With its bright blue cinderblock exterior and vintage Guinness advertisement near the front door, Neligan’s looks the part of a traditional Irish pub. In fact, it looks a whole lot like several pubs on Main Street in Dingle, a bohemian town in Ireland’s County Kerry that’s become known for its food scene in recent years. But there was something about Neligan’s sound that helped it stand out among the rows of beer signs and Celtic lettering: accordion music and perfectly timed footsteps, punctuated by someone calling out directions in Irish, drifted out the front door. Neligan’s was having a céili, an Irish folk dancing night that happens weekly (more or less). This wasn’t a show put on for tourists. It was standing room only, and nearly everyone seemed to recognize each other as the crowd ebbed and flowed. People came in for a dance, a drink, some conversation, then left. It was a weekday, after all.
An older man playing the accordion sat against a windowless wall. Sometimes a singer or a fiddler joined him. In between songs (while the band was getting a drink), people roamed the small space looking for a dance partner. There was no hiding. A young woman in a long-sleeved floral dress and motorcycle boots approached, beckoning me with a friendly wave onto the dance floor. It was Niamh Varian-Barry, a trad violinist and singer, whom I would meet more formally the next day when she and her husband performed for the group in a parlor above a different pub.
“Do you want to lead?” she offered. I had no idea what I was doing, I confessed, so definitely not.
“It’s so easy,” Niamh assured me. “You’ll be grand.”
“Haon, dó, trí, ceather,” the caller counted, and we were off.
Dance after dance, song after song, people of all ages twirled, marched, shuffled, bumped into each other, and shrieked with laughter. It was an instant initiation into the local culture—a boundary breaker better than most.
That’s the idea behind Bare Feet, the award-winning dance travel show on PBS and the reason I’m bumping into strangers with glee in Ireland. Mickela Mallozzi is the creator and host who—as the show’s intro says—“experiences the world one dance at a time.” Mallozzi studied ballet, jazz, and tap growing up, then taught dance for nearly a decade. When she traveled to places with a language barrier, she got the idea to attend festivals and cultural celebrations; there, she joined in public dances, which often led to new friendships and invitations to homes or private parties. Jumping off the success of her show, she launched Bare Feet Tours in 2014 with a Balinese dance tour. In 2017, she continued with a tango trip in Argentina.
“Early on, I realized this is an incredible way to travel and an easy way to connect with locals immediately while traveling,” says Mallozzi. “I created the Bare Feet Tours so that people could have a truly immersive and accessible travel experience.”
I joined the inaugural Bare Feet Ireland tour in May 2022, an immersive trip that brought us through Dublin; Ennistymon and Doolin in County Clare; and Dingle and Killarney in County Kerry over nine days.
I can’t remember the last time I took a dance class—or any kind of class that wasn’t on a screen, thanks to the pandemic. Taking three Irish dance classes in a week while on a bus tour through Ireland seemed . . . ambitious. In that time, we were told we’d learn traditional Irish step dancing, set dancing, and sean-nós dancing. I pictured a group of semi-pro dancers showing up in stylish workout gear that would put TikTokers to shame. Instead, I met 10 wonderfully normal people who wanted to learn more about Irish arts and culture. We danced in jeans, sneakers, leggings, sweaters, clogs, whatever we were wearing that day.
My 10 fellow travelers were different ages and stages in life, from their late 20s through late 50s. Margaret, Bobbi, Daniel, and I were the four solo travelers. Bobbi was a repeat Bare Feet Tours traveler. Sofia and Julian, from Pennsylvania, love to dance when they’re not working bicoastal business jobs. Kim and her sister Stephanie (and Stephanie’s husband Bruce) are all in the ice cream business in Oregon. Byron joined his sister Brighid (who majored in dance at NYU) on the tour when their parents couldn’t due to COVID quarantines. Everyone in the group was a fan of the show.
Learning new skills with a group of strangers on the first real vacation most of us had taken in years was a fabulous bonding experience. Of course, some people were much better dancers than others, but here we were, a random gang in Ireland, trying our best to learn something relatively foreign to all of us. Dancing turned out to be a powerful way to connect. On any given day, we were laughing at each other (good-naturedly), impressing each other, or helping each other learn on the dance floor.
That’s the point of Bare Feet Tours. It’s not supposed to be an elite dancing experience. It’s supposed to be a fun cultural immersion, with some expert private dance lessons thrown in.
“We’ll be professionals soon enough!”
The dance barn next to Vaughan’s Pub in Kilfenora, County Clare, held some of the country’s last remaining set dances in the country each Sunday from 1991 to 2020. Irish set dancing originated in the 18th century, with influence from the French quadrilles and court dances. Four couples dance together in a “set” while weaving into shapes and patterns, then rotating positions (and sometimes alternating partners). The barn was still closed to the public due to COVID, but we had a private lesson with Aidan Vaughan, one of Ireland’s modern-day dance masters.
As with all our classes, the professionals taught us first, then Mallozzi jumped in to give people extra attention. Mallozzi could do it all, seeming to learn new moves by osmosis. Not only did she make it look easy, she made it feel easy to learn, with a cheery Type A disposition. As my partner, she helped adjust my steps and timing right away. When it was my turn to dance with Vaughan, we stood in a waltz hold while waiting for everyone else to get into their positions. He watched people with an eagle eye, eager to start the dance.
“We’ll be professionals soon enough,” I joked to break the ice.
Vaughan shook his head vigorously. Then he paused.
“No,” he said, in case it wasn’t clear.
“Maybe in a few years’ time,” he added, diplomatically.
Group dance classes are like karaoke: it’s better when everyone is kind of average but still giving it their all.
A (tin) whistle-stop tour
In Doolin, County Clare, we stopped by Gus O’Connor’s pub (one of the world’s most famous spots for Irish music). There, we met Christy Barry, an Irish trad musician who is especially skilled in the tin whistle (a small instrument like a recorder, but much, much shriller). It’s easy to play, but hard to play well. Trad music put Doolin on the map as a tourist destination. The town sprung up from there. Barry taught us a traditional tin whistle song, but he underestimated our enthusiasm. The sea breeze carried 11 separate versions of our cacophony far and wide, sending humans and seagulls fleeing. Doolin may never recover.
In between dancing, we saw parts of the country. Our guide and bus driver, Patrick Foley, entertained us the whole week with his expert knowledge of Irish history and culture (and some songs). We spent around 12 hours on the bus throughout the week, with the longest journey going from Dublin to Clare. Roughly half of the tour was free time; Foley had recommendations for all of it, even taking us on an impromptu drive around the scenic Slea Head along the Dingle Peninsula. There were other (scheduled) surprises from Foley and Mallozzi, too: a literary pub crawl in Dublin, a walking food tour and private trad session in Dingle, a self-guided bike tour of Killarney National Park, a stop into several artisan shops, a visit with a five-time World Champion Irish dancer in his family pub, and a performance banquet in Killarney.
Killarney was the final stop of the tour, where we learned about sean-nós (“old style”) dancing. Before Irish dancing became rigid, it was free and improvisational. Sean-nós requires plenty of shuffling and bashing with your feet, similar to clogging, tap dancing, or flatfooting. Unlike the ramrod straight upper bodies of Riverdance, sean-nós dancers can go where the beat takes them. There are no partners in this style of dance, unless you’re doing a broom dance—in which case your partner is an actual broom, which you jump over, shuffle around, and ultimately kick up over your shoulder for the finale.
Ireland is full of prehistoric archaeology, thatched roof pubs, appealing small towns, stone churches, rolling green fields, and wild natural scenery. There’s a reason this country gets over 11 million visitors a year. While there’s plenty to see, there’s a lot to be said for true cultural immersion through its song and dance. The country has a strong pub culture and an even stronger arts culture. COVID shut down pubs for a year and a half; singing and dancing indoors were not allowed to resume fully until spring of 2022. While we saw plenty of “modern” Irish dancing (the kind drunk teenagers do) to live music in after-hours pubs while we were there, it just underscored the point.
Ireland is not a spectator country. Sometimes it’s best to dive in, feet first.