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The big fish in local Irish dance 

Eddie Murphy joins me at Jim's Diner looking typically rumpled, saying he was up late making kilts. "I eat here a lot," he says, "because it's fast, I'm always in a rush, the food is good, the coffee is good, and it fits my budget." Jim's is nicer than I remember it, with new-looking booths, amazingly attentive service, and scads of regulars' coffee mugs hanging over the counter.

            Rochester's Eddie Murphy, director of the Drumcliffe School of Irish Dance, fits in here. Part artist, part ethnographer, part entrepreneur, Murphy is all Irish-American working class, and that no-nonsense background is what makes him look right at home at Jim's. His dad, Eddie, Sr., came over from Belfast after the war with a seaman's ticket, and worked on boats out of Buffalo. "My dad was like Big Fish," Murphy says, "full of stories. A fortuneteller told him he'd meet the girl of his dreams on a boat, and one day he saw this girl throwing up on a boat. That was my mom."

            Murphy first learned Irish dance from his dad, who died in 1987. Recognizing his talent, his parents soon found professional teachers. As he traveled in the Irish dance world, he met people like Michael Smith in Boston, Anna O'Sullivan in Newburgh, and Donnie Golden in New York City, all of whom influenced him. Irish dance is competition-oriented, and Murphy was a stellar performer, placing as high as second in a long string of international competitions.

            But he loved all kinds of dancing, and took ballet and modern classes in Buffalo as well, finally majoring in dance at SUNY Brockport in the late '70s. There, he was strongly influenced by professor emeritus Jim Payton, a former Limon dancer of great musicality and intelligence. Payton encouraged Murphy to develop his strong skills in rhythm and use of space, skills that shine in his work now.

            Men can work in both modern dance and ballet --- a much more difficult proposition for women --- and for a decade, that's what Murphy did. He danced with a variety of West Coast companies before landing in Albany. From there, he started helping out at an Irish school in Rochester. The school had two talented young dancers, Michael Galvin and Donna Argento, who needed special attention, and Murphy found himself here once a month, then twice, then weekly.

            Finally, he moved back and took at job at St. Joseph's Villa. In 1989 he formed Drumcliffe, and did both that and his teaching job until '95, when he took his current part-time job at SUNY Brockport. Drumcliffe now has 140 students in Rochester; 50 in Syracuse, where Galvin is now in charge; and 50 in Binghamton, run by Kaytie Montague.

            "Most of the things I like about life," Murphy says, "I've gotten from my mom." Loretta Murphy, from Donnegal, had seven children besides Eddie. She "boiled everything," and fortunately, Eddie seems to have progressed beyond that as a cook (although he maintains she makes a great Irish potato bread). Eddie likes to cook soups and slow-cooked tomato sauces, but mostly when he's entertaining. For himself, he cooks, but more simply.

            When asked where he goes out, like a good Irishman, he first listed bars: Monty's Corner and Milestones. For food, Eddie digs Phillips European ("their desserts are the best in town," he claims). He also likes Remington's, the Montage Grille, Roncone's, and Sinbad's.

            I am a Drumcliffe parent, and having kids take class there is more a way of life than a weekly activity. The parents' organization feverishly raises money for the expensive costumes, as well as for trips to competitions (including a yearly trip to Ireland). It's quite an operation, and Murphy teaches all the kids, choreographs everything, and is in complete artistic control.

            The results are impressive. The kids perform at competitions called feisanna that are held all over. The school also holds giant performance-parties called "hooleys," which are a blast. At the most recent one, the Dady Brothers entertained, all our kids performed, and a bit of beer might have been consumed.

            Beyond parties and competitions, Murphy also choreographs beautiful pieces for the Drumcliffe company. The Loom is an amazing thing, endlessly inventive with its use of space (this is terribly important in a dance form that has such rigid rules of body position).

            His latest, which has its concert premier Saturday at East Rochester High School, is called The Antrim Coast. My wife, choreographer Anne Harris Wilcox, says it's his best work to date. "The Antrim coast is the northern coast of Ireland," Murphy explains, "and I feel rooted there. It's this beautiful, undisturbed coastline, and at dusk or dawn, you feel this mysticism in the air."

            For ticket information, call Drumcliffe at 234-1036 or visit www.drumcliffedance.com.

Food tip

Chef-owner Peter Wojtowicz has opened Verona Ristorante in the former Randazzo's location at 777 Spencerport Road, near Elmgrove (247-8880). It's open for lunch Monday through Friday, and dinner every night. Although Ukrainian, Peter brings to Verona a decade of experience as a chef in Italian restaurants.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael Warren Thomas can be heard weekends on WYSL 1040 AM. Saturday mornings hear gardening, restaurants, and Finger Lakes travel; Sundays hear Toronto restaurants and wine, 10 a.m. to noon.

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