Pettigrew finds joy in Irish dancing

Video submitted by Lisa Pettigrew

Marlee Baron, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Ever since she was 7 years old, sophomore Lillian Pettigrew has Irish danced. “Irish dance really stuck with me; I’m not entirely sure why,” Pettigrew said.

“My mom thinks I wanted to do it because I’m a redhead and redheads are stereo-typically Irish, so that’s where I went to find people that looked like me,” she said.

Although she does have some Irish heritage, that is not why Pettigrew began dancing: “I’ve always been drawn to Ireland and the UK,” Pettigrew said.

Irish dancing is a very intricate and precise style of dancing. “There are very specific arrangements that your feet need to be in,” Pettigrew said. “Your feet need to be turned out, you point your toes [and] your arms need to be either stuck down at your sides or on your hips like a Barbie.”

Sophomore LIillian Pettigrew stand with other members of her Irish dance school, Mactir academy.
Submitted by: Lillian Pettigrew
Sophomore LIillian Pettigrew stands with other members of her Irish dance school, Mactir Academy.

“There is a myth—I don’t know if this is accurate—about the reason that your arms are glued at your sides. [The myth] is that when the English occupied Ireland they banned dancing and so Irish people would still dance in their houses with their arms at their sides so that from the top, if you looked down through the window, it wouldn’t look like they were dancing. It would just look like they going about their housework with their arms at their sides,” Pettigrew said.

Pettigrew started dancing at St. Paul Irish Dancers but now dances with Mactir Academy of Irish dance. She attends class two to four times a week for 90 minutes each time.

“My old dance studio…was focused solely on performance which is why I still continue to focus primarily on performance today,” Pettigrew said.

While Pettigrew loved her old school because of it’s focus on performance and all of the friendships she developed, Pettigrew felt like she was not able to reach her full potential.

My mom thinks I wanted to do it because I’m a redhead and redheads are stereotypically Irish, so that’s where I looked to find people that looked like me.

— sophomore Lillian Pettigrew

The stereotypical image of Irish dance is a bunch of girls in big curly wigs and flare dresses with a plethora of rhinestones, but not everyone gets into the dresses and wigs.

“It’s usually the more competition based schools that are into the fancy wigs and dresses [that cost a few thousand dollars]. People spend so much on their dresses, rhinestones, socks and sparkly headbands and everything is done up to the max,” Pettigrew said.

“With both of my schools…we’ve never really gone to any of those extremes.  Wigs were optional at [St. Paul Irish] and now [at Mactir] you aren’t supposed to wear wigs.  Our teacher wants us in our natural hair,” she said.

Pettigrew’s performance dress is very traditional:  “It’s got a flair skirt with a few different pleats and then bell sleeves. It’s black with white trim and a turquoise and purple Celtic knot pattern with a wolf in it,” Pettigrew said.

Sophomore Lillian Pettigrew dances with Mactir Academy.
Submitted by: Lillian Pettigrew
Sophomore Lillian Pettigrew dances with Mactir Academy.

Because Irish dance is commonplace at many St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, Pettigrew’s dance school performs frequently around the holiday.

On St. Patrick’s Day, Mar. 17, she will be performing twice at the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul, then again on Mar. 20.

She will also be doing other performances at nursing homes and preschools.

“Since St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, we are going 45 minutes early to help with the little kid’s classes because they really wouldn’t know what they were doing on stage without a big buddy there to help them,” Pettigrew said.

Although the audiences Pettigrew performs for vary widely, she enjoys all of them.

“It is really fun when you have a larger audience and get more applause, but even if it’s small, if they’re engaged and they’re enjoying it then the show is 10 times more fun.”

Nursing homes are particularly notable:  “The [residents] get really into it and they seem to love watching us dance. That’s rewarding. With some of the  kids at some preschools they’ll be totally out of it and not paying attention at all but when they like it they’ll often start jumping around in the front and that’s really sweet,” Pettigrew said.

Even when she is not scheduled to perform, Pettigrew enjoys sharing her love of Irish dance. At family reunions she does impromptu performances for her family, which led to one of her younger cousins getting involved in Irish dance. But her recruitment, whether intentional or not, has not stopped there.

It’s usually the more competition based schools that are into the fancy wigs and dresses that can get up to a few thousand dollars.

— sophomore Lillian Pettigrew

“Two little girls I babysit—I taught them some steps when I was at their house one time and now the older one is doing Irish dance. Her sister wants to start soon and their cousins are into it. It makes me both happy and a little bit sorry because it’s an expensive activity to be involved in and it can all be traced back to me,” Pettigrew said.

Pettigrew loves Irish dance because of all the friendships she has developed over the years and the community that she is a part of. She loves to perform, and loves the satisfaction she gets from learning a new trick. But Irish dance is not a mindless activity.

“A lot of people ask me if it’s a way to get out of your head, and that’s not entirely true. I’m using my whole brain to concentrate because you have to be in tune and every motion you make has to be totally controlled,” Pettigrew said.

“You have to know what’s coming next and what’s after that. You have to be connected to the music. One of my favorite parts about Irish dance is moving in time to the beat,” she said.

While Pettigrew isn’t involved in any school sports, she is a part of a different Wolfpack. “Our director’s name is Emily Wolf and Mactir is the school’s name, which means ‘wolf’ in Gaelic… so we’re all in the wolf pack,” Pettigrew said.