The Gaelic word for celebration is "ceili." Pronounced "KAY-lee," it's a word that anyone associated with the world of Irish dancing knows well. They also know a few other words that aren't pronounced like they're spelled - "feis" (FESH) and "oireachtasi" (or-ACH-tihs), which describe other types of Gaelic gatherings, all of them likely to feature festive music and lively dancing.

The Gaelic word for celebration is "ceili." Pronounced "KAY-lee," it's a word that anyone associated with the world of Irish dancing knows well. They also know a few other words that aren't pronounced like they're spelled - "feis" (FESH) and "oireachtasi" (or-ACH-tihs), which describe other types of Gaelic gatherings, all of them likely to feature festive music and lively dancing. For the Richens/Timm Academy of Irish Dance, St. Patrick's Day and the months surrounding it are a busy time. When they're not competing in places as far flung as Dublin and Belfast on the Emerald Island of Ireland, they are dancing to raise money for these travels, which have made them one of the most successful Irish dance programs in North America. The Academy has nearly 500 students in three locations - Dublin (the one in Ohio), Dayton and Indianapolis - and about half of them come from the Dublin studio. On a Sunday afternoon last month, many of the students gathered for a "Big Buddy" party. The idea, explained veteran mom Annemarie Hickey, is "to let our oldest dancers meet the newest beginner dancers and act like their mentors." The beginners would be making their performing debut in a few weeks at the Academy's biggest fundraiser, a family-friendly "Legacy Ceili." The event would also honor the Academy's founder Ann Richens who passed away, far too young, last summer. "For anything through the dance year," explained Hickey, "it helps the little ones to know they have someone there they can talk to." As the children arrived at the school, they were paired with their big buddies. The ages ranged from 6 to 20 for the group, and they first gathered in the main studio. Teacher Allanda O'Neill, herself a lifelong member of the Academy and 7-time World Championships competitor, guided the pairs of dancers through a two-hand reel dance known as "The Sweets of May." It's a popular kick-off dance for many ceili, explained O'Neill. After alittle more dancing, it was time for the kids to get to know each other better, as aided by a diet of green-frosted cupcakes, Irish soda bread, juice drinks and a "tricolor" punch made with orange soda pop poured over lime sherbet (the ensuing white froth completed the trio of colors found in the Irish flag). Two of the dancers modeled their competition dresses. Grace Blanchong, 10, is a fourth-grader at Central College Elementary School in Westerville. Her intermediate-level dress, embroidered with a colorful weave of Celtic designs, costs "only" about $700 (though many families will buy them used). Grace, who has been dancing for five years, said she is already hooked on the athletic art of Irish dance. "I love it," Grace said. "Learning new steps, being with my friends, going places and competing." And she has Bishop Watterson High School senior Lyndsey Faherty to look up to, not least for Lyndsey's competition dress - a black velvet beauty encrusted with Swarovski crystals and custom-made in Dublin. It set the 17-year-old and her family back $3,000, but the dedicated student, who has already made "8 or 9 trips to Ireland" in her 14-year competitive career, explained that she has won scholarships and works as an assistant teacher at the Academy to raise money to pay for it all. She and her classmates also do a bit of busking - a time-honored tradition in the Irish dance world of performing at social gatherings and passing the hat to collect money. The party concluded with "getting to know you" chats and coloring projects. Most curious, though, was to see the children, without prompting, pick up every last crumb from the dance-studio floors. "Oh, they know they have to take care of their dance floors," laughed another mom, Kim Harlan Oyer. Photo by Tessa Berg