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St. Patrick’s Day is over, but six Evanston girls will be following their rainbow halfway around the globe in search of a pot of gold.
Caroline Hagerty, 14; Sara and Caitlin Nolan, 13 and 10; Laurel and Molly O’Hare, 15 and 11; and Kati Robinson, 16, students at the Sheila Tully Academy of Irish Dance in Glenview, will be leaving within the week for the 2018 World Irish Dancing Championships held in Glasgow, Scotland, from March 25 to April 1.
It took more than Irish luck for the dancers to reach this point. Tully students can start lessons as young as 4 or 5 and are encouraged, but not required, to enter competitions. Beginning with smaller, local contests, they climb level by level, proving their competence in ever more advanced and challenging dance skills. A trip to the World Championships promises to be a peak experience. Julie O’Hare says her daughter Laurel “has looked forward to this since she was 5.”
The six qualified for the World competition at the November regionals, which draw from a 15-state area. The Evanston girls will be competing as members of two 16-person teams from the Tully school. Caroline, who placed seventh of 130 solo dancers in her age group at regionals, will perform a solo as well as dancing with a team in Glasgow, says her mother, Lisa Altenbernd.
This is Caroline’s second trip to the World Championships, the others’ first. In addition to the excitement of performing, all of them are anticipating the thrill of traveling abroad and mixing with thousands of people from far-flung countries. Her daughters are most excited, Ms. O’Hare says, “to see the winners from past years.”
Dancing at the World Championships requires strenuous and time-consuming preparation. Leading up to the event, there are three or four classes a week in addition to a team practice.
Because it “puts together a set of elements or skills, Irish dance is more like a sport than an interpretation,” Ms. Altenbernd says. In their classes, students progress through a fixed sequence of techniques and dances. First, they master the seven steps of the Irish jig, which, according to the Tully Academy website, can take a year or more. They move from there to a couples jig and to reels.
For their first dances, the dancers wear soft-soled, ballet-like shoes. The percussive sound of the Irish dancing made famous by Riverdance comes from hard-soled shoes worn for the fast hornpipe and other more complicated dances. Like ballet novices moving toward pointe work on toe, Irish dancers earn their hard shoes. Hard-shoe dancing is so demanding it requires adding a special class to their schedule. Finally, maturing dancers begin to learn traditional set dances, which have specific steps and tunes, some unchanged for three centuries.
No one knows the origin of the distinctive posture of Irish dance, in which dancers hold their arms stiff and straight at their sides and their upper body rigid. Colorful explanations abound, many of them tales of pluck and defiance. One story tells of Irish dancers disrespecting the English Queen by keeping their arms rigidly by their sides, refusing to raise them to her. Another has parishioners flouting the Church’s ban on dancing. They danced straight-armed, the story goes, so a priest looking in the window would not realize what they were doing. Aimee Nolan, mother of two dancers, passes along a similar account of women dancing undetected “back in the day in Ireland, when there were restrictions on women dancing.”
The dancers’ mothers say they see numerous benefits from their daughters’ Irish dance experience, starting with the fact, Ms. O’Hare says, that it is “a good workout.” Some – like Caroline, her mother says – thrive on competition. Caroline will dance two soft- and two hard-shoe solos among as many as 250 competitors, only 50 of whom will be called back to perform a set dance.
Both Ms. Altenbernd and Ms. Nolan say the group work has been constructive for their girls. “It’s really taught them teamwork and respect,” Ms. Nolan says. Making friends from different schools – Caroline goes to North Shore Country Day, Laurel to Evanston Township High School, Molly to Orrington, Sara and Caitlin to St. Athanasius, Kati to the Waldorf School – and getting to know their families has enhanced the experience.
Performing has taught the girls a lot, too, the mothers agree. Ms. O’Hare says she has seen her daughters’ self-confidence grow as they conquer their fears of being in front of a crowd. They meet the public frequently. Tully dancers entertain year-round at weddings and nursing homes, bars and churches, “bringing joy to people,” Ms. Altenbernd says.
This year the World Championships, which change cities but always fall during Easter week, come on the heels of the Academy’s busiest show season. In the week and a half around St. Patrick’s Day, various groups of Tully dancers do as many as 60 performances. Some of the Evanston girls danced a dozen times in a matter of days and still must be ready for Glasgow.
It remains for them to pack, folding hopes and dreams along with costumes, wigs, and dancing shoes. Though each will likely save space for something gold, the dancers know in their hearts that the trip to Glasgow is its own reward.