Our Family

Our Dancers Will Always Be Family

Where are they now?

Deidre Kuzela

I am the first Claddagh Dancer. When I was 7 years old, my mom brought me to a friend’s house to watch an Irish dance lesson. I pouted on the way over because I was more interested in softball and soccer than dance. While there, a girl my age took me aside and taught me how to “1-2-3” down the hall. “This is easy” I thought, and kind of fun. Thus started 20 years of competitive dance. I stayed with that first teacher until she moved back to Ireland; and then continued with a few others – first, the O’Connor School in Thousand Oaks, and then the Kennelly School in San Francisco. When I was 13, I was looking for a new school. My mom approached Maire knowing she danced when she was a child. A few glasses of wine later and the Claddagh School was born. Irish dance didn’t turn out as “easy” as I thought, but it was always fun. I wasn’t a great competitor, but I loved to perform. My fondest memories are of traveling around the county performing for St. Patrick’s Day. If I could make someone smile, or clap, or be amazed at our footwork, then I was happy. I hung up my shoes in 1997, but every once & a while I may still dance about my kitchen (usually after a few of those glasses of wine). Today, I live just a few blocks from the studio in Ventura with my husband and 4 children. I smile and am amazed every time I can see Claddagh kids dance. I am so very grateful to Maire for enabling me to continue performing for so many years, and am so proud to see all the success she achieved with the school.

Maggie Darlington

Heartbeat of Home and Lead in Riverdance

Mia Leonelli and

Maggie Darlington

Riverdance

Chelsi Rueter (Bloom)

Chelsi Rueter (Bloom) danced with Claddagh for 15 years, starting when she was 4 years old. Not only did she make lifelong friends and memories, but she got to travel the world competing as an open champion dancer and on several teams at the World Championships in Ireland and Scotland. Chelsi is now the operations manager of a property management company in Camarillo and has 2 children – one of which will be joining Claddagh very soon! She regularly returns as an adult dancer and has competed on 3 adult teams, all of which are regional champions. Her dance memories are some of the best of her life and she owes much of her discipline and work ethic to Maire, who has high standards and great affection for all her dancers.

Maggie Fitzgerald

It all started when my mom showed me a Riverdance DVD when I was six years old and then looked up an Irish Dance studio near my home. Little did I know that joining Claddagh would not only give me the skills to be a top competitive dancer, but also the skills to be successful in life. By dancing with Claddagh for almost 12 years all the coaches and teachers, especially Maire, pushed me to do my best by giving me the confidence, motivation, and humility to persevere and never give up on my dreams. Whether it was coming in early on weekend to help me with a step, giving me a pep talk before a competition, a hug of support, or some much needed tough love to help me become stronger; my Claddagh family truly embodied the values of love, loyalty, and friendship. I’m so grateful to have been able to travel the world with my best friends who I am still in touch with today and have been on teams that have won World, National, and Regional championships. Now I’m a full-time student at American University in Washington, DC studying Political Science and run my own social media marketing business that is nationally active and holds contracts with multiple political campaigns, small businesses, and musicians. After my undergraduate degree, I plan to get my Master’s degree in Public Policy and aspire to one day become a presidential campaign manager. If it were not for my time at Claddagh I would not be where I am at today and not have learned the lessons needed to be successful in my life.


Kassidy Sharits

Throughout the 10 years I danced with Claddagh, I gained many values that have gotten me to where I am today. I owe my self-driven work ethic and dedication to Claddagh. Maire pushed me every day to be my best self, both in and out of the dance studio. I am so thankful for all of the opportunities Claddagh gave me. I got to travel the world with my closest friends, competing at multiple World Championships. I also loved being able to be a role model for the younger dancers and help them achieve the goals that were once mine. Now, I am a student at the Colorado School of Mines studying geophysical engineering. After four and a half years at the school, I will graduate with a Master's degree in geophysics. I truly believe that without being a part of Claddagh for so many years, I would not be where I am today.

Jason File

When my mom first signed me up for Irish dancing lessons in Ventura, not many people in that seaside town knew what Irish dancing was. As a young kid with a lot of energy, I just liked the music and the chance to move around. I remember we began practicing in Maire’s garage, before moving to the sticky floors of the Bombay Bar and Grill, and then finally to our very own studio on Main Street. You could trace the growing popularity of Irish dance through those moves, all the way to when Riverdance debuted. Personally, I think dancing helped to develop my balance, strength, and rhythm. I became a pretty successful competitor over the years and was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel around North America and Ireland to compete. Competing taught me how to accept losing, and appreciate winning. My time spent Irish dancing culminated in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college; I was hired to dance in Lord of the Dance while they were in residence at the New York-New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. I definitely had the most interesting summer of any of my college friends! I’ll always appreciate the culture and community I found through Irish dancing and the Claddagh Dance Company.

Sophie Hutton

I don’t remember a time when Claddagh School of Irish Dance was not a part of my life. I began dancing at around three years of age not realizing how many lessons learned would be carried with me throughout my entire life. At Claddagh, I learned how to win and lose gracefully and hold my head high through every physical and mental obstacle I faced. Some weeks it felt like I was at the studio more than my own home, but in that I gained a second family. I was given the opportunity to travel the world for competitions and those memories will always be held near and dear to my heart. With the confidence I developed through dancing at Claddagh, I moved on to graduate with a doctorate degree in Audiology. I am currently serving as an Officer in the United States Air Force as their newest Audiologist. Going through Officer Training School was one of the hardest challenges I have been through, but after growing up a Claddagh girl, I was able to easily face it head on. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Maire, my family and Claddagh.


Shane and Emily (Landfair) Holehouse, TCRG

Growing up, both Emily and Shane spent countless hours in classes at the Ventura studio and competed in in both solo and team competitions world wide, including the World Championships in Ireland. They both share many happy memories of their time with Claddagh, never knowing it would be the place they would meet their future spouse! After reconnecting while in college, they got married and now live in Santa Barbara with their four children. Both Open Champions, Emily taught classes at our Ventura studio for many years and passed her TCRG exam in 2011. She ran the Santa Barbara studio for several years before retiring to raise a family.

Carla Heyler

For the twelve years I was a student at Claddagh Dance, I thought it was perfectly normal to wear a full head of curlers to school and to ask teachers for a week’s worth of homework plans because I was traveling to Ireland for the World Championships and did not want to fall behind. Only in my early adulthood, when I brought a friend to a competition and witnessed her apparent culture shock, did I realize that uniforms consisting of a full head of curls, shin-length poodle socks, and pleated dresses were quite limited to Irish dancing.

My involvement in this unique and self-contained world began at the age of six, when, after watching a group of girls hop and treble in bouncy curls and colorful dresses, I marched straight home to tell my mother that I was going to be an Irish dancer. At first, she was skeptical: ballet and soccer had already failed to outlast my fleeting kindergartner’s attention span and she thought certainly this would be yet another childhood experiment. But I was insistent, and now, 25 years down the line and a good many leaps later, Irish dancing has given me so much more than my six-year-old self ever could have bargained.

Beyond the dressing up in sequined dresses and donning crowns atop “Shirley Temple” hairdos, Irish dancing allowed me to experience the diversity of my country and, quite literally, travel the world. We competed in dance championships in California and Florida and every state in-between; traveled to Ireland and Scotland, where I learned to overcome prejudice and politics as a part of one of the few American teams to compete (and succeed) in the overseas-dominated World Championships; and performed on stage at the Hollywood Bowl, at halftime for a Laker’s game, and at volunteer shows at schools and convalescent homes. Claddagh Dance gave me so much more than hours, weeks, years of practice—and a collection of blisters to boot! Claddagh Dance gave me memories, unbreakable friendships, perpetual discipline, and a sense of leadership and determination that has overflowed to fill numerous other aspects of my life.

Today, I’m a math teacher; while I certainly teach a very different kind of “one, two, trees”, many of the methods come straight from the best teacher I know: Maire O’Connell. “Will it be better before you’re married?” and “Turkeys are done, people are finished!” are phrases that remain, to this day, very near and dear to my heart – and I’m sure my students look at me with the same perplexed looks we gave Maire when she said them! No matter the subject, the lessons I learned from Claddagh Dance and many of the lessons I try to impart on my own students are the same. One of my favorite lessons: Perseverance is more important than talent and that even falling flat on my face is not an excuse to quit. Thank you, Maire and Claddagh Dance, for everything you gave to me and more. I may not have a drop of Gaelic blood, but I will always be Irish at heart.


Devon Chaplin (Nishida)

As I was watching Riverdance on PBS, I vividly remember turning to my mom saying, “Mom, I want to be able to do that!” Little did I know, at 7 years old, that I had found the creative passion that was going to shape the rest of my life. I danced competitively for 21 years and have held several titles at the regional, national and world level in both solos and teams. After several years of competition, I finally decided to take my teacher’s exam and obtained my TCRG certification in 2017. Claddagh has taught me the value of teamwork, discipline and how to be humble. Without Irish dancing, I wouldn’t be who I am today nor would I have ever met my husband, David Chaplin. Because of Irish dancing, and even more so because of Maire, I met the love of my life in 2016 and we welcomed our beautiful baby boy, Leo, into this world in February 2020.

Shannon Chilman

I began dancing with Maire and the Claddagh family from age 12 to 19. Irish dancing was the best part of my childhood/adolescence and Claddagh will always have a very special place in my heart. When I think of my dancing days, my laughs with the girls and Maire, wrapping blisters every day of the Brian Grant workshops, travelling the world, and then St Patricks Day shows. The highlights however were always competing in solos and teams at the Western Region Oireachtas, Nationals, and Worlds every year. Managed to snag a few national team titles and a second in the 8 hand ceili at the worlds. Sadly I was frequently injured and thus began my obsession with injury prevention and athletic training. I got my MS in Sports Medicine in 2009 and after graduation, found myself in Australia where I met my husband and have been here every since. AI always love to drop by the Ventura studio when I am in town as it holds so many cherished memories.

Samantha Harvey

I joined the Claddagh family of love, loyalty and friendship at age 7. Maire O’Connell was like a second mother to me and an incredible influence on my life. She often said she had two sons and two thousand daughters. What a privilege to be one of them! Following my reaching open championship level and competing at majors both in US and overseas, I got my TCRG. Irish dancing was my entry point into the world of Irish music and I have since gone to perform worldwide with Irish band Téada. I now live in Ireland with my husband, Irish fiddler Oisín Mac Diarmada and our son (maybe future Irish dancer!) Finnán.

Matthew Martin

I cherish my years spent with the Claddagh School. I previously danced for another school, but I always knew I was capable of more. I had, and still have, an innate drive to perform better and I knew I was capable of being better. I had my eye on the Claddagh School for years before I transferred. Maire was someone I always respected for her honesty, candor, and for being someone that would do absolutely anything for anyone. After transferring, I was not disappointed.

Maire and her team were able to unlock more of my potential. I started achieving results on the world level that I knew I was capable of. I was pushed hard, and I thrived on that. The material was a more comfortable style that allowed me to dance like me. My only regret was that I did not make the switch, sooner. I always say that regrets are not a bad thing, if you learn from the experience. From this regret, I learned to not second guess what I feel in my heart. This has never steered me wrong in life.

After top-five finishes in the world and finally becoming the North American champion, I went on to perform in Riverdance where I toured for two years in some of the top venues in the states, including Radio City Music Hall and the Pantages Theatre.

Since the end of my Riverdance career, I married Colleen Farrell. We went on to form the Farrell-Martin School of Irish Dance and we have one small class in New Jersey. Colleen and I are both ADCRGs and judge regularly across North America and at majors abroad. We have two children that we are delighted to pass the tradition of Irish dance and music to.

In my non-Irish dancing life, I am the Director of Preconstruction for the largest architectural restoration company in the country and have been involved with the restoration of some of our nation’s most iconic civic structures like the US Capitol Building. I am always delighted when I work to restore a building that I performed in years before – such as the Pantages Theatre and Radio City Music Hall.

Beyond dancing with the Claddagh School and through my relationship with Maire, I have really grown to take on the meaning of the Claddagh (friendship, loyalty, and love) very seriously in life. The Claddagh serves as my guiding principle.

Tiana Coudray


Denise Alvey (Barry)

My family moved to the United States from Dublin, Ireland when I was 3 years old. My mom was an accomplished Irish dancer and both she and my dad were thrilled when they became connected with Maire. Soon after they decided to join Claddagh’s adult class. I was 11 years old when I attended my first feis. As I cheered on my parents, I knew right away that I wanted to be part of the Claddagh family. I also really wanted a solo dress; they were so beautiful 😊 Maire said “Only champions get to design and wear solo dresses. You better start practicing.” So, I did just that, I was committed! I worked extremely hard and progressed to the open championship level very quickly.

This rewarded me the amazing opportunity to travel all over the country and abroad. I competed at the World Championships in Galway (1997) and in Ennis (1998), both in solo and team competitions. My most memorable dancing accomplishment was being on Claddagh’s choreography that placed 3rd in Ennis!

When I moved away for college, Maire and I opened up the Claddagh School of San Luis Obispo. Soon after I took my teacher’s exam and became a TCRG. I was fortunate, for almost a decade, to pass on this great Irish tradition and teach many wonderful dancers. I traveled nationally and internationally with them, as they competed, and made me proud beyond words.

I am forever grateful for the memories I created and the friendships I’ve built; I truly consider these individuals as family. One of my fondest memories is when my Claddagh family took the stage (including my mom, dad and brother) and danced with me at my wedding. There were so many of us that we could have put together a choreography. It was amazing!

I now live in Los Angeles with my husband and 2 sons. I am a Registered Dietitian and have worked with professional athletes for 12 years. Last year I decided to open my own company, New Perspective Nutrition, where I specialize in food sensitivities, weight loss and performance nutrition.

I am blessed that my journey continues to be filled with love, loyalty and friendship!


Stephanie


Mia Leonelli

When I first started dancing with Claddagh I was a transfer student from another school and refused to learn the Claddagh steps. One day I asked Maire if I could learn the single jig, little did I know this would be the beginning of a 12-year journey. As a Claddagh dancer, I learned the value of hard work, perseverance, and teamwork. Maire always encouraged me to perform at my best, and it allowed me the chance to compete on top teams and win multiple solo and team titles. The best part of it all was the lifelong friendships that I made along the way. The Claddagh School taught me the value of love, loyalty, and friendship. In 2015 I received the opportunity of a lifetime and joined the Riverdance cast dancing alongside one of my idols, Maggie Darlington. In 2017 I moved to Salt Lake City and became involved with the Utah Irish dance community. I am now a T.C.R.G. with the Scariff School in Utah, and a Master of Accounting Student at the University of Utah. Irish dancing is a big part of my life, and I wouldn't be where I am today without the support of Maire and the Claddagh School.

Molly Daisy Scarpine

Coming from a family with very strong roots in the north of Ireland, I started Irish dancing at the age of 4 years old in garden grove, CA. By 9 years of age, I became a preliminary champion and joined the Claddagh School of Irish dance in Ventura, CA. Maire had a profound influence on the development of my self discipline. It was at Claddagh where I learned how to work hard for what I wanted in life. I continued to compete at champion level until my senior year of high school and then later pursued music in bands that traveled the world.

Some of my accomplishments/ adventures are as follows; lead an entire team of 300+ taiko drummers, been the front woman of a touring punk rock band, producing & playing keyboards for a girl band, traveling the US doing Spartan races and working in healthcare as a pharmaceutical compounder for 10 years. You can hear my voice in numerous video games, animations and I’m used as an extreme vocalist to create monsters for studios like Sony PlayStation, Naughty Dog, and Capcom.

I live in Burbank, CA with my 3 Persian cats and think fondly of memories back in the Ventura Studio. I always wanted to adjudicate, maybe that will be the next adventure!


Aileen Whelan Tone

By most competitive dance standards, I started my Irish dancing career late in life at the ripe old age of 10. Becoming a Claddagh Girl started as a way for both myself and my parents to make new friends after moving from Palm Springs to Ventura. My parents, both Irish immigrants, saw it as an opportunity for me to connect to our heritage and have some fun. No one realized it would end up being an invaluable experience that would fundamentally shape me as a person. Traveling, competing on international stages and making lasting memories with life long friendships are all wonderful things, however, they are not what I am most thankful for.

The lessons you learn as a part of the Claddagh School of Irish Dance make for well rounded, successful and high achieving adults. Maire taught us the importance of a diligent, consistent work ethic with an emphasis on pushing yourself to achieve at the highest level of your ability. In dance this led us individually and as teams to regional, national and world titles. Outside of dance, this competitive work ethic led me to numerous academic achievements including honor rolls, college scholarships, Dean’s lists and graduating nursing school with honors. The most important gifts Claddagh gave me are a love of teamwork and the ability to remain calm and focused under pressure. These attributes prepared me for my current career as a critical care nurse. Working in a high acuity Intensive Care Unit requires the ability to work in a team and keep a level head during tense situations. I am a better nurse and a better person because of what I learned from Maire O’Connell and my teammates at Claddagh.

My son will be turning 4 next year and I am sad that I can’t enroll him in Claddagh as we live in Texas now. Maire taught me how to win humbly and lose gracefully. Claddagh helped me become the best version of myself by showing me what you can achieve as an individual and as a team through hard work and perseverance. Maire became a second mom and my teammates became family! They’ve shared my life with me and I will be forever grateful.