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Irish dancing steps into the mainstream in Maryland

Draw of the dance

Irish dancing, the traditional dance of Ireland, originated centuries ago but has recently gained worldwide popularity, thanks in part to its attention-grabbing choreography and international shows like “Riverdance” and Michael Flatley’s “Lord of the Dance.” Throughout Maryland, the fast-paced dance style can be found at dance schools, competitions, parades and festivals.

Some studios, such as the Hunt School of Irish Dance in Crofton, have seen an enrollment boost in recent years, while others have waiting lists. A number of new schools, such as the O’Grady Quinlan Academy Southern Maryland in Galesville, have also opened their doors to meet the demand.

Dancers say they love the movement, energy and even competition associated with Irish dancing, while parents say the sense of community, friendships earned and life lessons learned make the hours of practice worthwhile.

“It’s a huge community,” says Debra Curry, an Odenton resident whose daughters Abby, 15, and Emily, 11, dance at the Hunt School of Irish Dance. “Everyone is so supportive of each other.”

Gaby knew she wanted to try Irish dance when she was 3 years old and saw “Riverdance” on TV.

“I saw it and said, ‘That’s what I want to do,'” explains the 13-year-old. “It’s a fun way to move around, and it’s really energetic.”

Isabella, 9, also became enthralled with Irish dancing at age 3 after her family attended a Teelin School of Irish Dance children’s performance at Towson University.

“It was an hour and a half show,” says mom, Catherine Pelura. “She … sat through the entire thing. She was mesmerized.”

Gaby and Isabella enrolled in lessons at Teelin in Columbia at ages 6 and 5, respectively, (the age that most schools start teaching) and have been dancing ever since.

“I still love it as much as the first time I danced,” Gaby says. “It’s always changing. There’s new steps, new things to master.”

“It’s really fun,” adds Isabella. “When I’m dancing, I feel focused, but I also feel like I’m having a good time.”

When not in school — Isabella attends Monsignor Slade Catholic School in Glen Burnie and Gaby is home schooled — the girls spend most of their free time dancing. They happily practice up to six days a week, both in the dance studio and at home. Gaby spends about 15 hours a week dancing, while Isabella dedicates about 10. They also take Pilates to keep their cores strong.

Isabella says Irish Dancing is on her mind “24/7.”

“She loves it so much, you never have to tell her to practice,” her mother explains.

At the Stratmann house practice is nearly constant but fun. “Wednesday nights are barn nights,” explains Shawn Stratmann, Gaby’s mother and one of her Irish dance teachers at Teelin. “Gaby has two or three friends over to practice for two or three hours. Then, my husband and I cook dinner for them.”

The girls’ hard work has paid off. Both Isabella and Gaby are open championship competitors, the highest level of competition in Irish dancing.

Competition and life lessonsIrishDance5W

Irish dance lessons vary by school, but most schools offer a mix of performance and competition opportunities, says Marnie O’Callaghan, owner of Maple Academy of Irish Dance, which has a location in Annapolis.

“It can be as much or as little as you want it to be,” Curry says. “It’s all personal choice.”

Performances take place throughout the year and usually peak in March because of Saint Patrick’s Day, she says. Venues include parades, Irish festivals and assisted living homes.

Competitions, divided by age and level of expertise, take dancers all over the world. The higher dancers place in local competitions, the more national and international competitions they qualify for, O’Callaghan says.

At Teelin, any registered student can compete, says Maureen Gately, Teelin’s owner and director.
“The top 5 percent of dancers qualify for national and world competitions,” Stratmann says.

Gaby began competing at age 7. She has traveled to the United Kingdom twice and Boston once to compete in the World Irish Dancing Championship. In her most recent world competition, she competed in the Under 13 age group alongside about 150 other dancers. She placed 29th. In April, she plans to compete again in the world championships in London.

“My goal this year is to be a world medal holder,” she says, adding she needs a top 20 placement to achieve that goal.

Stratmann acknowledges the travel, practices and competitions themselves are a huge time commitment. But since the family — including Gabby’s 10-year-old sister, Julianna — are all Irish dancers, it’s time spent doing something they love, Stratmann says.

“It’s an incredible art form,” she says. “And it’s very addictive.”

Gaby is a confident dancer who has advanced quickly in competitions. Still, she says, she has challenging moments. At the 2013 national competition, she slipped during her performance.

“I caught myself, but I worried if it would affect my score,” she says. “You never know what’s going to happen. Each judge has their own preference for what they’re going to look for.”

Gaby placed 2nd that year in her age group.

Isabella is not yet old enough to attend the world championships (dancers need to be 10 to qualify), but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t won her share of awards. She is a two-time regional champion who has traveled up and down the East Coast to compete. She hopes to qualify for worlds in 2015.

Competitions aside, parents say Irish dancing brings strong friendships into their children’s lives, and teaches them valuable life lessons.

Gaby has met most of her best friends through Irish dancing classes and competitions. The same is true for Isabella and Curry’s daughters.

“It’s nice to win, but the friendships they make are a big part of it,” Curry says.

Gaby has also learned about perseverance and resilience through injuries like a pulled hip flexor and constantly blistered feet, and she’s learned importance of setting goals and the hard work required to reach them.

Both Gaby and Isabella say they plan to continue Irish dancing for many years to come. They’ve contemplated performing with touring dance shows or even becoming certified Irish dance instructors. But for now, they need to get back to the dance floor. The next big competition is just weeks away.

Photo above: Madeline Nilan, 16 or Clarksville, Katie Ortel, 15 of Glenwood and Gaby Stratmann, 13, of Ellicott City practice at Teelin School of Dance in Columbia.

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