There is an Irish saying about friendship that goes, “There are good ships, and there are wood ships, ships that sail the sea, but the best ships are friendships. May they always be.” For Rince Arkansas Academy of Irish Dance in Fayetteville, this maxim particularly applies to the students and supporters of the dance art form in northwest Arkansas.


Ana Ayala Barker, a Mexican-American who was introduced to Irish dance in Fort Smith as a junior high school student, is the owner and director of Rince (pronounced RIHN’-kah, the Irish word for dance) Arkansas.


“I was 14, and some classmates had just moved to Fort Smith from Ohio. They did an Irish dance at school, and their mother told us that if we were interested in learning it, they would start a class,” she said. “I had never done dance before, but I had done gymnastics. At that time, I was quitting gymnastics, so I basically went from gymnastics to Irish dance. From that moment I watched my friend dance, I thought it was so cool and wanted to try it. I’ve been an Irish dancer ever since.”


The class, which was held once a week for anyone who wanted to join, sublet space from a local dance studio. The students and teachers became fast friends, and as the class grew, the group began looking for a certified Irish dance teacher, eventually finding one in Julia McCafferty. McCafferty founded McCafferty Academy of Irish Dance in Little Rock and held the recognized teacher qualification for Irish dance, Teagascóir Coimisiún Le Rinci Gaelacha.


“The greatest thing about Irish dance is it is a community. A lot of the tradition we were taught and we teach now is straight from Ireland,” Barker said. “There are a lot of dances you learn that are very cultural and very historic and have stayed the same throughout the years from the very beginning, but then there’s also a lot of change that has come about because the form has borrowed things from other forms of dancing.

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Rince Arkansas Academy of Irish Dance in Fayetteville teaches traditional Irish dances to students.

“Combining the athleticism and the choreography today, Irish dance can get complicated. If you watch River Dance or Lord of the Dance, you’ll see a little bit more showy stuff taking elements from tap and things like that, but Irish dance still maintains a lot of its roots, including the tradition of not moving your arms and always dancing to Irish tunes.”


There are several theories to explain why Irish dancers do not move their arms, even though no one knows the real reason. One is that a group was made to dance for Queen Elizabeth I during a period of English suppression (Irish culture was outlawed entirely in the 14th century), and in defiance, they refused to raise their arms to show they did not enjoy dancing for her or the people of England.


Another theory has to do with venue. Dancing behind bars in pubs while keeping their upper bodies stiff allegedly kept the English overlords unaware they were dancing. Still another theory states that it was not the English but local clergy the dancers were trying to fool because the Catholic Church allegedly disapproved of aspects of Irish dance.


“There’s a lot of talk about the reasons the arms aren’t used in traditional Irish dance, but there’s nothing specific or that’s proven,” Barker said.


Regardless of the reason, Irish dance demands its dancers be dedicated not only to tradition but to commitment, as well.


“People can come to Irish dance at any age, but most people begin when they are 5 or 6,” Barker said. “I started kind of late as a young teenager, but I’ve also seen people who have started later as adults. It depends on what you’re trying to get out of it. If you want to be competitive, starting at a younger age can be an advantage. If you’re learning it for the culture and the love and passion to just move your body, then you can start at any age.”


Barker said the Irish dance academy always accepts students and just started with dancers brand new to the art form in January.


“Our youngest just turned 3,” she said. “Her mom was an Irish dancer who is still taking classes. We have advanced dancers in our classes who have been with us since they were 3 or 4 years old, and they are in college now. Before the [COVID-19] pandemic, we had an adult class, but we haven’t started that class again. However, we do allow adults to join the beginner class if they like.”


Barker said among her students at Rince Arkansas, there are five families who have at least one parent who was born in Ireland who moved to northwest Arkansas to attend college or got a job and have built a life there.


“In addition to these first-generation Irish-Americans, we have families who dance with us who have Irish roots,” Barker said. “They might be fourth generation or so, but they still celebrate their culture.” 

Rince Arkansas competes in the Arkansas State Championship & Feis in November.

Part of Irish dance is the competitions, or feis (pronounced FESH). Barker and her team of students are preparing for the Arkansas State Championship & Feis, which takes place in November.


“It’s always the Veterans Day weekend, and this year, it will be Nov. 9 to 10 at the Fort Smith Convention Center,” Barker said. “We have people who come from all our neighboring states and beyond, including Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee. One year, we had a dancer fly all the way from Alaska to compete. Dancers come in from Florida, Virginia and Wisconsin too.”


The fascination of Irish dance is far reaching, and Barker’s own story of how she became committed to it is compelling.


“I’ve had a little bit more diversity in my Irish dance because I moved to Florida when I was in high school and started dancing with a different teacher there,” she said. “She had more availability. Her classes were every day, whereas the classes in Arkansas were once a week, based on the teacher’s schedule. I started doing dance three or four days a week and progressed really, really fast. During the two years I was in Florida, I moved into the championship level of Irish dance, participating in competitions. Then I moved back to attend the University of Arkansas [in Fayetteville] and returned to McCafferty School of Irish Dance.

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“I am Irish a tiny bit. My report says I’m about seven percent Irish, but I was born in Mexico and came to the United States when I was 8. Irish dance was the thing I got into and just loved doing. Nowadays, there’s so much more Irish dance — there are 10 or so Irish dance academies in Mexico, which is kind of crazy. Mexico is a big country, and a lot of academies there have relationships with academies in the United States. It’s crazy how much Irish dance has grown globally.”


Barker, who has a bachelor’s degree in advertising and public relations and a master’s in adult lifelong education, works for the University of Arkansas in higher education by day and as the director of Rince Arkansas on nights and weekends. The academy’s logo, in fact, is an homage to the U of A.


“It’s an Irish boar,” she said. “As an alum, I wanted to give a nod to my school. I’m a huge Razorback fan.”


While taking on two incredibly taxing careers, Barker dreams of bigger things the academy could one day accomplish.


“I have giant dreams of opening an Irish cultural center here, where it would include music, dance, language, art and culture,” she said. “A broader cultural center would allow us to combine with Ballet Folklorico that the Hispanic community has in northwest Arkansas. We could include island dances from our Filipino communities. My hope would be to have a place where anyone could show off whatever their cultural art forms may be.”


Ballet Folklorico means “dances of the people,” and it encompasses several traditional dances from different regions of Mexico. The art form has been practiced for centuries and is based on ceremonial dances of indigenous people, which makes it akin to the history and culture of Irish dance.


As for Barker and the Rince Arkansas Academy of Irish Dance, the focus continues to be on introducing Irish dance to the community and celebrating its history and culture throughout the year.

Rince Arkansas participates in a number of community events each year.

“We’re always busy around St. Patrick’s Day, of course,” Barker said. “This year, we have partnered with the Fayetteville Public Library again and will be performing in their beautiful new space. Their stage is awesome and such a great place to dance now. Then we will be dancing at the art walk in downtown Rogers and have plans to also celebrate in Bentonville. We also dance at a lot of senior centers, assisted living facilities and schools.”


Barker said in addition to having a tight-knit teaching team and students, the academy is part of a community of families who share a common love for Irish dance, history and culture.


“I think we are a hidden gem in northwest Arkansas,” she said. “We’re something that people are always surprised to see when we’re around town, dancing. We’re here and love to partner with the community. We’re always accepting new dancers, and we’re always looking for ways to make more friends.” 


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