Local Irish dancers headed to world stage
It’s only a few weeks from Easter and for 17 Darien girls at the Harney Pender Keady Academy in Stamford, that means it’s almost time for the World Irish Dancing Championships.
The competition takes place during the week of April 15, and will be in Greensboro, N.C. The girls, who range in ages from 10 to 17, are competing in solos and/or team events.
This is the third time that the event, which attracts 5,000 competitors and 25,000 spectators each year from more than 30 countries, is being held in the U.S.
“Our studio has had girls qualifying to compete here for 18 years,” said Kathleen Keady Walsh, owner of the dancing school.
About 100 dancers are competing from the entire school, which includes its Stamford and Massachusetts locations.
In order to compete in Worlds, they had to qualify at the New England Regional championships in Hartford. They also had the opportunity to qualify at the North American Championships in Orlando, Fla.
There are two different team competitions: Ceili, where there are eight dancers; and figure, which has 16 dancers.
The Ceili dancers will be competing against about 75 teams, while the figure competitions will have about 10 teams, according to Walsh.
“It’s very competitive and very hard to qualify,” Walsh said. “Most of these kids are in my studio between three and four times a week, if not more.”
The dancers are “very committed when they get to this level,” Walsh said. “Natural ability definitely helps but hard work can get you very far.”
Walsh said dancing in teams offers many benefits. “It’s like being a part of any team. It builds a lot of camaraderie. The other dancers turn into their lifetime best friends,” she said.
In the solo competitions, there are about 200 dancers.
The dance school fundraises to offset the cost of the world competition. It costs over $10,000 to enter the competition for the entire school.
Darien resident Gigi Pascal, 14, will be performing in both hard-shoe and soft-shoe dances at the world competition. She has been practicing her dances since December of 2018.
Hard-shoe, which resembles tap dancing, is performed with three dancers at a time.
The soft-shoe dance is more graceful, softer, and quieter.
“It’s about the length, the stretch in your legs,” Gigi said. “You have to float across the floor.”
She added that her height, at 5-feet, 8-inches, is an asset in this dance, and makes her good at jumps.
“I have practice five days a week,” said Gigi, who has been dancing since she was 4. “I’ve made a lot of friends through my dancing. We get to travel and we are always together.”
Through her dancing, she has traveled to Florida, New Orleans, Rhode Island and Hartford and Ireland.
The most challenging part of the dances for Gigi is "keeping up her stamina. Her strength, however, is her “flexibility,” she said. “I’m pretty flexible. I can kick high.”
She added that she has good posture, which is “helpful” in this kind of dance, since “you have to keep your arms close to your body so they don’t move.”
Gigi said that she is most excited about being able to dance on “the world stage,” and getting the chance to meet new dancers.
She won’t be meeting the dancers that she will be dancing with until she’s backstage. “You don’t get to practice with them ahead of time,” Gigi said. “You are judged individually.”
Irish dancing has helped Gigi improve her confidence, she said.
“I get super nervous with being on the big stage and everybody watching,” she said. “This helps you with getting out in front of other people and public speaking.”
Darien resident Katie Lane, who is 16, is competing in figure.
“With figure, it’s a mixture of Irish dancing and Irish dance moves and contemporary dance moves,” added Katie, who has been dancing since first grade.
“One of the things that’s different about a figure competition is you can use your arms,” Katie said. “I think that makes it harder because Irish dancers are good at pointing their toes and doing things with their legs because that’s what we’re trained to do, so it’s hard to train to do something with our arms.”
She added that everyone in her dance has matching black dresses and black tights when they compete.
She added that she loves Irish dancing because she’s a “social” person.
“Since I’m with 15 other girls on my team, learning new things for the dances are lot of fun,” Katie said.
Each dance tells its own story, she added. In her dance, female Irish immigrants are coming to America to make a life for themselves.
“At the beginning of our dance, it’s happier music, describing the hope of coming to a new country. Then we try and go through a couple of jobs, and we are acting out cleaning the streets, and then there is a bit about practicing religion,” said Katie, adding that she needs to make sure her facial expressions help to act out the scenes as well.
“The music for the dance will shift and we have to go with it.” she added.
Katie said Irish dancing has taught her how to work toward a goal. “It’s setting a goal to place at a competition, and seeing you have to work for it, and doing well,” she said.
The story that Carrie’s figure dance tells is about Irish immigrants building the transatlantic railroad. Within the dance, they come into the formation of a train car, and act out the movement of the train car through dance.
“There are sisters who are trying to work on the railroad but they are women who are disguised as men,” Carrie said.
Each school has its own costume, a signature dress, and its own colors. Every solo dress is custom-made in Ireland.
“We have had students finish as high as second place in the world championships in solos, and we have won the world championship in Caeili competition multiple times in the past,” Walsh said.
“The world championships is our Olympics,” Walsh added.