CINCINNATI -- The chances are pretty good that you’ve seen the McGing Irish Dancers perform – on St. Patrick’s Day, at a Reds game or at a school, business or parade.
McGing dancers have been jigging around the city – and the world – for 40 years under the tutelage of founder Mary McGing Duckworth.
Raised by parents who immigrated to Cincinnati from County Mayo in Ireland, McGing Duckworth started Irish dancing at age 7 and never stopped – even while she was playing competitive softball and soccer through her college years. She began teaching Irish dance as a college student when her own teachers retired. She stayed local for college – she has degrees in dietetics and education from the University of Cincinnati – so she could continue teaching. She spent a month in Ireland training as a teacher and took a four-day exam to become a certified teacher.
McGing Duckworth has been spreading her passion for Irish dance ever since.
When Riverdance, the Irish dance theatrical production, became a phenomenon in the late 1990s, students flooded to McGing’s studio and doubled the number of dancers. The studio moved to a bigger space in Blue Ash and has held a steady number of students -- about 250 -- ever since.
Before Riverdance, when people asked about McGing Duckworth’s job, she would have to explain Irish dancing to them. After Riverdance, it was a different story.
“Overnight it pretty much changed Irish dancing in the United States, or at least in Cincinnati,” she said. “It became cool to be Irish dancing.”
Although the dance studio is in Blue Ash with recreational satellite classes at St. Ignatius School and the Landen and Fort Thomas YMCAs, some dancers come for classes from as far away as Dayton and Athens, Ohio, a three-hour drive each way.
Irish dance is characterized by an energetic style of rapid legwork and footwork with minimal movement from the upper body, set to upbeat Irish music. The different styles are danced as solos or group dances and use soft shoes or hard shoes. Hard shoes produce a rhythmic percussion as the dancers’ shoes tap the floor.
McGing Duckworth has taught thousands of classes and has no immediate plans to stop. In addition to teaching dance, she maintained a career until her children were born, when she then focused all her attention on the studio and her role as a mother. While she has never felt burned out, there was a time when she questioned her decision to give up her career.
But hearing a radio interview with a former Cincinnati Bengals player erased any doubt.
“Anthony Munoz was on the radio saying, ‘I don’t know why God gave me the talent to play football, but he did, so if I am not using my talent then I am not living to my fullest potential,’” she said. “And that was all it took. From that moment on, I never questioned why I did Irish dancing. I knew right then and there that it was what I was meant to do.”
About one-third of McGing dancers compete, which means dancing five or six days each week after school.
Katie Baker, a junior at St. Ursula Academy, spends about 12 hours each week dancing at McGing, where she started taking classes a decade ago. While Baker said she clearly loves what she is doing, it is the people that make it so much fun.
“I have made some of my best friends through Irish dancing. It’s like a second family there,” Baker said. “I am so close with (Mary) and I trust her so much. She is so supportive, and I know she always wants me to do my best.”
McGing Irish Dancers has produced two world champion solo dancers and a world champion team, which made it the first North American school to have a female, male and team world champion.
McGing Duckworth’s son and daughter, now in their 20s, both danced at the studio and her daughter is now a dance teacher and manages the studio’s social media and communication.
The Duckworth family plans its summer vacation to wherever the North American championship is held that year – and has traveled to nearly every state as well as outside the U.S. for international competitions.
Thirteen former McGing dancers are now certified teachers, some of whom teach at the school. McGing Duckworth also brings in choreographers from Ireland each summer.
Laura Hamm Jimmar danced at McGing from age 10 to 16 and now her 6- and 9-year-old daughters dance there. While the physical activity is a big positive, Jimmar sees other benefits.
“Even my kindergartner is learning intricate steps, and it helps with their academic learning and gives them a sense of confidence,” Jimmar said.
Jimmar also likes the sense of community and that McGing Duckworth puts a focus on giving back with performances at a special needs school, local libraries and retirement communities several times each year.
While McGing Duckworth set out to share her love of Irish dancing as a teacher and keep her family’s culture alive, it’s the kids that keep her motivated.
“I think the only reason I have done this for 40 years is because I love teaching children. I just love it,” she said.