Thursday night Irish dance classes celebrate eight years at Winona Grange in Tualatin

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Every Thursday except Thanksgiving, people meet at Winona Grange in Tualatin for Irish dance classes, led by Sam Keator (center).It’s just before 7 p.m. on a Thursday night at Winona Grange in Tualatin when some loud stomping sounds from the floor above. Apparently, it’s time to dance.

For the past eight years, ever since Sam Keator brought in Irish dancing, this has been the weekly scene at Winona Grange #271, 8340 S.W. Seneca Street. And though the 61-year-old class leader said he doesn’t see this as his retirement plan, he also doesn’t plan on letting the classes fall by the wayside anytime soon — or ever, for that matter.

“I have three rules: smile, move and have fun. The rest you’re going to have to keep coming and learn,” said Keator. “To do a jig step right, you’ve got to practice. And if you want to do a sidestep, you have to practice. Promenade, you have to practice.”

Keator first began Irish dancing in the 1990s, after skimming a book titled “101 Ways to Reduce Stress.” One suggestion that caught his eye was to dance a jig, and he figured he might as well give it a try. Years later, he’s not only dancing but teaching, and helping many others bring their stress levels down, too. Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Students practice their Irish Ceili dance at Winona Grange in Tualatin.

For many people, the term “Irish dancing” evokes images of curly haired girls in green, flippy dresses and black, tappy shoes, moving their legs a mile a minute in perfect synchronization. This is not the kind of dancing that Keator teaches. There are several forms of Irish dance, and one of the oldest, Ceili, is what’s taught at Winona Grange each week. It’s a group dance, and less fast-paced than step dancing, though to the casual observer, it seems that some of the same techniques and movements apply.

“Ceili is an Irish word. It generally means ‘a gathering,’ but it’s become synonymous with this style of dancing,” said Anne Doherty, Keator’s wife, who moved to the United States from Ireland 30 years ago. “So if somebody talks about a Ceili now, they’re talking about an Irish dance.”

The word evolved out of dances held between friends at someone’s home, before homes were traded in for venues, and friends may have been traded in for strangers.

The weekly Ceili classes are drop-in, and all skill levels are welcomed. And while fresh faces do come, including several last Thursday night, many of the dancers are regulars who’ve been coming for years. Yes, they come to dance, but they also come to be with each other. The word Ceili, it seems, has gone back to its roots.

“That’s part of the culture is we are just thrilled when new people come. We want you to succeed, have fun, share the joy that we find in this and come back,” said Tigard resident Suzanne Weldon. “It’s just fun. It is. And, it’s fabulous exercise — when was the last time you went to the gym and you smiled and laughed?”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Students Wendy Griffin (left) and Marty Weldon dance in a class lead by Sam Keator.

Weldon has been attending Keator’s dance classes for nine years, since the very beginning when they were still being taught in Tigard. She’s since gotten her husband to join her weekly, and even heads to North Portland every Monday for another Irish dance class taught by Keator.

“It’s just this great group of people,” she said as to why she loves it. “This is my family.”

Twenty-eight people, including Keator and Doherty, gathered at Winona Grange last Thursday, some who’d been regulars for years, others who walked in timidly, unsure of what to expect. But in the end, it didn’t matter who was a seasoned veteran and who was new to the dance — all were laughing and twirling and doing their best to follow Keator’s lead.

“What did he say?” a new dancer asked after Keator called out a step.

“I don’t know, just go with it!” responded a woman who’d clearly been to class before as she twirled around in a flouncy brown skirt.

For the regulars at the Thursday Ceili lessons, it’s more than dancing and exercise, though those are perks. At the heart of it all, it’s about immersing themselves in another culture, even if just for a moment, and spending time with friends, even if that’s just for a moment, too.

“It’s community, and I believe in community. And we’re losing that in certain areas,” said Keator. “The fun of it is to see someone that totally has two left feet, and then all of a sudden, their spirit comes out.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Sam Keator (center) has been teaching Irish dance classes in Tualatin for eight years, and feels that keeping this alive is important for keeping the culture of the city alive, as well.

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