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Dancing Through Life

Mary Clarkson beams as she watches seven of her dancers perform.
You’ve probably seen them at some parade or event in St. Louis, grinning, curls bouncing, feet flying. The dancers from the Clarkson School of Irish Dance aren’t known for staying in the shadows, and they’re hard to miss in their brightly colored costumes. It’s clear from their enthusiasm that the dancers — and their instructor, Mary Clarkson, a 1984 Fontbonne University alumna — love what they do.

Clarkson has danced since she was five. Her mother, from Ireland, enrolled her in tap and ballet classes because, at the time, Irish dance lessons weren’t available in St. Louis. Seven years later, Clarkson’s mother discovered an Irish dance instructor in Webster Groves, a woman who held dance classes in her living room after Sunday morning mass.

“When I went to Irish dance, I didn’t know that I was good — I just loved it,” Clarkson said. “My other dance lessons laid the foundation. I loved Irish dance immediately.”

She continued dancing throughout her four years as an deaf education major at Fontbonne, a college she chose for its small size, solid education, and friendly, inviting environment. She graduated with a dual degree in both deaf education and elementary education.

“When I graduated from Fontbonne, I taught fourth grade. The woman I taught with graduated a year ahead of me at a different college,” she said. “I found that I had so many more teaching techniques and my education was much more thorough. I was so much more prepared because of my Fontbonne education.”

Now, in addition to instructing Irish dancers of all ages, Clarkson teaches first grade at St. James the Greater, a private Catholic grade school in Dogtown, a predominantly Irish neighborhood in St. Louis. It was here the school’s principal, knowing Clarkson’s passion for dancing, encouraged her to teach Irish dance for students at the school. Clarkson seized the opportunity.

To become certified as an Irish dance instructor, Clarkson had to pass an expensive, six-section exam that includes practical, written and oral tests. It can only be taken in Ireland and select cities like Boston and New York, and, if taken in the U.S., it is only given once in each city per year. And even then, examiners only offer a limited number of seats.

Clarkson traveled to Boston for four days in 1990, passing the exam and returning home as the only Irish dance instructor in the St. Louis area at the time to be fully accredited and certified by the Irish dancing commission. She began the Clarkson School of Irish Dance with only 15 girls practicing and performing in rented space. Since then, the school has grown to 140 students and makes its home at a well-equipped studio in Manchester, Mo., a suburb in western St. Louis County.

“We have something for everyone,” Clarkson said, proud of her dancers. “Some students just take classes during the school year, others perform in shows or parades. But some students are very competitive and dance all year. We have world medal holders dancing with us.”

So how does she do it? How does she balance 140 dancers with 19 first-graders and the management of a classroom?

“Well, I do a lot of dry cleaning, and I don’t cook,” she laughed. “But also, I’m very organized. I keep a calendar, and I’m very conscious and strict about following it. At the beginning of every August, I take a week off from dance, and I schedule the whole year.”

But busy as she is, Mary Clarkson just loves to dance. And this Fontbonne alumna wouldn’t schedule her life any other way.

Learn more about staying involved at Fontbonne as an alumna/us.