Cadet Spotlight: Meet St. John’s Irish dancers

Sabre Irish Dance 2019
Photo courtesy of Aela Riley ’21

In December, SJC students and Irish dancers Shannon Dempsey ’21, Julia Nonnenkamp ’20, Aela Riley ’21, and Anna Volkman ’20 competed at the Irish Dance Commission’s Annual Southern Region Oireachtas in Houston, TX.

An oireachtas, Gaelic for “gathering,” is the equivalent of a regional dance championship. Dancers can compete in solo, team, choreography, drama, and traditional step competitions. The Southern Region Oireachtas is one of the most anticipated competitions of the year. Dancers spend months training and hoping to dance their personal bests or qualify for national and world championships. Almost 2,000 of the region’s top dancers competed this year.

“Many people often think that Irish dance revolves solely around performance. In reality, for all of us who do not have professional dancing careers, it is mostly defined by competition,” explained Nonnenkamp, which is why oireachtas are so important for Irish dancers.

Nonnenkamp and Volkman each performed a reel, a soft-shoe dance, and a hornpipe, a hard-shoe dance. Volkman also competed in three team dances: under 18 girls eight hand, over 18 girls eight hand, and an under 18 mixed four hand. Many team dances are named for the number of dancers: eight hands have eight dancers. Volkman will be competing with both of her eight-hand teams at the 2019 World Championship in North Carolina.

Dempsey will also be competing at  the 2019 World Championships, after winning ninth place in the under 15 solo competition and dancing her personal best.

Riley competed in the under 16 group, under 18 team competition, and drama competition. For her solo round, she also performed a reel and a hornpipe, placing in the top 50 percent. In addition, Riley performed a set piece titled the Drunken Gauger. Her team won first place in their drama competition.

It isn’t without much dedication and hard work that Dempsey, Nonnenkamp, Riley, and Volkman have become such accomplished dancers. “I go to dance class every other day, and when I’m not in class, I’m at home practicing in the mirror, making sure I’m perfecting everything I can fix. I make sure to do intense interval training every other day two weeks before I compete at a major or a local competition. I’m always drinking water, and I watch what I eat. I also put my feet in an ice bath every night to reduce the swelling I get and take 30 minutes every night to roll out or stretch,” said Volkman. Riley swims for SJC to build muscle and keep up her stamina, and Nonnenkamp cross-trains as well.

Irish dance definitely is a year-round sport, added Dempsey. “People underestimate the amount of training, time, and athleticism required,” said Nonnenkamp. Riley agrees. “Ask any dancer about it, and they will tell you all about what their dance style entails,” she said. “The competitions are so hard, and you can really tell who’s being forced to dance and who’s there to win. Just like almost every other sport, we compete and try to win that first-place sash and trophy,” Volkman said.

Volkman credits dance as a source of great empowerment. “Getting up on a stage with one other girl in front of 200 people and having five to seven judges watching you and judging you forces you to grow up and find some confidence,” she said.

On dancing alongside other SJC students, Riley said, “I think it’s great! We all push each other to become better dancers.” Although they attend different dance schools, they enjoy spending time together at local and regional competitions.

What they all agree they love most about Irish dance are the relationships they have developed. “The friends you make at dance are some of the best friends you will ever have,” Volkman said. “They have seen you go through so much to get where you are, they support you, they share their electrical tape, and they care.”

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