Voice of the Bay

Stepping Up for St. Patrick's Day

Kevin Doyle of Barrington has mastered the art of traditional Irish dance


The dance steps of the late Margaret Taylor Doyle of County Roscommon, Ireland live on in her son, acclaimed Irish step dancer Kevin Doyle of Barrington. Growing up in Providence’s South Elmwood neighborhood, Kevin learned the intricate steps at age eight while standing at the kitchen sink where every morning before school his mother, a talented dancer and Irish immigrant, would instruct him and his younger sister Maureen. In 2014, Kevin’s artistry was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) awarding him a National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. He is one of only three Irish step dancers to be recognized by NEA for mastering the artistic skills and preserving the cultural traditions of this art form.

A graduate of Community College of Rhode Island, Kevin retired in 2013 from the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, and previously had 28 years with Almacs Supermarkets. Kevin now works full-time performing across the country and teaching Irish traditional and American tap at The Rhody Center for World Music and Dance in Pawtucket.

Kevin is a member of Pendragon, Atwater-Donnelly Band and Atwater-Donnelly Trio as a dancer and percussionist. Kevin and his creative collaborator Mary Lee Partington of their company, Roscommon Soles, will present Step into the Irish Parlor – St. Patrick’s Day at the Greenwich Odeum featuring dance, music and storytelling on, March 11 and March 12 Check out KevinDoyleDance.com or GreenwichOdeum.com.

In Irish traditional step dancing, hands are down by the sides and all movement is below the waist. With American tap dance your knees are bent and everything is about expressing with your entire body. Most Irish step dancers have trouble transitioning into that. I never did. When I was young I remember watching James Cagney in the George M. Cohan movie. I was so infatuated with that dance style I wanted to learn how to do it. I took American tap dance lessons from Theresa Landry in Pawtucket, who just turned 95 in the fall. She only stopped teaching in 2014. She was a real inspiration to me and always saw that I followed my passion.

My mother had been a championship dancer. Many of the steps I still use came from her. When she saw that my sister Maureen and I had some skills, we started taking lessons in Providence. I got my first medal at age eight. I competed up and down the East Coast. My dad would load up the car with a cooler full of sandwiches and sodas and we would travel to all the Feises (traditional Irish dance competitions). The only thing unenjoyable [about it] was that my Aunt Annie had sent over an Irish costume made of the finest Irish wool but it seemed whenever you competed it was 97 degrees.

Historically only men of the village did Irish step dancing. They were taught by the traveling dance masters [who were] also men. Now it’s primarily girls dancing. Today there’s too much focus on training and the pressure to compete for the World championship. I feel dancers have lost sight of why they dance. It is supposed to be about heritage and tradition and passing it along.

When I’m dancing on stage or practicing in my studio I have a smile on my face. It’s a joy that comes flowing out of me whether I’m dancing, creating choreography or working with other dancers. I will ask my wife Donna after a performance, “How did it go?” I’m in my zone and I don’t hear the applause. To this day, I still get butterflies waiting to get out on stage. Once I get that first number down, I’m on my way. And it all started at the kitchen sink.