Drink enough on St. Patrick's Day, and you may think you're seeing leprechauns dance for you. But those aren't leprechauns: They're kids from local dance studios, whose parents are happy to let them Flatley as you Farrell.
Irish dancing is big with kids, so it makes sense to get them involved on the most Irish day of the year—even if everybody else is drunk off their asses. Each year, pint-sized Irish dancers, some as young as 5, take center stage among hundreds of pint-swigging revelers. As the rhythmic pounding of the dancers' jig shoes rises over the roar of the crowd, carousers can grow rowdy.
Kinsey Brimhall, 21, is from the Tony Comerford School of Dance. She wasn't old enough to drink last year, but she still got a taste of the crowd at Kells Irish Restaurant & Pub downtown. "They were screaming and cheering, and you could kind of see them dancing in the background," she says. "In some ways it's nicer, actually, because they clearly don't know what they're watching, so I guess there's less pressure."
Two years ago, a young male championship dancer became cougar bait. "These two ladies that were obviously drunk were, like, catcalling him," says Kylie Fraser, a 17-year-old with the Murray Irish Dancers.
Yet parents aren't worried. In fact, Kells is something of a Grand Ole Opry for Portland's Irish dancers: Everyone wants to perform there. It's also a recruiting tool for local dance schools.
"Kells is kind of a big thing," says Brimhall's mother, Cathy. "Most of the schools are represented. It gets their names out there so they can get more students into the school."
That's certainly the case for Geraldine Murray, director of the Murray School of Irish Dancing, whose students spend St. Patrick's Day weekend shuffling between bar gigs.
"Sometimes the crowd will hoot and holler at the kids," Murray says, though she's quick to add that—aside from floors made slippery by spilled beer—she's never encountered a problem. "Kells has been really tight with OLCC regulations," she says. "They escort the kids in through the back, have us up on the stage dancing and have us out through the door."
Compared to how St. Patrick's Day is celebrated in Ireland—where parents bring their tots to the pub—the precautions seem almost prudish. Why, then, bother with kid performers? Why not book adults? There's a simple answer: The adults in this town just aren't very good.
"Adults dance because they really like it," Murray says, "but they're not going to be leaping as high as the kids. They're not going to be as fast as the kids."
SEE IT: St. Patrick's Irish Festival is at Kells, 112 SW 2nd Ave., 227-4057. Various times Friday-Sunday, March 15-17. Free-$25.