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Dancers help city kick up its heels at St. Pat’s Parade

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A local dance troupe hopes to help turn Sacramento’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade into a céilí – and for all you non-Gaelic speakers out there, that means one big party.

While a little beer is known to flow on St. Patrick’s Day, the kind of party we’re talking about is more of a cultural celebration.

The céilí – or céilidh in Scottish Gaelic – developed in Ireland and Scotland as an entertaining get-together where stories were told, poems recited and songs sung. Modern céilís (KAY lees) often include dancing.

The céilí is what St. Patrick’s Day is all about, said Helen Healy, one of the grand dames of the city’s Irish-American community.

"It’s a Celtic word for a gathering of music, song and dance," she said.

In 1994, Healy started an Irish folk dance group to help preserve cultural heritage by teaching the traditional dances of her native Ireland to Irish-Americans in Sacramento.

Her group, the Sacramento Irish American Céili Dancers, will show Sacramentans how to kick up their heels in the city’s 15th annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, set for 1 p.m. Saturday in Old Sacramento, and at six other events held throughout the region to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, which is March 17.

They’ll join more than 50 groups with at least 1,000 marchers who are taking part in the parade, which is organized by the Old Sacramento Business Association.

A group of about 14 women and men gathers twice a month for dance classes and practice. They perform throughout the community on request. The class meets from 7 – 9 p.m. every first and third Monday at Sierra 2 Center for the Arts and Community, 2791 24th St., in Curtis Park. Each class costs $5 and is open to all. You don’t have to be Irish-American or have a partner to take part.

Healy, a red-haired and freckled Celt, has been busy in recent weeks preparing for upcoming holiday celebrations. The dates are penciled into a spiral calendar kept near the phone, which has been ringing off the hook.

The dancers range in age from their 20s to 70s. One dancer, Liam Irish, is also a musician who plays several instruments at performances. The teacher, Colleen Pulskamp, grew up taking Irish and Celtic dance classes in Southern California.

On Monday, Healy met with the other dancers to determine who’d march and dance in the parade and who’d perform at other spots over the next week. The dancing they do isn’t the high-stepping Irish stepdancing made famous by the Riverdance show.

The group practices the kind of set and céilí dances Healy learned in school and at home growing up in County Kerry, Ireland. The dances were done in great halls at weddings and festivals as well as in pubs and people’s homes.

"Whenever people in the old days had a party in their house, everybody did some céilí dancing. They called it ‘dancing in the kitchen,’ " said Healy, a soft Irish lilt like sunshine in her voice. "If visitors were coming, you might be asked to entertain them – to sing and dance."

She decided to start the group after discovering how few Irish-Americans in the area knew how to do traditional folk dances.

"Everybody was aware of the stepdancing, but there was nobody doing the céilí dancing," Healy said. "I wanted to introduce another part of our culture to Sacramento."

During the parade, the Sacramento Irish American Céili Dancers will be dressed in white shirts, black skirts, green vests and scarves with Celtic designs that Healy brought back from Ireland. They’ll stop and perform before the reviewing stand at Front and K streets, in front of the Delta King.

The parade’s grand marshals – St. Rose Parish’s Monsignor Edward Kavanaugh, who started the St. Patrick’s Home orphanage, and Father Dan Madigan, who founded Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services – are being honored for their decades of contributions to the Irish-American community, said Chris Brown, president of the Sacramento Shamrock Club.

The parade has grown to embrace all Celtic culture and has been made possible through the unity of local Celtic groups and individuals, he said.

"We’re all a bunch of Yanks trying to keep our Celtic heritage alive," Brown said.

Suzanne Hurt is an Irish-American staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @SuzanneHurt.

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