Michael Farrell knows the meaning of “Step lively!”
As founder and leader of the dance school that features his name, Farrell teaches the fast, fancy and frantic moves that come with Irish step dancing.
The Queens-born, 50-something Farrell has been instructing since 1974. “I was at a dance class and the teacher I had, Cyril McNiff, asked if I’d work with a couple beginners, help them out with some steps he had taught them,” said Farrell, who lives in Freehold, outside East Durham in Greene County. “I did that and kind of got a kick out of doing it.”
Now he helps others get their kicks. He has 150 students in East Durham, Schenectady, Albany and Oneonta.
Farrell dancers are visible in March, but enter competitions all year. They have performed with Ireland’s legendary Chieftains, fiddler Eileen Ivers and been on stage with Capital Region favorites Hair of the Dog. Other appearances have included the annual Irish 2000 Music and Arts Festival at the Saratoga County Fairgrounds, the East Durham Irish Festival and Albany’s Alive at Five.
As the dancers prepared for one of their busiest times of the year, Farrell was quick on his feet for a lively interview.
Q: How do you describe step dancing?
A: It’s a combination of tap dancing, jazz and ballet with your arms at your side. In all kinds of dancing, you use your arms, your hands. It’s not mandatory to keep your hands at your side. In Irish dancing, it is mandatory — you keep your hands at your side. When you compete, and your arms are moving, they’ll take points off for that. Some people get the impression that Irish dancing isn’t fun because you have to be so rigid, but that’s just to separate the different types of dancing in the world. In Scottish dancing, it’s mandatory to have one hand on their hip, I believe, and other one arched over their head.
Q: How did you first become involved in the art of the dance?
A: Punishment. I was out playing football and I was supposed to be home watching my little brothers while my father and mother took my sisters to a dance show. I went out and hung out with my friends. When I came home, they weren’t too happy . . . the next day, I had to go to dance class. And I kept going.
Q: Why do you think Irish step dancing has remained so popular with participants and spectators?
A: Years ago, it was because of the exercise, but now with the craze of “Lord of the Dance” and “Riverdance,” with Michael Flatley and Jean Butler, Irish dancing has taken on a new meaning, more of a Broadway production. That’s pretty much why it’s growing even more than ever, not just in Ireland but in Canada and the U.S.
Q: How hard is it to learn Irish step dancing?
A: It’s actually repetition. When you do something over and over, you get better at it. It looks intricate and it is intricate, but if you learn it slow enough and take your time doing it, you can turn into a pretty decent dancer.
Q: You instruct children and adults. What funny things have happened in class?
A: It’s more with the little ones, anywhere from 4 years old to 7 or 8. You’ve heard “Kids say the funniest things,” and that’s something I laugh at all the time. It’s the way they either misinterpret what I say or try to imitate what I say. I kind of have a New York accent, so they try to make fun of me. It’s funny when the kids are just being kids.
Q: Is St. Patrick’s Day week your busiest time of the year?
A: It’s the whole month of March. People try to get us to dance at different functions. Let’s say they’d like to have us on Saturday, but its impossible because we’re already booked out. So they’ll try to get us for the following Saturday. We do a lot of nursing homes and they’re flexible because they can alter their schedules. For the week, I would say we’re probably 10 shows per day, that’s at all the different places. Assistant instructor Maggie McNally does a group of them, assistant instructor Karen Knapp does a bunch of them, I’ll do a bunch of them. Some of my senior dancers will go out on their own and do them. It’s quite busy.
Q: Your female dancers wear navy blue — isn’t that Ireland’s national color?
A: I picked the blue. A lot of people always felt it [national color] was green. I knew it was blue, my father told me that. A lot of people will argue with me, they’ll say “How come there’s no blue in the flag?” I don’t know that either, I just do what my father told me.
Q: How do people react when they see your dancers perform?
A: There is amazement on their faces: “How did that kid do that?” In shows at nursing homes, people like to ask questions, like “Where did you get your costume?” The kids answer the questions and they feel so professional. At 9 or 10 years old, it’s nice they can give the answers.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not teaching?
A: I love golf, I love baseball. I like watching baseball, football and hockey. There’s a possibility my Toronto Maple Leafs might make the playoffs. Put that down, that will make a lot of people mad. I don’t golf as much as I used to; I hurt my left knee a lot. Before that, I’d golf maybe three times a week, go out in the morning play, lot of fun.
Q: Did your skills as a dancer help your golf game?
A: Not at all. Only going into the woods to get my ball. My dancing skills helped me in my days playing hockey and football — balance and coordination. I played at Aviation High School in Sunnyside, Queens. Running back, then went to linebacker. In hockey, I played goalie.
Q: What’s better — “Riverdance” or “Lord of the Dance?”
A: That’s the thousand-dollar question. I know Michael Flatley and I know Jean Butler really well. “Riverdance” was phenomenal when it came out. I think I prefer “Lord of the Dance.” With “Riverdance,” I thought it was a traditional enhancement. Where “Lord of the Dance,” if you know Michael Flatley, years ago he was like a rebel in dance. He wanted to do his thing and he did it on the show.