Students find success in the world of traditional Irish dance

Evan Ponstingle | Staff Writer

Maddie Brutvan, Junior

All things Irish are in the air. Leprechauns, Shamrock Shakes, and of course, Irish dancing. For two Mason students, Irish dancing isn’t just for a certain time of year. For them, it’s a way of life.

Identifiable through its rigid upper body technique and elaborate costumes, Irish dancing has been a traditional staple of Irish culture since the 18th century. Junior Maddie Brutvan and freshman Kara Carr have been Irish dancers since they were young. Brutvan said that her interest was sparked in second grade with a St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

“My second grade music teacher was an Irish dancer; she did a lesson on it around St. Patrick’s Day and I thought it was really cool,” Brutvan said. “I wanted to try it, and she actually ended up becoming one of my dance teachers when I started moving up levels.” 

Carr on the other hand was born into an Irish dancing household and began dancing at the age of three.

“My mom’s actually a teacher for my dance school,” Carr said. “She’s been teaching since it started, so I was kind of born into it.”

While both Carr and Brutvan share a love of Irish dance, they are not simply practicing to put on performances; they are practicing in a highly competitive environment to take home awards that are rewarding to both them, and the legacy of their schools. Carr and Brutvan attend rival Cincinnati Irish dancing schools; Carr attends the Erickson Academy of Irish Dance while Brutvan attends McGing Irish Dancers. Erickson’s practices run for three hours a night, Monday through Friday, plus a Saturday rehearsal. At McGing, Brutvan attends two hours on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Oftentimes, the rehearsals involve more than just going over new steps.

Kara Carr, Freshman

“We have a personal trainer and Pilates teacher that comes in,” Carr said. “We also have a bunch of different choreographers to choreograph our steps.”

For Carr, an additional level of pressure beyond the competitions is that her mother is a teacher.

“I’m always pushed at a lot harder during practice as she knows when I’m dancing my best or I could do better,” Carr said. “There’s a higher amount of pressure I put on myself to do well because she’s my mom, but my teacher as well. Because she’s my teacher and mom, a lot of people recognize me easily in the Irish dance world, like other dance teachers and people in my competition. I’m thankful to have my mom as one of my teachers because she pushes me to become the best dancer I can be.”

Both students participate in competitions all over the nation. For the dancers, it is one of the most thrilling moments of their hobby, a moment that even extends to their preparation.

“Competitions start usually early in the morning, so I get up quite early to do my makeup and hair,” Carr said. “We wear Irish dance wigs that are specific for our competitions which have to be put on a certain way with lots of Bobby pins and hairspray. I warm up before my competition starts and put on my shoes and costume, which is a specific type of dress for Irish dance with embroidery and Swarovski crystals.”

The famous dresses are an iconic — and costly — piece of the Irish dancing uniform.

“You can have them custom made for you [for over $2,000] by an Irish dance dress making company or you can buy a used one,” Carr said “If you’re in the highest level [of dance classes/competition] like me, you have to get a custom made dress as that’s the standard. Dresses usually last for about a year, or shorter if you grow out of them. Getting a new dress each year means you can pick the colors and designs of how you want the dress to look, and the company makes them in Ireland and then ships it to you.”

MHS’s dancers have garnered many awards. Brutvan recalled at the Oireachtas regional competition, meaning that she placed in the top half–an achievement she wasn’t sure she was going to get as it is “not one of the easiest things to do.” Two years ago, Brutvan was only two places away from being in the top half at the Worlds championship. At some smaller competitions, she has received first place.

Carr has also received awards that have made her stand out. She has attended the prestigious World Championships five times, and has placed 12th in North America and sixth in the Midwest. 

Along with the rest of the world, Irish dancers were also faced with new obstacles when COVID came onstage. During the lockdown period, lessons were moved online to Zoom, and the dancers had to learn a whole new perspective on the dance. Brutvan said that regardless of the difficulty the situation presented, there were also certain moments of enjoyment that came from their challenges. 

“It was really weird because like we are dancing and the music would just glitch out, or [our teachers] thought we were [dancing] in time but we weren’t and it would just be the music,” Brutvan said. “It was really funny.”

Now that competitions are back in person, Carr and Brutvan said that they are more excited than ever for what 2021 has in store. 

“I just love the environment of competitions and getting off stage and just being so out of breath,” Brutvan said. “Waiting for awards and then hearing your name called is so rewarding. I just love it.”

No matter what unforeseen events might happen in the future, Carr said that she will keep coming back year after year.

“It’s just my love for it,” Carr said. “It’s the only sport I’ve done and I like everything about it, [mainly] my friends and the competitiveness.”

Irish dance is an important cornerstone of the dancers’ lives and requires serious dedication, even to the occasional chagrin of their friends.

“My friends outside of dance think that it’s cool because it’s something they didn’t know about before they met me, and they see how hard I work and how it’s such a part of my life,” Carr said. “They always say I’m at dance too much or miss hanging out with me because I have dance so much.”

Carr said that regardless of culture, anyone interested can indulge in the Irish dancing universe. It’s something that’s even more athletically involved than what the average person thinks.

“You can be as young or as old as you want,” Carr said. “It’s a great sports start, it’s such a great community of people, and it’s really athletic.”

Brutvan wants to dispel some popular myths and hopes to popularize the art of the dance she loves.

“It’s really fun and we’re not all leprechauns.”