Falls Church has landed a new school of Irish dance that opened its doors to the public in January and brings with it a long tradition of excellence.
The McGrath Academy of Irish Dance accepts boys and girls ages four and up who want to kick their heels, sharpen their skills and learn the art on East Fairfax Street.
And the students will learn it at one of the best institutions in the U.S. as regional, national and world championships are all part of the McGrath portfolio whose instructors are champions in their own right.
Students from around the region come to McGrath, like 14-year-old Sophia Rankin, a student at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, who has taken Irish dancing lessons since she was four.
“She could go every day, she loves it so much,” said her mother, Jennifer Reed, who drives her daughter to class in Falls Church and Bethesda to follow instructor John Lawrence Morgan wherever he is teaching.
That’s because Morgan has won numerous world championships himself and choreographs dance program champions, and was a member of Michael Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance” between 2009 and 2012.
From his parents’ famed Morgan School of Irish Dancing in Manchester, U.K., academy owner and director Lauren McGrath Dutton lured him across the Atlantic to come and teach at the academy.
His addition to her retinue of teachers is a huge get for the burgeoning academy and enabled the school to offer classes in Falls Church and North Bethesda, per Dutton.
“There’s quite an Irish community here [in Falls Church] and we’ve felt very supported,” Morgan said, before Dutton added, “We needed to link our locations and fill the gap in Falls Church and Bethesda. It made sense.”
Reed doesn’t complain about driving her daughter to practice almost every day, even though Rankin takes lessons five days a week.
The quality of instruction far outweighs the pangs of making regular trips across state lines, and is a good way to establish some familiarity with her cultural roots.
“It’s like other travel sports, there’s a rhythm we get into. The parents support each other. We carpool,” Reed added. “[Plus] we have an Irish heritage and this seemed like a good fit.”
Reed can’t say enough good things about McGrath Academy which benefits her daughter in multiple ways.
She credits McGrath with teaching Rankin how to succeed, inspiring healthy eating habits, improving her daughter’s attention to detail, goal setting, time management and even motivate her to get better grades.
“I have seen my daughter improve in real time. I don’t know of any other school which offers a complete regimen like McGrath. It’s exciting to watch.”
Rankin herself told the News-Press about her take on academy and its influence in her life.
“The best part about dancing is that it helps me take my mind off of homework or anything that bothers me at school during the day,” Rankin said. “If I were not at dance class I would probably be focusing on guitar lessons – but it isn’t something I think about with regret. Dance is what I have always done, as long as I can remember, and the practice routine is natural like breathing or getting up in the morning.”
When it comes to competing at the Oireachtas (pronounced Uh-rock-tus), the regional championship where McGrath students were among 2,000 rivals from 15 states and Mexico who vied for trophies last December in Orlando, the academy is no slouch.
McGrath’s dancers earned a 78 percent “recall” or call back rate, the highest in the region which qualified winners for national and world competitions.
In April, Dutton will lead nine of her students to Glasgow, Scotland, to compete in the worlds. Rankin will be among them.
Ideally students will carry the good vibes from one of academy’s most celebrated months of the year with them.
McGrath students marched in St. Patrick’s Day parades in Alexandria on March 3 and doubled up on March 10 by participating in the Manassas and Gaithersburg parades as well, showing that they embrace both Irish dance and heritage simultaneously.
Dutton herself began lessons at age two, winning many championships, including a world title.
She is now a certified Irish dance judge, which requires years of experience in order to qualify for such a role.
In the 1970s her mother, a certified Irish dancer, opened McGrath Academy which she ran about 15 years in the DMV area. Her daughter re-opened the studio in 2004, this time in Gainesville.
Dutton’s grandfather, John McGrath, emigrated to the U.S. from Dumbarton, Ireland when he was nine years old. (Her father, brother and nephews are all named “John McGrath.”)
“My mother grew up in Connecticut and took Irish dance classes, and she assisted her teachers. My aunt was a beginner and that’s how my parents met, through my aunt.” Dutton continued. “It was a wonderful link and another example of how dancing brings people together, and it’s long-lasting,” Dutton said.
More information about the McGrath Academy is available at mcgrathirishdance.com or by calling 703-772-1236. The Falls Church studio is located at 100-A East Fairfax St.