"Hop. One, two, three, four. Back. One, two, three, four."
In the basement at St. Pius X Catholic Church at 6428 York Road in Rodgers Forge, 12 girls and one boy practiced Irish dance for Baltimore's upcoming St. Patrick's Day parade.
"What do you do if someone in the crowd waves at you?" their teacher and director of the Egan School of Irish Dance Becky Egan Hogg asked them. Thirteen small faces stared back at her. They knew their steps, but for many, this was their first parade experience.
"You wave back!" Hogg said with enough enthusiasm to encourage a few of the kids to practice that, too.
Hogg, 41, a Rodgers Forge resident, is a seasoned teacher. Her day job is director of campus ministries and chair of the religion department at nearby Mercy High School and she has been teaching Irish dance since 2003 after she completed two days of testing in Boston to be certified and recognized by the Irish Dance Commission — that's An Coimisium le Rinci Gaelacha in Gaelic.
"I love watching kids build confidence," Hogg said. "And I love watching the friendships that are created among the students."
It was because of two childhood friends that Hogg began dancing in the 1980s. Although 100 percent Irish — both sets of great-grandparents emigrated to the United States — she had never seen Irish dancing. She said she tagged along with friends for some classes and, "A year later, my friends stopped dancing — but by then I was hooked."
As a senior at Mercy High School, she traveled to Ireland in 1989 for the first time to compete at the world championship. Among the top three in Hogg's age group was New York native Jean Butler, who went on to start Riverdance, a dance troupe that has brought worldwide attention to Irish dance.
Back here in Baltimore, Hogg had brought attention to the dance form by teaching earlier in the mid-1980s the "Walls of Limerick" dance to a young and upcoming WJZ-TV reporter named Oprah Winfrey, who was covering the annual Irish Festival held at that time at Hopkins Plaza.
"It's not really a complicated dance," Hogg laughed. "But I dragged her through it."
These days, Hogg teaches 30 students aged 5 through 17 at three different levels of instruction. She said she uses CDs specifically created for Irish dance and ones that have music at different speeds, "which is crucial ... Irish music — reels, jigs, slip jigs, hornpipes — can be pretty darn fast, so it takes time to master tricky footwork to fast music."
Some dancers choose to compete, but it's not a school requirement. Annually, the dancers perform at the St. Paddy's parade, Towson Gardens Day and at ceilis sponsored by the Towson-based Emerald Isle Club at the Parkville American Legion.
The school is more about form than fancy: There is a school jacket with the school colors of green, gold and purple. But dance dresses are optional and Hogg advises parents of first-year students to wait until they know their children really like Irish dance before they buy the shoes, some of which can cost $135 a pair.
I just want to keep it family friendly and pass on the art of traditional Irish dancing," said Hogg, who has two daughters, Emily, 1, and Margot, 4. Margot started Irish dance classes this year.
The school offers "good, authentic instruction," said Maureen O'Neill, of Lutherville. O'Neill lived in Ireland as a teenager and her family's Irish heritage is very important to her. For that reason, she was very excited when her son, Hassan Aziz, 9, showed an interest in the classes. He enjoys the "hoppy" moves, she said, and is particularly looking forward to the parade.
"We're just hoping it's not freezing cold. Or raining. Although that would be real Irish weather," O'Neill said.
Juliette Klausen, 7, of Lauraville, began attending a weeklong summer dance camp that Hogg offers in July. The St. Patrick's Day parade also is her first parade experience, said her mother Victoria Klausen, and a big appeal to her daughter.
As the oldest student at Egan, Kara Mussman was enlisted to help with parade prep. As Hogg led the children in over two-threes, Kara helped them stay in line and showed them where to start and stop their dancing.
Mussman, 16, has been dancing for 10 years. She began at Hogg's summer camp and then enrolled in classes the following school year.
"It's something for me to do and it's different than everything else," Mussman said. "I like being unique in that way."
Mussman, who lives in Loch Raven Village and attends Loch Raven High School, enjoys the jumps that are part of Irish dance. "I like to see how high I can go," she said. "And how nice I can get my form. You can always improve on what you have."
As for the parade, the plan is simple, explained Hogg, who is a traditionalist. There is no float: The students will walk and dance. And dance some more.
And maybe, if all goes well, they will remember to smile and wave, too.
The Egan school of Irish Dance offers classes every Wednesday at St. Pius X. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun