Karl Drake propels Irish dance into uncharted waters, both near and far

Photo Credit: Cesar Hernandez
Drake poses with Westly Klaus for his second place win in the Southern Regional Championship. Both men are dressed in black formal wear. Klaus sports a white undershirt, black bowtie and a sleek, intricate pattern on his sport coat. They both smile excitedly under the warm stage lights. The green, orange and white Southern Regional Championship banner hangs in the background behind the two.

March 8, 2022
Volume 3 Issue 2
By: Ashley Gibson

At the age of 17, Dublin native Karl Drake immigrated to New York in pursuit of the emblematic American dream. Although Drake’s plans of opening up his own dance studio did not come to fruition during those early years in New York, several decades later, Drake has built his legacy as one of the leading names in Irish dance education across the globe.

Since the establishment of the Drake School of Irish Dance here over 30 years ago, the city of Atlanta has played an integral role in Drake’s story and has stepped into the spotlight for its historic contributions to the expansion of Irish dance throughout the South.

Drake moved to Atlanta in 1990 to accept a teaching position from a family he met at a New Orleans’ dance competition. The family sought him out after the performance to coach their twin boys in Atlanta, and thus, the Drake School of Irish Dance had its first two students.

“[This opportunity] really opened up Irish dance in the southern region,” says Drake. “It was all brand new here. There were no competitions here; there wasn’t an established Irish dance studio. It was brand new territory. . . . It felt a little historic for me, coming all the way from Ireland and then opening up the first really large Irish dance studio in the South.”

This single teaching offer led to countless opportunities opening up for Drake all around the Southeast. He landed choreography and performance gigs in the surrounding states of Florida and Alabama, and in more recent years, Drake has become a vastly popular dance adjudicator, traveling all across the U.S to critique Irish dance competitions and festivals.

Photo Credit: Cesar Hernandez
Drake sits atop a large box next to Luisa Diaz, who is elegantly poised with one leg crossed at the knee and her hands in her lap. Drake is smiling brightly and hugging Diaz as they pose. Diaz is clad in modern Irish dance attire — a beautiful flaming red, long-sleeved dress with glittering crystal jewels and a matching headpiece. A background with flashy red, orange and yellow accents depicts fiery phoenixes and bold lettering.

However, his deeply rooted love for Irish dance did not stop there, and after establishing a talented line of accomplished Irish dance students and teachers in satellite locations across the Southeast, the Drake School of Irish Dance tackled an innovative global expansion. Drake’s work abroad led him to found two new schools — one in Mexico and the other in China. Drake choreographed Celtic Connection, which was performed at the famous Forbidden City Concert Hall in March 2012 in Beijing, China. In March 2013, he produced and choreographed “The Journey Home” for a sold-out audience in Shanghai, China.

“Actually standing on the Great Wall of China and thinking that the next day I was going to be teaching at the Beijing Dance Academy — who would have thought I would ever do anything like this?” says Drake. “At 17 years of age coming from Ireland with very little, would I have ever thought I would end up at the Taj Mahal just because of Irish dance? No, no I wouldn’t have.”

Drake says that surprisingly enough, the language barrier was not the greatest obstacle in his international travels. However, the competitiveness of the Irish dance scene itself was challenging to convey, because in a lot of those countries, there were no established, local competitions that he could reference to demonstrate that particular side of Irish dance. It was difficult for a lot of people he met to break free of those stereotypes and recognize that Irish dance is not limited to what they’ve seen of it in Riverdance or on Broadway.

“Possibly the understanding of the rhythms for Irish dance — in comparison to what they would have been used to for tap or even for ballet — that might have been another issue I came into,” says Drake. “But I worked really hard with them.”

While the global expansion of Drake Dance continues to be a key milestone in his career, and he looks forward to returning to Shanghai and Beijing especially, Drake has turned his current focus inward and re-dedicated himself to developing Irish dance on a more local level once again.

“I’m very interested in trying to promote Irish again in Atlanta since it’s my home base,” says Drake, sharing how his priorities have shifted due to COVID-19. “I love it here so much. I’m actually trying to build up my own studio in Atlanta again after the pandemic. I think that’s really number one right now.”

Before the shutdowns of 2020, Drake appreciated Atlanta’s rich and thriving performance scene. He took part in many of the international festivals hosted across the city at places like Piedmont Park and Emory University. Drake Dance has also appeared in the Conyers Cherry Blossom Festival, a multicultural arts celebration based around the Japanese cherry blossom symbol and its representation of short-lived beauty. 

Atlanta Ballet also heavily promoted his work, and Drake enjoyed being on faculty for summer intensives there. Drake performed as part of the 1996 Summer Olympics and performed at the Fox Theatre when Irish stars toured to Atlanta. These opportunities allotted Drake a high level of free publicity, which served as a huge catalyst at the start of his career in Atlanta.

Photo Credit: Cesar Hernandez
Diaz is joined onstage by fellow Southern Regional Champion Alyssa Kerrick. Both women smile warmly as they hold large silver trophies above their shoulders in the top corners of the frame. They each have large headpieces to match their costumes, and the two dancers are standing triumphantly in front of a green and black background.

Drake’s prestigious accomplishments are deeply intertwined with his students’ successes. He fondly recalls the historic success of two of his most promising students – two young women who climbed their way to highly coveted podium spots.

Catie Foley, who began training with Drake at the age of four and teaches for his school to this day, was the first woman from Atlanta to finish in the top three of the All Ireland Championship. Drake also takes pride in having Luisa Diaz, the first dancer from Mexico win the North American Championships in Phoenix, Arizona, in July of 2021.

“If I died tomorrow, I would be very happy with that,” says Drake. The competitive side of Irish dance is what speaks to Drake on a personal level and informs his pedagogical approach. As with any other genre of dance, Irish dancing can be casual and recreational, but Drake finds a sense of pride and joy in the art of crafting new talent. The competition drives him, and the personal investment in each student comes back full circle when he watches a student rise from nothing to standing at the top of the podium.

Drake and his students are currently hard at work preparing for April’s World Championship of Irish Dance in Belfast. The school had an astounding 28 world qualifiers for the competition and has selected 17 of those students to compete, due to financial restrictions. The World Championship, which has been canceled for the past two years due to the pandemic, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Leading up to the World Championship, Drake is hosting the Southern Belt, an extensive Irish dance competition in Spartanburg, South Carolina, that will bring together dancers and major schools across the Southeast, March 25-26.

For more information on the Drake School of Irish Dance, visit the website or follow them on Facebook and Instagram. Drake also offers studio space rentals at his beautiful Norcross location off Peachtree Industrial Boulevard. Inquiries for that can be directed to Rangrince@aol.com.

Ashley Gibson holds a Bachelor of Arts in Dance from Kennesaw State University. She is a current faculty member at both Studio Go and the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education. Ashley also serves as a freelance writer and copy editor in the Atlanta community and contributes regularly to Into the Proscenium. When she’s not dancing or teaching, she enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors.

More from Ashley:

Hilda Lucía Estrella lends unique flavor, Mexican flair to Atlanta dance

Graduating class of 2020 dances into uncertain future with creativity, poise

Jerylann Warner embraces lifetime full of history in her work at Callanwolde

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