CHAMPAIGN - Irish dance was not that popular when Breda Murphy, now 22, began taking lessons at age 4.
But after Michael Flatley stepped forward with ?Riverdance? and ?Lord of the Dance? - explosive theatrical revues featuring modernized Irish dance - ?everybody and their brother was taking Irish dance lessons,? Murphy said.
However, Murphy, now a graduate student in journalism, couldn't find any Irish dance classes after she arrived on the University of Illinois campus. So she began teaching it herself at the University YMCA.
Later, she connected with Eileen Haugh, a world champion Irish dancer who three years ago established in Champaign a branch of the Mullane Dance Academy, a Chicago-based school. Since Haugh left town, Courtney Cannon, another world champion Irish dancer, took over the local school.
The Mullane Dance Academy, part of the Champaign Park District Dance Arts Program, now has about 40 students of various ages, including tots. On Friday, about a dozen of the more accomplished students will perform with The Prairie Ensemble and fiddler Lisa Boucher and guitarist Matt Stewart. They will be joined by John O'Hara, who is ranked seventh in the world in Irish dance among men younger than 21 and is a member of Flatley's ?Feet of Flames? Irish dance company.
The concert will start at 7:30 p.m. at the McKinley Presbyterian Church, 809 S. Fifth St., C, and will feature, besides the ?Irish Suite,? music of Scotland, Africa and Europe. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for senior citizens and $5 for students and children.
Besides performing during the orchestral suite, the Mullane dancers will give the audience members a chance to learn a few steps and will do some dancing without musical accompaniment. This is scheduled during intermission.
This will be the Mullane dancers' first big show in Champaign, said Cannon, a 20-year-old UI sophomore in consumer economics. Like Murphy, Cannon grew up in the Chicago suburbs and began studying Irish dance when she was 4 years old.
She has traveled to Ireland three times to dance and is now studying to take the Irish dance teachers certification test, which she said is ?really complicated.? Cannon said that Irish dancing is fun, though.
?It's actually good exercise,? she said. ?It makes you really pumped up in a way.?
In traditional Irish dance, the dancers keep their upper bodies stiff and their arms straight while moving their feet and legs in often powerful and rhythmic motions.
?What I like about it specifically,? said student Leila Haken of Champaign, ?are the unique rhythms of the dance. They are so unlike anything you see in ballet or tap. When you expect somebody to be dancing on the ground, they're in the air, and when you expect them to be in the air, they're down on the ground.
?Once I started studying Irish dance, I felt as if part of my spirit was revived,? said Haken, who studied ballet and tap as a youngster. ?It touched me in a very immediate and primal way.?