A Kentucky troupe recently danced its way across Ireland in an experience that was part dream vacation, part international outreach and part good old-fashioned hoedown.
Call it clogging for a cause.
"We were there as ambassadors for this state and this country," said Mike Cassidy, director of American Hoedowners, the group that just returned from Damhsafest 2012, an international folk-dance festival in Cork, Ireland. The troupe was accompanied by The Velvet Blue, a Kentucky bluegrass band.
In addition to promoting the official state dance, the group plugged the state's Kentucky Proud program when Cassidy, a manager at the Wal-Mart in Winchester, met with the Irish minister of agriculture.
So how did this all come together?
Cassidy, 57, spent many years as a professional dancer, traveling the country and the world.
"We are going back a long time," he said of his dance career. But so well versed is he in dance that he can tell whether a dancer is from Kentucky, Ohio or North Carolina by the position of his or her feet.
Ireland had long been a dream destination. Then came a call in spring 2011, and the voice had a distinctive Irish brogue. The caller invited Cassidy to perform at Damhsafest 2012 with dancers from Wales, Russia, Finland, the Philippines and Togo in West Africa.
Finding experienced dancers who could travel for the 10 days was a challenge, but Cassidy did it. The group practiced for months to perfect a 45-minute set that highlights pairs, freestyle and traditional steps. Their finale was 18 minutes of heart-racing clogging to Orange Blossom Special. There's a reason, Cassidy said, he invited a doctor to come with the troupe.
Things were going smoothly until the musicians originally scheduled to play were forced to change their plans because of the tornado that struck Morgan County in March.
The Hoedowners, as Cassidy said, still needed "a fiddler and a band." Thus, The Velvet Blue.
"It was kind of ironic," said Brian Cooper, lead singer of Velvet Blue.
An Irish DJ had picked up the group's music on the Internet, and it was making a splash on Irish radio. The DJ had called Cooper to talk about a tour. Cooper was intrigued when he and Cassidy discussed the possible partnership over a meal at Cracker Barrel.
Each Kentucky traveler was responsible for his or her airfare, but the festival picked up the other costs. Cooper was skeptical his band members could each come up with $1,400 for tickets at the last minute, but they did.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said.
The trip itself was not without hitches. A scheduling snafu — a booking at another festival didn't work out — had the dance troupe arriving a week before Damhsafest. But, Cassidy said, "you've got to be flexible."
So they put on their clogging shoes and best smiles, and performed with the band and in the Cork area as a preview for the international gathering.
And, this being Ireland, he said, that meant sometimes they played in pubs or danced on the ancient cobblestones in the shadow of Blarney Castle. They even performed at Cobh, the last port of call of the Titanic, during the 100th anniversary of the ship's demise. The official closing ceremony was before hundreds in a theater at Cork City Hall.
Most members were put up by host families, and all, Cooper and Cassidy agreed, were catered to and treated with care by their hosts.
There are obvious differences between Ireland and the United States. Cassidy, a self-confessed 'Coke-aholic," was vexed by the tiny glass bottles of Coke. And "ish" time took some getting used to, Cooper said.
"They would say 8 o'clock," said Cassidy with a smile, "but that could mean 8:15, 8:30 or even 9."
Some customs literally were easier to swallow.
"If they like you in Ireland, they want to buy you a beer," said Cooper.
The Hoedowners and Velvet Blue apparently were very well liked.
The trip highlighted long ties between Kentucky and Ireland. Cooper took a bottle of Maker's Mark as a gift. His host said the bourbon was "legendary."
But how short a distance a world away can be was clear to him as the group performed one night, and he discovered a familiar Irish town was mentioned in a song on their playlist.
It was the Bluegrass classic, Katy Daley with the opening line: "With her old man she came from Tipperary."