Catherine Bishop got into Irish dancing after seeing the Jackson Irish Dancers perform an Irish céilí.
One Thursday night in 1998, Catherine Bishop walked into Fenian's Pub for Irish Night. There, the classically trained dancer saw the Jackson Irish Dancers, performing an Irish ceili, a social dance where dancers move progressively from one partner to another. Participants generally perform steps on their toes, moving side-to-side and front to back, much like step dancing.
"That's when I first got introduced to Irish dancing and the group itself," Bishop says. "It looked fun, and I didn't watch it too long, because I got up and did it."
The dancers told Bishop the dance was not for the faint of heart, but she did the dance correctly on her first attempt. She said she botched her second try.
Since then, Bishop has been a member of local nonprofit the Jackson Irish Dancers. She is the performance director as well as a dancer and instructor.
"A lot of what we do is traditional stuff, so it's been passed down for generations," Bishop says.
She became the only certified Irish-dancing teacher in Mississippi, and she trained in Ireland in 2002 and 2003. Bishop was a Fulbright scholar at the time, earning her master's degree in ethnochoreology, the anthropology of traditional dancing from Ireland's University of Limerick in 2003. She holds a 2001 master's degree in choreographic theory and practice from Southern Methodist University.
Margaret Cupples, president of the Jackson Irish Dancers, says the group has performed in both Bright Lights, Belhaven Nights and CelticFest for several years.
Cupples has been involved in the organization for more than 15 years as a dancer and an instructor. The group has approximately 50 members and 20 active dancers, and they perform at festivals, weddings and other events from 12 to 24 times a year. Instructor Caelin Hanna also offers classes for ages 6 and up on Tuesday evenings.
"We really do feel like we are an educational organization as much as a dance group," Cupples says. "We are teaching people about a traditional dance form and spread the love we have for Irish dancing to other people in our community."
Cupples traveled to New Orleans to learn Irish dancing in the mid-1990s when "river" dancing was at the height of its popularity. They shared the dances with some friends, and the Jackson Irish Dancers became an official organization in 1998.
But the group has not strayed from Fenian's Irish Night.
"Our group will be up there a lot of Thursday nights just kind of informal dancing," Cupples says.
Dancer Harvey Kimble says they once broke Fenian's floor. "They've replaced the floor," he says. "Fenian's has been very good to us."
The Jackson Irish Dancers includes dancers and non-dancers. Kimble says he has never been a great dancer, but he started dancing with the group more than 10 years ago. "Somewhere along the line, they said they wanted me to dance with them. I said, 'Well, I don't think that's going to happen,'" he says. But Kimble enjoys dancing now.
"I think there's a big community in Jackson of folks who love and enjoy Irish music and dance," Bishop says. "I started out liking it because it was a different kind of dance, because it was different and fun to do, but then, it's grown into my family."
Jackson Irish Dancers will perform at CelticFest at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum (1150 Lakeland Drive, 601-432-4500). The group dances on the Sparkman Auditorium Stage Sept. 6 at 3 p.m. and Sept. 7 at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. For more information, visit celticfestms.org or jacksonirishdancers.org. For class inquiries, call 601-397-42373.