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Irish dance teacher Dennis Dennehy, dead at 73 taught ‘Lord of the Dance’ Michael Flatley

Dennis Dennehy founder Dennehy School Irish Dance

Dennis Dennehy, founder of the Dennehy School of Irish Dance

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Updated: February 12, 2013 2:24PM

You’ve heard of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon?” The Irish version would be “Six Degrees of Dennis Dennehy.”

Mr. Dennehy, an Irish dance teacher for more than half a century, taught the most famous Irish dancer in the world, “Lord of the Dance” Michael Flatley, as well as Mark Howard, who founded Chicago’s Trinity, the largest Irish dance program in the world.

His influence on the art form was pervasive. More than 100 Irish dance teachers in the Midwest can trace their roots to Mr. Dennehy, and they founded at least 27 schools, according to Tim O’Hare, of the Tim O’Hare School of Irish Dance.

Mr. Dennehy, 73, of Oak Lawn, died Sunday.

He and his wife, Margie, co-founded the Dennehy School of Irish Dance in the early 1960s. His dancers had impeccable carriage and Nijinsky-esque leaps. In the 1970s, when the Dennehy School became a powerhouse, students would arrive at a feis — a dance competition — radiating an authority that made other dancers try harder.

Flatley came to his school relatively late. Many students start taking Irish dance at age 4 or 5. But Flatley was 11 when he arrived at the Dennehy School.

“He thought Michael was a bit too old,” said Mr. Dennehy’s son, Dennis Dennehy.

Then, Michael took to the floor.

“My dad, as soon as he saw him dance the first time, he knew he was special,” Dennis Dennehy said.

Flatley became the first North American — and the first dancer outside of Europe — to win a world championship in Irish dance. He performed with the Chieftains, headlined in the show “Riverdance” and created the extravaganzas “Lord of the Dance’’ and “Feet of Flames.” Flatley’s touring versions of his shows have made him one of the richest performers in show business — and made it cool for little boys everywhere to do Irish dance.

“Without Dennis, many people, like myself, would have never had a chance to learn this beautiful art form,” Flatley said. “His hard work and determination was legendary. And his true competitive spirit was evident in the number of champions he produced. It is a credit to him that he built the finest Irish dance school in Chicago.”

Mr. Dennehy grew up on the West Side and attended St. Philip High School. His parents were from the towns of Bantry Bay and Macroom in County Cork, Ireland, and he studied Irish dance with Mary Campbell. He attended Loyola University, where he met his future wife, Margie Bartishell, who’d learned Irish dance from Pat Roche.

Mr. Dennehy worked as an underwriter for Kemper Insurance.

When he and his wife co-founded the Dennehy School, her specialty was intricate choreography that told stories. She created one called “Lord of the Dance” that featured Flatley. She also mapped out an award-winning number for the 1976 Bicentennial that traced the history of the Irish in America. In one arresting moment, the dancers formed a train to represent Irish labor on the railroads.

The Dennehys taught dance to Eleanor Daley, daughter of the late mayor, and famed Irish fiddler Liz Carroll. The basement of their home was filled with trophies.

“My mom and dad would teach, and they would line the kids up in a line, and Mom was on one end, and Dad was on the other. If you didn’t know your steps too good, you got closer to my mom,” their son said, to avoid Mr. Dennehy’s booming voice.

Dancers foolish enough to chew gum in class usually found it deposited on their nose.

Mr. Dennehy loved his Alaskan malamute, Seamus (Irish for James), and the family mutt, Shannon.

In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter, Kathleen, who runs the dance school; sisters Therese Smetana and Margaret Jandacek; a brother, Emmett, and a grandson, Conor.

Visitation is from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at Blake Lamb Funeral Home, 4727 W. 103rd, Oak Lawn. A funeral mass will be said at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Linus Church in Oak Lawn.

Mr. Dennehy was a big fan of the University of Notre Dame. He died the day before Notre Dame’s 42-14 loss Monday to Alabama in the BCS championship game.

“He said, ‘I hope I make it to see the game,’ ” his son said. “Well, he didn’t miss much.”

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