When you walk into the Tully Academy of Irish Dance in Glenview, you immediately find yourself in the middle of a Gaelic fairytale.
The walls are painted lime green and fire engine red, with murals of Irish dance costumes, Irish dancing shoes and Gaelic words, and the halls are lined with elaborately embroidered dresses in every imaginable color.
But the whimsy of the place is nothing compared to what happens when the dancers start to move. Girls in soft shoes skip and jump across the floor with the agility of nymphs, feet aflutter. Older girls, dancing the male roles in jeans, button-down shirts and clogs, stomp up and down in place, clicking their heels and toes to the rhythm. If you aren’t mesmerized by the intricate repetition of the steps, it’s probably because you’re too busy clapping your hands, tapping your feet or bobbing your head.
The award-winning dancers from the Tully Academy perform with a joy that is contagious—as you might find out at one of the school’s almost 70 gigs (also known as jigs) on and around St. Patrick’s Day. In addition to having fun, the roughly 200 girls (and a few boys) gain a strong sense of confidence from the dancing, thanks to the school’s Founder and Director Sheila Tully Driscoll.
Driscoll, a Glenview resident, is the magician behind it all. She’s been teaching Irish dance throughout the Chicago area for 46 years. A true Irish lassie, she grew up in the Belmont Central neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Her parents came to the U.S. from County Mayo in the ’20s. When she was growing up, her father threw a party every Saturday night in the family’s basement with all their Irish friends, musicians playing traditional Irish music and, of course, dancing.
Driscoll and her 7 siblings started learning Irish dance at age 4 or 5, but Driscoll didn’t pick it up easily. “No hope for this one,” she remembers her father saying, but dancing was a mandatory activity in the Tully household.
Driscoll taught her first dance class when she was still in high school: There were 13 students and she keeps in touch with most of them. Within a few years she was teaching several classes of up to 40 kids. She earned a degree in education at Loyola and, in addition to Irish dancing, taught kindergarten in the Chicago Public Schools for 13 years. She’s also a judge for major national and international Irish dance competitions.
“It’s easy, but it’s hard,” Driscoll says of Irish dancing. “It’s unbelievable how quickly [the children] can learn.”
She does a lot of clapping with her students to help them learn the rhythms, and she believes the required memorization—of the seven steps of the jig, for instance—is good for children’s mental development. She keeps the atmosphere fun and doesn’t require her students to practice outside of class.
Parents appreciate that the dancing isn’t such a big commitment that the kids can’t do anything else, and it’s not ultra-competitive. Driscoll’s dancers have competed all over the country and in Ireland, but she only displays a few trophies in her studio. Mara Grujanac of Lincolnshire says her daughter Anne likes the competitive aspect, while other kids just dance for fun.
As for Driscoll’s teaching, Grujanac says: “She has such a passion for the dancing— and really for the kids. The dancers can feel it.
Kristin Hughes of Highland Park, whose daughters Gabby, Katie and Caroline all dance at Tully, also speaks highly of Driscoll’s work: “It’s more than Irish dance. She wants them to grow up to be great people.”
Perhaps one of Driscoll’s strongest qualities as an Irish dance teacher is her meticulous attention to appearances. She’s constantly instructing her dancers to fix their outfits so they look just right. In Irish dancing, you are known for your costume, she explains; it represents your level and school. Parents spend anywhere between $300 and $2,500 for a costume, which includes a dress, headband, leotard and cuffs.
Equally important to the costumes are the wigs of bouncy, tightly curled brown locks: They complete the picture and make the girls look uniformly beautiful.
“You put a wig on this kid, and her eyes light up,” Driscoll says. “It’s absolutely magic. She thinks she is the most gorgeous child that has ever been born. She’s transformed.”
Although Driscoll says Irish dancing is “in your blood,” that doesn’t necessarily mean Irish blood: Occasionally there’s an Irish kid in one of her classes, but for the most part, the kids come from different backgrounds. Just as everybody’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, everybody’s Irish in Irish dancing.