper, but then I guess the Desert Shamrock took over. You always used to have a paper to poke around in.
Patricia Prior remembered the politics of some of the groups that created the Phoenix Feis, and some problems therein:
There was the Irish American Social Club, which I believe still exists. But out of that, it started with the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, and that changed to the Irish American Social Club. Out of the Irish American Social Club came the Irish Foundation. The Irish American Social Club still existed, because there was a political [schism] that had nothing to do with the dancing. It had to do with...there were a lot of Irish British people, and there were a couple of people that were so strong in their political [aims], toward [achieving] a unified Ireland. It was very hard for a lot of people.. And that caused the split... There were splinter groups, but the dancing was not a part of the splinter groups.
Janet Corcoran had her first and only competitive experience in the first Phoenix Feis.
We started an adult group that we just kinda threw together and just learned the dances a month before the feis. It was a great combination of people, because we had teachers from all the schools with us there teaching us. We had Dottie Wood teaching us and Kathleen Dobyns. The dancers were me, Janet Corcoran, Rita Crosby, who has passed away (and we were amazed that she made it through a whole dance), Mary O’Connor, Ann Sheehan, Pam Casey, and Chrissy Flinn. We learned a six hand, and then I think we did two four hands, and a couple of the ones who were in better shape did 4 hands on different teams, so they had more medals. It was something else because we hadn’t been dancing long, but we learned the steps and learned how to do the dancing. Dennis actually rang the bell to quit the dance because he was afraid someone was going to have a heart attack! That was fun. So that was my only Irish dance medals, and I got two of them. Of course, we had no competition.
Peg Cunningham remembered that the tenor of the Phoenix Feis always seemed somewhat different from outside events. The perception of this of course varied from person to person, as did the relative “benefits” of attending.
I remember some kids talking in the bathroom, in Phoenix, some Plummer kids from California. It was a very good school, with very good dancers. One kid was telling the other kids, ‘If you really want to move up, come here to Phoenix, and compete!’. They had a harder time against the competition in California. There were more of them. But things in Phoenix have changed. There are very good schools now, some very good dancers. And going to other competitions makes you better.
Pat McCafferty has been running [feiseanna] in Ohio for years, and he would always criticize us here in Phoenix, that we should not be presenting awards on stage, that it takes too long, it’s too drawn out. He says ‘We do 1200 in one day in Ohio’. But I guess we liked giving the kid that honor on the stage in front of everyone. There was something personal and special about that. And we got to know all our kids here in Phoenix, other schools included. There was a sense of pride in knowing the kid who got the first place and the second place, and so on. It was more personalized.
Patricia Prior remembered the Phoenix Feis ceílís:
I always did the door for the ceílí [for the Phoenix feis]... The ceílís in the 80s were fun. They had a better turnout back then than they have now, but they didn’t have the proper music. Mary McCormack called them. They were really fun.... I don’t think they charged more than five dollars to get in, so they had a good turn out at the end of the day. Of course, you see that they didn’t have as much competition all day long, so it is not like today where you go in and you listen to music nonstop, and you have the music going through your head all the time, and by the end of the day, the last thing you want to do is hear more Irish music. In those days, if you had seven dancers on stage, you had a big number for a competition... All the Irish community turned out. They always made it a social event to come out for the Phoenix Feis. You would see everybody at the Phoenix Feis, even if they only came for 15 minutes. But those days went when competition became competition.
Anne Daugherty remembered:
Historically, we have always had beer for the adults, it is a way of getting the dads there, and, usually it has been donated, or we have gotten it at a very good price from one of our local publicans, who have been very, very supportive. All of them have been very supportive of the [feiseanna]. Not just the Phoenix feis, but the others also.
Patricia Prior remembered the disorganized nature of some of the first events:
[The early Phoenix feiseanna] were total chaos. They weren’t anything like the [feiseanna] we have today. Today’s [feiseanna] are organized, at least ours are. [For] the Phoenix Feis, back then, the McNultys did the kitchen, a couple of us did the door, we always helped. We used to have corned beef dinners. Corned beef and mashed potatoes and cabbage. The McNultys did a huge job of that, every single year they ran that kitchen. And Kathleen Dobyns’s parents were definitely very involved. They were the people who did so much for Irish dancing. He did all the announcing at every feis. He kept control, kept the audience quiet. They did a fabulous job with it. [Also], Dottie Wood was very involved with the Phoenix Feis.
The Phoenix Feis was [one of the] first social events of the year. We would have the picnic first [and then the feis]. At St. Gregory’s you would get a huge turnout.
Mike Flynn also mentioned Dottie Wood’s involvement with the Feis:
She did a lot of the organization of [the Phoenix Feis]. I guess there wasn’t one going on at the time when she got out here, so they wanted to get one started. With the group they put together they were able to kind of break up the work. I know my wife had done the banner for a couple of things, and we had some floats in the parades for a few years, [perhaps] three years in a row… So [we were] very active at the time… She did a lot of work when she came out here because they didn’t have a Colleen Ball or the feis or the parade. She and the background from all of the years doing promotion, because she had done it back east. It was kind of natural, because there were a bunch of people out here that really wanted to do it, too; they all got together and pulled it off… The cottage, she always wanted to get the Irish cottage out here, and now it has become a reality, too. A lot of things that are being done, she was involved with in the beginning.
Heather Stewart also remembered that the Phoenix feiseanna were packed, especially with viewers:
I was ignorant about how big [feiseanna] were outside of Arizona. We would go to maybe two California [feiseanna] a year, as a treat. When I started , at the Phoenix feis, it was huge. Obviously there weren’t tons and tons of dancers, but they had a big fairgrounds, and they had lots of attendants.
Although Elizabeth Suit did not start dancing until the 1990s, she was later the chair of the Phoenix Feis. She remarked upon some of the events of the past:
I want to bring back all the things this year that they used to do, like they used to always have a freckled faced kid contest... Oh, look they had a maypole! And the Maricopa Cloggers performed.
Kathleen McCafferty compared one of the ideas behind the Phoenix Feis to the current situation on the West coast:
I was supposed to help run a stage [at the Phoenix Feis, in 1999]. I don’t like to do that, and I haven’t done it for many years. I actually was very instrumental in starting that feis. In fact, interestingly enough, John Corcoran, had the first meeting, and they wanted me to be chairperson. This was probably a mistake. I saw that as a conflict of interest, and I said I wasn’t going to do it. No teacher should be running a feis, because that is how it is done on the East Coast. Teachers don’t run [feiseanna]. Feis committees run [feiseanna]. That’s not how it is done on the West Coast. You have the Bracken feis, you have the McElligott feis, you have this feis, and that teacher’s feis... I saw that as a conflict of interest, I really did, and I said, ‘That’s not right, and I don’t think I should be chairperson. However, I will help you run the feis. I will teach you how to do this. This community’s never had one, and I can show you how to do it’. So John was the chairman. I did it for a few years, and then I just got out.