Whitman students perform for President Trump and Irish prime minister
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As the Secret Service meticulously clears cars to enter the White House, they search for anything suspicious or out of the ordinary. One car inches up filled with wigs, bedazzled dresses and vests, jig shoes and sparkly bows — students of The Culkin School of Traditional Irish Dance are waved forward by the agents.
Senior Camryn Dahl and eight fellow members of the Culkin School performed impromptu dances at the White House’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration March 23, highlighting a visit by the Irish prime minister and his wife. Director Sean Culkin chose freshman Andrew Caden to accompany the dancers with his fiddle, along with an accordion player.
“Guests were entering through a hallway in the East Wing and we were set up in open space at the end of the hallway,” Dahl said. “We took turns performing different dances in different groups for about two hours.”
The dancers were tasked with creating a festive ambiance for the event, The Culkin School manager of operations Denise Culkin said.
“The White House event was not a planned, choreographed show for a sitting audience, but rather our task was to ‘set the tone’ in the welcome area for attendees coming to the reception for the Irish Prime Minister,” Culkin said.
After the guests finished entering, performers met with President Donald Trump and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny along with his wife Fionnuala Kenny.
“We had been told from the beginning that we were going to meet [them], but we didn’t know when,” Dahl said. “The White House coordinator of the event brought us back downstairs to the dressing room, then a holding room until we walked into another room — and there they were.”
Most people don’t get to play at the White House. I think it was a pretty cool experience.— freshman Andrew Caden
An Irish ambassador provided The Culkin School’s name to the White House, Culkin said.
“We are grateful for their well-earned recognition, and were honored to be able to provide the opportunity for them to dance for this prestigious annual event that celebrates the historic special relationships between the U.S. and Ireland,” Culkin said.
Sean Culkin then chose students to perform and musicians to accompany the dancers.
Before Caden was chosen to perform, three professional Irish musicians turned down the offer to perform at the event because of their opposition to Trump’s stance on immigration and his proposed budget cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts and other cultural programs.
“I felt like I would be a hypocrite,” Laura Byrne, who plays the Irish flute and tin whistle, told the Washington Post.
Caden, whose sister dances for The Culkin School, had his own reasons for performing.
“I respect the people who declined doing it, but I think that the arts transcend politics,” Caden said. “Trump’s never going to see how important the arts are if he doesn’t see people performing them. For me, I don’t really view it as a political statement.”
Both Caden and Dahl attested to the uniqueness of the opportunity, as well as the positive experience they had.
“Most people don’t get to play at the White House,” Caden said. “I think it was a pretty cool experience.”