City of Oconomowoc - All five of Melanie Fitzgerald's children are keeping in step. Dancing that is. Her three daughters and two sons are all involved in Irish Dancing through Milwaukee's Trinity Academy.
Taking in the scene at Irishfest years ago first exposed them to the Gaelic dance form; then a friend invited oldest daughter, Maya, to join her at Trinity during a "bring a friend day" event.
"That started it all," Fitzgerald said.
"I would never have thought of Irish Dance, but it's great. The children are half-Irish and half Filipino, so Irish Dance is not the first thing to come to mind," she laughed.
Second oldest, Clare, followed next when she was 8 years old.
"I had to bring the others with me, so I said why don't you try it?
"I put two more in and they liked it. When my youngest was old enough, he joined too," she explained.
"They love it," she said of the children, Maya, 13, Clare, 11, Zachary 9, Grace, 7 and Finn, 6.
It's a big time commitment for the family, with the children taking classes twice a week in addition to a separate performance class.
"It just gets really busy. The classes don't always fall on the same days. With the commuting time and the staggered schedule, we're at Irish Dance a lot," Fitzgerald said.
The time spent at the studio while waiting for their siblings is put to good use, the mother of five said.
"They do homework and socialize with their Irish Dance friends.
"The people they dance with, they've grown up with and see all the time," she said of the bond that develops between the dancers.
Fitzgerald said the children reap a lot of benefits from their participation and build self-confidence.
"Through competition they learn how to win and lose and how to present yourself and be confident in front of people. I think that's important. The camaraderie and family atmosphere is really nice," she explained.
With St. Patrick's Day right around the corner, the children will be performing at a number of restaurants, pubs and other venues, including both Silver Lake and Nature Hill Intermediate Schools on Friday, March 15.
Fitzgerald said what they enjoy most is seeing how accomplished the children feel after learning a new dance, or even just a new step.
The dancers' costumes change as students advance and the fancier, bejeweled ones are earned through competition.
A requirement for the female dancers is to have their hair in curls.
The Fitzgerald girls, as do many others, opt to wear wigs instead.
The mother of three daughters said their straight hair does not take to the required curl, and the wigs are a huge time saver.
Irish Dancing can be expensive to pursue, but said the dance school organizes used shoe sales and used costume sales to help defray the cost.
"Still, a used solo dress, in particular, can still be over $1,500," she said.
The wigs are usually bought new.
Trinity does have a family tuition policy that helps with big families, like the Fitzgeralds.
"The siblings, after the second child, are free. So, we pay the tuition for the two kids at the highest dance level and the rest are free. This is true for the performance classes, too," she explained.
For now, the children travel regionally in the Milwaukee metro area for performances.
"Travel for competition can be national and international. International travel is usually for dancers who qualify for the World Championship," she added.
"I think the farthest we've traveled for competition is St. Louis, maybe Louisville. We're heading to Columbus in April," she said.
However, daughter Maya just started with Trinity's T2, a semiprofessional performance troupe that travels internationally to perform at various festivals.
"Last year, T2 traveled to Japan, Belgium, and Canada. She'll be eligible for the traveling team after a year in T2," Fitzgerald said.
Although the dance classes go year round, the children are also involved in other interests. Four of them are involved in gymnastics, and the youngest in soccer.
Fitzgerald said one of the things people may not realize is just how physically demanding Irish Dance is.
"It's more athletic than people realize and a good social outlet. The performance aspect of Irish Dance is what separates it from a regular sport. As athletic as Irish Dance is, it is also a performance art form," she noted.
Fitzgerald said dancing has become so ingrained that she finds her children practicing in the most unlikely of places.
"They dance everywhere - house, school, Target, church, seriously anywhere, practicing their steps. It's so funny, because we'll be at a store and they are dancing in the aisles. We'll be standing in line at Starbucks, and they practice a step.
"I feel like I could do the steps in my head, because I hear it so often, but I could never do it," she said with a laugh.
That determination is rewarded when the children compete.
"They love the competition and performances," Fitzgerald said.
"When they place at an Irish Dance competition, called a feis (pronounced fesh), it really validates all their time and effort in practicing. I also love watching them perform as part of a group," she added.
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