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Irish dance is a 'sister act' at Boyle School

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When Alannah Sweeney needed to help pay for her tuition as a senior at Seton School in Manassas, she turned to a skill she picked up as a child: Irish dance.

Sweeney's informal classes teaching other Seton students became so popular that when she left to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, her older sister, Ellen Gibbons, a nurse, drove from Washington to Manassas each week so the lessons could continue.

Twenty years later, the Boyle School of Irish Dance is still going strong, teaching about 500 students throughout Northern Virginia.

"It's great to be able to pull from each other's strengths," said Sweeney. "A lot of times I know what Ellen's thinking before she even says it."

"We each have different goals. Our personalities are different … but I think that's what makes it work," said Gibbons.

The Boyle School, named after their maiden name, reflects a shared family life as the children of Irish immigrants in upstate New York. The two were the only girls in a family of eight children - all of whom took Irish dance lessons as a way to celebrate their heritage.

"I started dancing when I was 4 years old but had watched Ellen since I was an infant," Sweeney said.

Gibbons, who started dancing at age 5, advanced far enough to qualify for the world championships in Ireland by the time she enrolled in high school. Given the choice to attend the championships or go to high school out of state, she chose the latter and had largely given up dance by the time she enrolled in Franciscan University.

Sweeney followed in her sister's footsteps during her senior year by living with a local family when she enrolled in Seton School. That's when she had the idea to start offering lessons.

"It just sort of fell into my lap … I asked people 'do you want me to teach your kids to dance?'" Sweeney said.

After she enrolled in Franciscan University, she continued to teach Irish dance, finding about 60 among her classmates.

Meanwhile, Gibbons had found new purpose teaching her students and brushing up on her dancing skills.

"My kids are so proud of me. I dance in the basement," said Gibbons, a mother of five. "There I am, 40 years old, down in the basement dancing."

After Sweeney graduated from college and took a job at National Right to Life, the two decided to obtain teacher certification and make the classes more formal. The Boyle School now operates in Chantilly, Alexandria, Herndon and Manassas. And when the business became large enough to hire new teachers, they found the perfect match in two of their former students, siblings Elizabeth and Katie Francis, both graduates of Christendom College in Front Royal.

Gibbons and Sweeney say that much of the enthusiasm came from Catholic families like their own.

"I have a fabulous husband and a beautiful community," said Gibbons, a parishioner of Holy Family Church in Dale City. "We have chosen to live out in Manassas because of the Catholic community, many of whom are mothers with big families."

And while the high kicks and colorful costumes are eye-catching, parents really like how "wholesome" Irish dance is, Sweeney said.

"Sometimes in today's culture, girls have a lot of pressure about their weight and physical appearance. To win a competition you need to be extremely strong. It's not a thing where they're trying to be slight and slim," she said. "The focus is about being strong and powerful. That's the thing I really love about Irish dance. It's not about being beautiful - it's about being powerful and strong."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016