When music teacher Caroline Duggan started an afterschool Irish Dance program with her Bronx elementary students, it was with one goal in mind. “I wanted to showcase what children can do,” said Duggan, explaining that, far too often, people underestimate what children can achieve — particularly students like hers, who come from economically challenged, inner-city neighborhoods. Duggan is a member of the United Federation of Teachers, NYSUT’s affiliate representing New York City public school teachers. “I want my students to know they have the ability to do anything they put their minds to.”
So far, that drive and determination has led Duggan and her student dance troupe, the Keltic Dreams, to the White House, Ireland and many other venues, including the 2011 NYSUT Representative Assembly. The group also appeared on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, and was featured in the New York Times. In just a few short years, one talented teacher helped redefine what a rag-tag group of kids from the Bronx could do.
Duggan arrived in the U.S. eight years ago from Dublin, Ireland, as a 23-year-old fledgling educator. After graduating from Trinity College, she applied for a teaching job with the New York City Department of Education following a trip stateside. Intimidated by its depiction in movies, she asked to be placed anywhere but in the Bronx. “I was in tears when I found out where I was assigned,” she said of P.S. 59. “But after they showed me the class I would be teaching and the music room, it seemed like it would be okay.”
Students’ curiosity about “why she talked funny” spurred the creation of the Keltic Dreams. Fascinated by her accent, they wanted to learn more about Ireland. “I showed them a picture of ‘Riverdance’ and a few Irish dance steps,” said Duggan, who noticed that many quickly picked up the moves.
Since choreography is her strength, she started the afterschool program. Today the program features 34 dancers who are selected competitively from the student body. The troupe is a tremendous time commitment.
“It takes hours and hours of extra work to pull the Keltic Dreams together,” said Duggan, explaining that since the team is an afterschool program, she still works full-time as a music teacher for the school’s 460 students. Overseeing the dance troupe often means working literally night and day, between rehearsals, talking with parents and securing performance opportunities for the students.
“My mother is my inspiration,” said Duggan when asked what drives her. “Whenever I said I couldn’t do something, she always said ‘feel the fear, but do it anyways.’”
Duggan hopes a photo of her and the troupe at the White House, with President Obama, will be a similar inspiration for her dancers. “I tell them to look at that photo and realize they did that as a child,” she said. “That photo is proof that nothing is impossible.”