Although many yearn to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, there’s a trio of sisters in the Deerfield neighborhood who actually hail from the west coast of Ireland – Galway, to be exact. And they know their Irish dance moves.
Ranging in age from 12 to 15, the girls moved to Lawrence three years ago with their German parents, Stefan and Kathleen Lohfeld.
If you’ve ever seen them perform their award-winning Irish dances, you’ll likely recognize the Galway Girls. There’s Alannah, sophomore at Free State High School; Aleisha, eighth grader at West Middle School; and Amelia, sixth grader at WMS. All three were born in Galway (pronounced GAHL-way), where their parents lived for 16 years. Located on the western coast of Ireland, Galway is a popular tourist destination.
This is the Lohfeld family’s second stint in Lawrence. Originally here for Stefan’s one-year research appointment at the University of Kansas, the family went back to Ireland thinking they’d left Lawrence behind. But they returned and chose the Deerfield neighborhood again rather than the KC metro, where the family would have had to “start again from scratch.”
Sitting in her driveway surrounded by a pingpong table and garden furniture — magnets for neighborly interactions — Kathleen said Lawrence reminded her of Galway but without the beach. Both are university towns. She calls Lawrence “a big village” with a “mixture of all different cultures, languages, religions.”
“On our street, everybody knows everyone. We’re always out together. And that was something we had in Ireland,” she said. “All the kids were outside playing together. It’s nice living here because you still have that same relationship.”
Three to four days each week, the girls load into their mom’s van and head east for dance lessons at O’Riada Manning Academy of Irish Dance in Johnson County. During the school year, one to two weekends a month are spent at dance competitions — preferably within a 10-hour radius of Lawrence. On top of other extracurriculars, work, social lives and homework, it’s a grueling schedule for the family of five.
Each of the Galway Girls started Irish dancing lessons at 4. Alannah and Aleisha compete at the highest level, or open championship. Amelia dances right below them at the preliminary championship level. Their bedrooms boast shelves of trophies, medals, ribbons, sashes, stuffed animals, crystal and trinkets won at dance competition, also known as feis (pronounced fesh).
The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted in-person dance lessons, competitions and routines. Kathleen said as many as 50% of dancers in the midwest region left the sport during the pandemic. But thanks to the wrangling of technology and Stefan’s crafting of plywood staging, the girls were able to continue their lessons remotely at home.
Dancers land and jump from the balls of their feet and wear specialty soft and hard shoes. The sport can take a toll on a dancer’s feet, ankles and knees, so not just any stage will do. It needs to be hollow under the plywood.
“And the better if it’s a bouncing plywood,” Kathleen explained. “You can’t just put a piece of plywood on concrete. That will destroy their knees. There’s a lot of effort to have it safe.”
Fast feet, high kicks with straight legs, and a stiff upper body are prevalent in Irish dancing. For track participant Alannah, her leg muscles ache sometimes, but they’re strong. “It’s tiring on the legs,” she said.
Known for heavy stage makeup, beautiful costuming and towering wigs, Irish dance competition pieces can add several pounds of weight to a dancer’s frame. Alannah’s dress alone, covered in crystals, weighs in at 5 pounds.
There are also rigid and precise competition requirements. The financial demands for clothing and shoes alone can easily run into thousands of dollars. The Lohfelds recalled adding three extra hours to a competition trip to drive back home to retrieve a single hat feather.
Attending college in Germany is just a couple of years away for Alannah. She hasn’t decided yet whether she’ll continue dancing after high school graduation.
Kathleen remembers the Irish dancers from Berlin that performed at her and Stefan’s wedding. She hopes her daughters can find long-term enjoyment in the pastime they’ve invested in so heavily for most of their young lives, maybe even performing at weddings or in a dancing tour someday.
“I hope they don’t just give it up and hang it up on the hooks,” she said.
After the Lawrence St. Patrick’s Day parade on Thursday, the Galway Girls will dance to the music of Boys of the Prairie at at 3 p.m. at Kaw Valley Public House, 444 Locust St. Boys of the Prairie, a Celtic ensemble from Lawrence, have played tunes from “Ireland, Scotland, Brittany and beyond since 1987,” according to the group’s Facebook page.
The Galway Girls are also scheduled to perform at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 9 during the second Celtic Roots Festival at the Union Pacific Train Depot, 402 N. Second St.
Here’s a video of the Galway Girls’ performance at this year’s Ovation! USD 497 Talent Show, courtesy of the Lied Center:
Article updated at 5:54 p.m. Wednesday, March 16 to add video