Sun City Celtic Traditions find happiness, fitness in Irish dance + video

loberle@islandpacket.comFebruary 24, 2014 

She had stiffness and joint pain -- the standards of aging. An aspirin most mornings helped her get going. But when Sun City Hilton Head resident Martha Greenly joined the Sun City Celtic Traditions, an Irish dance group, two years ago, that all changed.

Now, her mornings come easier. She has more energy throughout the day, can keep up with her grandson more and sleeps better at night. Her legs and ankles are stronger, knee joints more flexible.

"You have to move your legs," Greenly said. "I've lost 10 pounds in the last year, which isn't just because of dancing, but it's certainly part of it."

For members of Celtic Traditions, fitness comes as a byproduct of the dancing. The group of about 35 Sun City women meets weekly and performs at local events, including the Beaufort Celtic Festival this past weekend. In black dance shoes, white sneakers or walking sandals, they move to the beat of Irish folk music -- quick stepping and hand-holding, on their toes or flat-footed, always in motion.

Ceili dance is a folk dance closely associated with Irish step dancing. Dancers are generally on the balls of their feet, but not standing on their toes. An aerobic workout, the movements -- forward and sideways, turning and spinning -- promote balance and posture. Learning the routine with its many steps is an exercise in cognitive thinking, which improves and preserves memory.

"It's good for your overall state of being," said Tricia McLaren, who has been a member of the group since it was founded in 2005.

The daughter of an Irish immigrant, McLaren grew up taking step dance classes and competing in competitions -- or feis, as it's called in Irish -- in the New York City area where she lived.

Her husband died in 2001, and since then, McLaren has used exercise to combat depression.

"I think dance is the best way to get through," she said. "There's something about it that makes you so happy. It puts you in a great mood. The endorphins give you a high."

She took step dancing classes in Savannah to challenge herself more, but stopped after a year when she developed shin splints.

"Ceili dance is lower impact," McLaren said. "You can dance flat-footed if you need to."

While some women in the group are harking back to their Irish roots, it's not a requirement.

"You don't have to be Irish to enjoy Irish dancing," McLaren said. "You can't listen to this music without being happy."

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