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Three Rivers Dance: Patrons square off Tuesdays at Irish Pub

Thursday, July 06, 2000

By Bette McDevitt

Correction/Clarification: (Published July 8, 2000) Guitarist Jim Dilmore’s name was misspelled in a story Thursday about Irish dancing at the Harp and Fiddle in the Strip District.

If you're thinking of dropping into the Harp and Fiddle in the Strip District on a Tuesday night for a quiet pint, think again. It won't be quiet, but it will be a rousing good time. Tuesday night is dancing night at the Irish pub.

Lisa Stasa, left, and Bill Jamison dance the Limerick Tumblers at the Harp and Fiddle in the Strip District. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette) 

There will be a few Guinness Stouts on hand, along with a "Margaret Murray," grapefruit juice and cranberry juice, named for one of the regulars who came from Donegal. These folks are not serious drinkers, but they are intense dancers.

Every Tuesday is Ceili night at the pub, a "gathering for dancing and music" in Celtic. All are welcome here to watch or to dance, and they're not all Murphys and O'Briens.

Bob Kaniecki, of Polish background, not only dances but also is a teacher of Irish dancing. His wife, Jean Friel Kaniecki, cousin of the Irish playwright Brian Friel, had a bit to do with his conversion. The same with Jim Grey, who is of Ukrainian-Slav background.

"I dragged him here kicking and screaming eight years ago, and he's been dancing ever since," says his wife, Cheryl McLafferty.

Ed Rorison and Steve Weed came willingly. Tall, thin Rorison, a mailman by day, can always be seen above the crowd, his ponytail flying as he twirls. Weed is a computer analyst for Bayer and a Harley-Davidson devotee, painter, composer and dancer in his free time. His Harley shirt and tattoos are a nice contrast with the jig and reel.

Bill Schneiderman, a Scott resident of German descent, is there every week at his post beside the door. Schneiderman, 84 and retired from the Pittsburgh Symphony after 39 years as a percussionist and timpani player, has many ad hoc functions here. He serves as the greeter, keeps an eye on the dancers and handbags, and teaches others to play the bodhran or sometimes the bones. He may play along with the band from his post.

"If the beat is not heard, I play along to help the dancers," he says.

The bodhran, pronounced bow-ron in southern Ireland or boron in northern Ireland and Scotland, resembles a tambourine without the bells. The drummer keeps the beat with a small stick called a tipper. The bones are just that, originally from the rib cage of an animal but now made of wood or plastic. It is a primordial instrument from the Stone Age, according to Schneiderman.

The PSO drummer stopped in after a Sunday concert for a drink at the Harp and Fiddle and saw the bodhran.

"It was a challenge, another percussion instrument to learn," he says.

He has appreciated dancing since his days as a drummer with the Sol Hurok Ballet Theater Company and the Pittsburgh Folk Festival.

"Set dancing is a beautiful dance, like a ballet, when done correctly," he says.

Michael Drohan of Forest Hills, a regular along with his wife, Joyce Rothermel, director of the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank, sees it as an art form.

"This is unlike modern dance, where people are wiggling their legs or whatever. I can only enjoy a dance fully when I know what I'm doing next and when I don't have to think about that. I'm interested in listening to that music and letting it vibrate in one's body."

The steps also come easily to Liz Shovlin Grinko of Mt. Lebanon, who calls out the sets. Grinko has been doing jigs and reels since she was a child, along with her seven siblings.

"Our parents didn't ask. They just signed us up for dance classes at the Irish Center in Squirrel Hill. We heard Dad playing the fiddle every night. We didn't fight it because it was good. Dancing and music are good food for the soul," she says.

Grinko also goes with her husband to the Teutonia Mannerchor for German dancing once a month. When she is calling the sets at the Harp and Fiddle, her father, Peter Shovlin, plays the fiddle. Richard Withers plays the flute; Carla Dundas, the tin whistle; Jim Dilmore or Bruce Foley are the guitarists; and Les Getchell, the bodhran.

Getchell began with the tin whistle and took up the bodhran to strengthen his sense of rhythm. He is one of those fortunate few whose day job meshes with his love of music. Getchell works with Joan Sherman's Artist Management Co. and represents nine musical artists, including Jay Unger and Molly Mason, composer and players of the sweet fiddle music for Ken Burns' "Civil War" series on PBS.

Dr. Jim Withers, brother of the flutist, often sits alongside Getchell and plays his own bodhran.

"This is different than going to a bar. It's a healthy way to meet people," says Withers.

The young doctor, nationally known for his work with the homeless in Pittsburgh, often brings medical students with him to the Harp and Fiddle.

"They are surprised to see me in this context. It humanizes the relationship," he says.

But they don't get to see him dance.

"I'm a bit shy about that," he admits.

That's understandable. The busy doctor may not have the time needed to become a dancer. There are steps to be learned and distinctions to be made.

Two kinds of dancing take place at the Harp and Fiddle -- Ceili dancing and set dancing. Ceili dancing can be line or progressive dancing, and set dancing is more precise. Drohan explained that the set dancing came to Ireland from other parts of Europe.

"In the 19th century, Irish soldiers in the British army who were fighting England's wars in Europe learned quadrille dancing and brought it back to Ireland, put it to Irish music, and it became known as set dancing. This was the dancing of the common people, done in their kitchens and at crossroads," he says.

When set dancing came to America, it was named square dancing.

Neither of these two dance forms are to be confused with step dancing, which is the performance dancing seen in "River Dance." Clogging is yet another Irish dance form, incorporating step dancing, Indian dancing and African shuffling.

In set dancing, there is a body to the dance, similar to the verse in a song, and there are four "figures," similar to the chorus of a song. The dance is determined by the type of music, which can be a hornpipe, jig, reel, slide or polka.

Irish dancing opened up a new world to Joan Faust, a lively red-haired widow.

"It's been my lifesaver. Where would I have gone as a widow? I can do something every night, if I want to, with the Ceili Club."

Ann Mullaney, the owner of the Harp and Fiddle, takes Faust's comment to heart.

"One of my goals here has been that a woman can come here alone and not be hit upon. And women tell me they feel comfortable here."

Drohan thinks it's a good time for all.

"You have live music, sometimes eight musicians of a very high caliber and very energetic dancing. People love this combination. Where else can you get this for $3?"

To encourage newcomers to Irish dancing (and to keep the flailing about to a minimum), the Ceili Club offers lessons from 7 to 9 p.m. Sundays at the South Side Market House, on 12th Street off West Carson. Dancers at the Harp and Fiddle also offer some instruction from 7 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays at the pub before the dancing begins.

Bette McDevitt is a free-lance writer.

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