The first time Tina Barr saw Riverdance, she knew her life would never be the same.
"I knew I had to do that," Barr said. "I love Celtic music and I've always sung. But I knew I had to do this."
The 32-year-old Land O'Lakes woman and biology major at the University of South Florida wants to one day work with exotic cats as a veterinarian. But for now, she divides her time among study, part-time jobs and Irish dance lessons at the Butler School of Irish Dance in Town 'N Country.
She can be found most weekends tending bar at Grace O'Malley's Irish Pub in St. Pete Beach. When she's not busy pouring a pint, she's pointing her toes and kicking up her heels, or step dancing as it's known in Ireland.
"When things are a little slow, I take the apron off for two minutes and do a reel or a jig," said Barr, whose dark hair and fair complexion suggest a Gaelic ancestry, combined in her case with a bit of Italian, Dutch and Yugoslavian heritage. "I cannot give this up."
Sessions, held every other Sunday at the pub, are a time when musicians and dancers get together just for the love of music.
"It's fun, it's a stress relaxer and it shows me I can do it," Barr said.
On this particular night, as a storm rattled the windows and pounded the roof, it seemed as if a gale had pushed its way in from the Irish Sea and turned the homey pub into a safe haven where nothing existed but music, dance and drink.
There, gathered around a table, eight musicians re-created lilting Irish melodies with flutes, guitars, penny whistles and fiddles. Another kept the beat steady on an Irish drum.
All the while, pub owner Mary Meyer gave voice to such Irish ballads as Suil A Ruin, Saint Anne's Reel and Whiskey in the Morning.
And off to the side, Barr, along with fellow step dancers Michelle Meyer and Pat Brophy, alternated jigs and reels, stopping now and then to catch their breath.
"The first time we came, I thought we'd dance in the corner a little," said Meyer, 24, who lives in Temple Terrace and is not related to Mary Meyer. "We danced for three hours. And now we dance at every session."
After a few hours, Barr and Meyer exchanged their soft shoes, used for jigs and reels, for shoes with fiberglass tips and hard plastic heels, used for what are called hard jigs.
"It's really cool," server Sarah Vieillent said. "It seems like they only use their lower body."
Barr, who was divorced last year and then laid off from her job as a commercial property manager, said she decided to change her life, first by going back to school and then by giving expression to her artistic side. In addition to step dancing, Barr also sings. She often can be heard at Grace O'Malley's singing Irish ballads a capella.
"It's not easy, but at the end of the day, I can look at myself in the mirror and like who I see," Barr said as she laced up a pair of ghillies, pronounced "gillies," soft shoes used in Irish dancing that resemble ballet slippers.
"I'm doing this for myself and no one else."
IF YOU GO
Sessions at Grace O'Malley's, 250 75th Ave., St. Pete Beach, are held from 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. the second Sunday of each month and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. the fourth Sunday of each month.
_ Jackie Ripley can be reached at (813) 269-5308 or ripleysptimes.com.