Sisters Teach Irish Dance to a New Generation

Irish dance instructor Coleen Malloy directs students, from left: Mandy Ausman, Annie Wier, Abby Taffe and Gigi Nelson.

Sisters Eileen O’Kane and Coleen Malloy have been dancing their entire lives. Born to Irish immigrant parents,  they are the two youngest of seven children. O’Kane and Malloy remember dancing as a way of life. “All seven of us girls and boys danced,” O’Kane says. “It wasn’t something we were made to do. We just did it.”

The sisters made a name for themselves in regional competitions and traveled to Ireland for the World Championships. “We both won nationals, regional championships,” O’Kane says. “Coleen won it every year but one.” Both sisters also medaled at the World Irish Dancing Championships, the “Olympics of Irish dance.”

“Our start was very cultural,” says O’Kane, who went to college and earned an engineering degree. Malloy earned a business degree before both women decided to start a dance school. “We realized how fulfilling teaching is,” O'Kane says. Now, they helm two schools of Irish dance, the first of which opened in Chicago and second was launched in Eden Prairie.

The Mulhern School of Irish Dance in Eden Praire just celebrated its sixth year. “We do have a very established and high level school in Chicago. Without undoing what we had in Chicago, we could commit to fly in (to Eden Prairie) on Wednesday and come back on Thursday morning,” Malloy explains.

Eden Prairie was an ideal place to start their second studio. “It had everything to do with the studio space, as well as location,” O’Kane says. “It worked for our core families that we were setting up with.”  The duo remains inspired to build up young dancers, in confidence and skill. “Teaching self-confidence is huge,” Malloy says.

“We’re the top Minnesota school and one of the top schools in the region and country,” O’Kane says. “We have 40–45 students in Minnesota, and we still have the smallest, very much hands-on approach.” Their student base is still gathered through word of mouth. “When children see it, they want to try it out,” O’Kane says. “It’s so enjoyable to watch that.”

Students frequently travel to Chicago for competitions—a perk for the students, who maintain dance friendships in both cities. Still, O’Kane and Malloy like to have a good mix of competitions and local events for students. “We love to have opportunities to share something that’s so enjoyable in a non-stressful environment,” O’Kane says. “Families can’t always travel to competitions.”

“For our kids, they’re great role models,” Leah Nelson says. Her 9-year-old daughter has been dancing for close to six years, the last two at Mulhern. “They’ve shown what determination and hard work can cultivate.”

The importance of keeping alive this traditional art form is not lost on O’Kane and Malloy. “I think now more than ever I appreciate where I’m from, as a child of two Irish immigrants,” O’Kane says.
 
“I’m Irish, and my family is Irish. It’s important to me and fun to share with my family and friends,” student Annie Wier shares. At 16, Wier helps teach local students on Sundays while the sisters are in Chicago. For Wier, there’s a lot that’s special about dancing at Mulhern. “We only have dance once a week, so we’re all really focused,” she says. “We’re all really focused on and dedicated to what we do.” Wier’s mother, Shannon Wier, says, “They pay attention and motivate kids from ages 3 to 21.”