Jean Hagen Duffy was away at college when she got a call from her mother. She smiles, recalling the conversation. “My mother said, ‘you should come home, we’re gonna have this thing in October called Irish Day.'”
Little did Jean know, it would be her Irish Step Dancers who would become one of the highlights of the Irish Day Parade in years to come.
Jean is the founder of the Hagen-Kavanagh School of Irish Dance, which has become something of an institution in Long Beach. Her journey to the barrier island began shortly after she learned to walk, when her family left the Bronx for the West End.
Jean was only six-years-old when she laced up her first pair of ghillies (soft shoes with long laces). She took lessons in a friends basement until there was enough students to warrant space at St. Ignatius. She loved to dance and signed up for tap dancing too, but it was “too slow and tame” for her. At nine, she started competing in feiseanna’s, and continued to dance her way into adulthood.
After earning her Masters in Teaching, Jean began subbing at local schools. She met her husband (at Chauncey’s of course!) and settled down for married life in Long Beach with the intention of becoming a full-time teacher. But the “Irish faeries” had other plans for her future.
Jean had kept up her interest in dance and took the exam to become TCRG certified. TCRG is the abbreviation for the Gaelic, Teagascóir Choimisiúin le Rinci Gaelacha. She taught class at The Dance Loft and the senior center – and soon found herself with 100 students.
That’s when it occurred to her to open up a school of her own and make that her full-time career. So, in 2000, she rented her first studio space on East Park Avenue – inside the storefront presently occupied by UnSound Surf.
She certainly had the luck of the Irish when it came to timing. Jean says, “Riverdance was at its height, and right away I had 300 students.”
After a few years at that spot, she made the move to a more central Long Beach location, renting a space in the strip mall near the movie theatre.
Hurricane Sandy was the turning point that encouraged her to leave renting behind. She took a chance and bid on the dilapidated building on West Park Avenue, near the Bay Club condominiums. And she got it! It took Jean and her husband about a year to renovate the property, raising the floor and carving out two studio’s and a dressing room.
Today, Jean teaches 14 classes a week, and her 200 students come from all over Long Island, Brooklyn, and Queens. Her youngest students are an adorable three-years-old. The school is open to both girls and boys, and beginners typically take class once a week. The champion level dancers practice between four and seven days a week.
“You really have to be dedicated and disciplined,” Jean explains. “It’s highly aerobic. Stamina is a big issue and fitness level is also huge because your heart rate spikes. These kids have solid leg muscles, and our classes include a lot of stretching because you have to be flexible.”
Self-esteem and character building are also a big part of her curriculum. “We make sure to praise the girls when they deserve it and cheer them on. It’s a character building sport. These girls are scrutinized week after week, so they have to learn how to handle things.”
Beyond Irish Day, her students are in high demand on St. Patrick’s Day too, and perform all over Long Island. “In addition to restaurants, they dance at nursing homes and assisted living. That teaches compassion. They can see that they’re lucky they have two legs and can walk. It’s a fun but exhausting day for the kids. They are basically legless by the end of the night. But they love performing to a good crowd.”
Jean works with her partner, Tara Kavanagh to design choreography for each student individually, emphasizing steps that they excel at. A typical routine lasts one to one-and-a-half minutes.
It seems there are a few theories about the origin of Irish Dance, and Jean told me one story that traces it back to the English occupation of Ireland, when the British were focused on squashing the Celtic culture. With soldiers constantly on patrol, the Irish would hide the fact that they were dancing inside the homes by keeping their arms down, below the height of their windows.
The Irish Step Dancing costumes are elaborate – and can be expensive! The tradition of wearing a fancy dress and hairstyle harken back to a time when girls wore their Sunday best and curled their hair for church. Jean was absolutely thrilled when wigs were introduced in the 1990’s. The ritual of sleeping in curlers was cumbersome. She says, “Not having to get off the beach and set my daughters hair for the next day was life changing.”
Today, Jean is also an official judge, and often flies around the country to judge at different festivals. “Every weekend there’s a Feis somewhere,” she tells me.
Competitions are usually scheduled around holidays, so Jean rarely finds herself home on the 4th of July or Thanksgiving weekend. This Easter, she and 10 of her students (including her daughter Molly) will be heading for Dublin, Ireland to compete in the 2017 World Irish Dancing Championships. They’ll be competing with dancers from around the world. Jean’s school apparently does quite well, evidenced by the shelves full of trophies in her lobby.
Best of luck to her students heading to Dublin in the spring!