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North Hills Monthly

Irish Dance Studios Help Students Kick Up Their Heels

Feb 26, 2016 05:42PM ● By Clare Heekin Lynch
Irish people are recognizable all over the world; no matter where you go, there’s always somebody who has an Irish heritage or Celtic connection somehow! And with the worldwide success of Riverdance in the 1990s, Irish dance, especially, has catapulted onto the international stage.

In Irish music and dance, every song and every move has a purpose in telling the story of Celtic history, and two local Irish dance studios are keeping the culture alive in a region bursting with all types of ethnic backgrounds.

For Julia Bell, owner of Bell School of Irish Dance in Wexford, opening her studio in 1999 meant turning a childhood hobby into a lifetime career. “I have been dancing for 36 years, and to be able to share my love of Irish dance with the next generation means so much to me,” Bell said. “I especially enjoy watching my two boys, Patrick, 10, and Owen, 7, learn to dance and watching their love for it develop.”

The school currently teaches 275 students, ranging from preschool-age to adults. “Irish dance teaches coordination, musicality and a strong sense of tradition,” said Bell. “We teach dancers how to inspire themselves and build confidence and self-esteem. Our dancers learn that truly meaningful successes are unattainable without perseverance, hard work and dedication.”

For sisters Sheila and Liz Shovlin, of Shovlin Academy of Irish Dance in the South Hills, Irish dance runs deep in their blood. “We grew up with Irish-born parents, who were fiercely talented and proud of their Irish heritage,” said Sheila Shovlin. “Dancing is just a way of life for me and it includes some of my best memories as a young girl; it just makes me feel complete.” Sheila grew up dancing with Julia Bell as part of the tight-knit Pittsburgh Irish community, along with the Burkes and the Conroys, owners of Burke Conroy School of Irish Dance in Pittsburgh’s East End.

For Shovlin, there is a certain family closeness that Irish dancing brings to her students. “When I was a kid, Irish dancing felt very special, mostly because of the close connection you had with the few people who were actually involved in the sport at that point,” she explained. “Today, while the increased popularity of the sport has changed the quaintness of the activity, the dancers remain close with their classmates but also have the opportunity to branch out and make friends at other schools as well during feiseanna (Irish festivals).”

While Irish dance is an incredibly fun form of the art, the teachers agree that it is also a great way for students to gain composure and self-confidence. “Whether it’s partaking in public performances or competing at a more competitive level, Irish dance helps dancers to reach new potentials with new and harder material,” said Liz Shovlin. “Matching the footwork to the rhythm of the music is an incredibly good feeling and, at the end of the day, that’s what we all want to feel. Teaching Irish dance helps both myself and Sheila to help our dancers feel good about themselves and, in turn, we feel the same.”

For local student Megan Hixon, Irish dancing has helped her share her passion with other people. “It is a great feeling when I can look out at the audience and see that I have made someone’s day just a little better; that is something that keeps me going,” she said.

For Megan’s mom, Elaine, Irish dance has played an integral part in her daughter growing into a confident young woman. “Irish dance has given Megan the opportunity to dance in competitions, including the World Championships in Boston, to dance for charity and community service, and also to teach beginning dancers,” she explained. “Each of these have added to the selflessness and poise she now possesses. It’s been a wonderful journey to watch.”

Whether you enjoy Irish dancing purely for recreation, or aspire to succeed at the highest levels of international competition, there are programs designed for all dancers.

For more information, visit or

Céili Dancing
The Irish word céili (pronounced like kay-lee) originally referred to a gathering of neighbors in a house to have an enjoyable time, dancing, chatting, playing music and storytelling. Today it refers to an informal evening of dancing. Dancing sessions at céilis are usually preceded by a teaching period where novices are shown the initial steps.

For adults who would like to learn basic moves in a more informal setting, the Pittsburgh Ceili Club ( offers Ceili nights at the Strip District’s Mullaney Harp & Fiddle on Tuesday evenings. The club also holds dances once a month, from October to May, at the Morningside VFW, 1820 Morningside Avenue.