For years, I’d see Alan Beale at Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Center, tapping and stamping out steps of a folk art that helped to inspire American square dancing.
Alan was especially good at set-dancing, in which four couples move in formation. He knew when to spin, who to twirl. Now and then, he’d do some eye-catching “battering” — when dancers beat the floor with impromptu ornamentation. He tapped heel and toe like a sailor doing a hornpipe.
In his later years, he was a man of bulk. But sometimes he’d still jump up, both feet off the ground, with the exuberance of someone happy to be alive and able to move.
Over the years, I heard a lot about him. That he’d become an Irish dance instructor. That he was a computer genius. That he had mastered intricate movements of “the Clare Lancers” and “The Moate Set” and “The Caledonian.”
For a child of Irish immigrants, those names evoke beauty and history: green mountains, fierce battles. The dances are like a 3D, kinetic version of the intricate woven designs that monks inscribed into the Book of Kells.
And there, in the midst of the mass of white faces, was this large, black man.
I’d wonder: How did he get involved in set dancing? It doesn’t involve attention-getting solos like “Riverdance,” with its machine-gun percussion and precision that sells out theaters. These are the “auld” dances.
I thought he was brave. Was he ever nervous, being the only one? How was he welcomed?
I’d always planned to do a story on Alan. Maybe one St. Patrick’s Day. And each year, after it came around, I’d think: “OK, next St. Patrick’s Day.”
I had it all planned out. I’d describe how two worlds melded, with everyone the richer for it.
When the Irish first came to America, they were compared to apes and vermin. They danced with slaves. The great hoofer Gregory Hines once told me the two cultures together birthed something new: American tap-dancing.
My parents were from a small town in Ireland. When I was 13, we went “home” for a visit. I entered a shop, and strangers turned to me and asked, “Are you an O’Donnell?”
They saw my ancestors in me.
When I looked at Alan, I saw America, a place where the sum is greater than the parts. Where I grew up eating Italian and Chinese food, lip-syncing to Stax records and learning a little Polish, German and Greek.
Out of many, one.
But this isn’t the story I hoped to do. Instead, it’s about the call not made, the letter not sent.
I should know better. Every day, I write obituaries.
Alan Beale, 49, died suddenly of heart failure on July 30, and I’ve been thinking about him ever since.
This Christmas season, I want to tell other people: Make that call you keep putting off. Send that text or email. Reach out to someone you’ve always meant to compliment or console.
I set out to find out more about Alan. He was born in 1969 in Nassau in the Bahamas. His father Claude is from St. Mary Parish in Jamaica and his mother Evelyn from Anchovy, a small town near Montego Bay. They worked as teachers.
His family moved to Milwaukee, where he grew up.
“He was always smart,” Claude Beale says, loving history and mythology, excelling in math and science.
He read science fiction from Jules Verne to Terry Pratchett. While a student at Rufus King International High School, Alan showed such promise that, at 16, he already was getting early-acceptance offers from Johns Hopkins University, Grinnell College in Iowa and the U.S. Naval Academy.
His father thinks his interest in Irish music and dance began when his parents would take him and his brother Adrian to Milwaukee’s Irish Fests. By the time he was out of college, he was going to dances and taking lessons.
He was used to being a minority in a room.
“After fifth grade or so, we started playing hockey, and he and Adrian, his brother, were the only two black kids,” his father says. “It was one of those things.”
Alan wound up going to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a physics degree. He didn’t brag about it. A number of his Irish dance partners never knew it, even Dan Cahill, a physics instructor at Grayslake Central High School. Alan worked as a computer programmer and software engineer, most recently for the Chicago Trading Company.
Something about the pattern of the steps appealed to him, according to Barbara Riordan, his longtime partner.
“Maybe that clicked,” Riordan says. “There are patterns in the dances, and the patterns help you remember them.”
They met at an Irish bar in Queens. A New Yorker with Irish roots, Riordan was just starting to learn the steps. “When I first saw him dance, I thought, ‘I want to dance with him.’ ”
“He said it’s really cool, when you see some of the women dancing, and they have long skirts, and they’re spinning,” she says. “You get a giddy feeling when you’re moving. You hear the musicians, and they’re doing great, and you want to move your body.
“If you saw him dance, you saw someone feel the energy of the music.”
Riordan wishes he’d been given more time for the big things in life, like seeing their daughter grow up, and small things, too, like seeing more episodes with the first female Dr. Who.
Alan studied books on traditional dance and took lessons in St. Louis, Toronto and in the Irish cities of Tralee and Longford and in County Clare.
“He learned them all,” says Edmond O’Callaghan, 88, a native of Ballylanders in County Limerick who’s been doing the dances in Chicago for 30 years.
“He had a notebook in which he’d write all the steps in a shorthand,” says Linda Burch, a friend. “He was an MIT graduate in physics, so maybe that is what made him so good at recording and remembering details.”
He got to know dance instructors all over the world.
“He would show up anywhere,” Cahill says, “and people would be, like, ‘Alan!’ “
“I witnessed a lot of respect by everybody,” says Tom Callahan, another dancer. “Things don’t always play out that way when it’s one black person in a white space. People respected Alan on a deep level.”
He became a set-dance teacher. “He’d wheedle people, ‘C’mon, c’mon, come out and dance,’ ” Cahill says.
“Alan was such a good teacher, we have people who drive from the South Side and west suburbs come for classes,” says Karen Garvin, vice president of the Francis O’Neill Club of Chicago, which works to preserve traditional Irish dance.
“He gave so much to the set dancing community,” says Kate Cooley, a set dance instructor at the Irish American Heritage Center. “He’s truly irreplaceable.”
Alan even knew that, in different regions of Ireland, it was tradition for men to hold women’s hands a little differently, according to Cahill. He understood how movements varied from County Clare to Connemara.
“The history that he knew was amazing, and he’d drop that on you,” says Mary Beem, president of the Francis O’Neill Club.
When the muse inspired him, he’d do spontaneous “sean nos” — old-style improvisation — tapping away, according to Garvin: “Man, those feet could go.”
The club has renamed its fall set dance event the Alan Beale Workshop Weekend.
Alan used to attend a memoir-writing class at the heritage center. He started creating an outline about Frederick Douglass, the American slave who escaped to freedom and became a human rights icon. Douglass toured and spoke in Ireland, where the people, dehumanized under British colonialism, greeted him as a hero and inspiration. In Ireland, Douglass wrote, “I find myself not treated as a colour, but as a man. . .”
Alan thought he’d present his paper on Douglass as a one-man show at the heritage center, according to Virginia Gibbons, his writing teacher. “He’s got this feeling about Ireland and African-American justice,” she says.
Gibbons is completing the work, and on Feb. 16, the one-man staged reading has been scheduled with actor Razz Jenkins as the freedom fighter.
Last summer, Callahan, who is a filmmaker, used a drone to shoot aerial footage of Alan and other set dancers performing a pattern that resembles the weaving of the cross of St. Brigid, a patron saint of Ireland. “Alan said this would be really cool to see overhead,” Callahan says.
“When people leave us, they leave this music,” Callahan says. “There’s this beautiful music that happens from them, whether it’s music or dancing. Or just their presence. It leaves a music, leaves a trace that stays with you.”