Already known as a hub for education, culture, medical science, and sports, among other things, Boston will claim an additional distinction later this month: For a week, it will be the world’s capital of Irish dancing.
From March 24-31, Boston will serve as host for the 2013 World Irish Dancing Championships — only the second time in the event’s 40-plus years that it has taken place in the US (Philadelphia was the first, in 2009). Some 7,000 dancers, along with family members, friends and spectators, from Ireland, the UK, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere in the US, are expected to hit town for the competition, which will be centered in The Hynes Convention Center and Sheraton Boston Hotel.
Hosting the “Worlds,” as they are popularly known, marks another chapter in a rich history of civic achievement for Boston, which was awarded the event over 20 other cities around the world, and will bring some late-winter/early-spring excitement to the area — along with, of course, a hoped-for economic windfall.
But the week also will be awash in literally thousands upon thousands of individual stories, built around the culmination of hopes, dreams, sweat, and sacrifice, not just on the part of the competitors but their teachers and often their families as well. And more than a few of these sagas have taken shape in the shadow of the Hynes and Sheraton.
So, the word from Worlds participants past and present and other observers is: Get ready for seven days of spectacle, thrills, fun and, most of all, some of the best Irish dancing you’re likely to see.
“These are the top Irish dancers, competing on equal footing in a city long known as a center of Irish culture,” says World Irish Dancing Championships Chairman Terry Gillan, a Dublin native now living in Connecticut who for some years taught Irish dance in Boston. “There’s skill, athleticism and drama — it’s the best day’s theater you can get.”
The Worlds are held under the auspices of An Coimisiún le Rincí Gaelacha, or Commission for Irish Dancing, created as an authority in 1930 to promote and foster all forms of Irish dance. In the decades since then, the commission has established regional councils in the US, Canada, Australia, and other parts of the world. Dancers compete in local feisanna, sponsored by dance schools or Irish cultural associations, with the highest finishers advancing to the Oireachtas, or regional and national competitions, and from there onto the Worlds, which until recently have been held in Ireland.
Dancers will compete in age-grouped solo competitions from under 11 years old up to senior level, which is for dancers over 21 years old. The program of events will also include ceili and figure dance competitions as well as dance drama. Separate competitions are organized for male and female competitors in solo events. Team competitions have sections for mixed and unmixed teams. [For general details on the World Irish Dancing Championships, see clrg.ie; a separate website for events and activities during the Worlds at Boston is at clrg.ie/boston2013]
The impact of the Worlds, however, extends considerably beyond the Irish dance community, says Pat Moscaritolo, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. Competitors and other visitors will account for almost 20,000 total hotel room nights, he notes, and the total impact for the regional economy is expected to be close to $13 million.
“That’s quite a spending kick for the region and our hotels, restaurants, and retailers,” he says. “Much like a Super Bowl, the economic and tourism impact ripples out beyond the week-long activities. Those that come to Boston for the World Championships will likely come back again in the future, with family and friends and business colleagues. That second economic kick is priceless — no convention and visitors bureau has an advertising budget to rival what the Worlds deliver.”
“This is a huge plum for Boston,” agrees Brian O’Donovan, host of WGBH-FM’s “A Celtic Sojourn.” “It’s fascinating to see the proliferation of Irish music and dance around the globe over the past decade or so, and the Worlds is a perfect example of the extent to which that has happened. All those competitions and rituals that go along with Irish dance now happen in places from Dublin to Brisbane to LA, and keep the tradition alive and well.”
“The Worlds are like the Olympics of Irish dancing — every dancer dreams of going,” says Milton native and Boston College senior Elizabeth Woods, sounding an oft-repeated comparison.
“All of the best dancers and teachers are there to give it all they’ve got after months and months of practice,” says Woods, who competed in the 2003 Worlds in Killarney. “It was definitely a stressful atmosphere leading up to the days I danced, but they were also filled with excitement.
“Just participating is an accomplishment in itself, and to get that far is very rewarding. Although injuries kept me from returning to the Worlds, I think it was the years of hard work and dedication to Irish dancing that were the true learning experiences for me. I learned how to set goals and how to be disciplined enough to achieve them. I will never forget going to the Worlds and I think it is one of the reasons why I have remained involved with the Irish dance world today,” says Woods, now the co-president of BC’s student Irish dance troupe.
Two of Woods’s fellow BC Irish dancers, freshmen Bridget TeeKing and Madeline Jacob, are Worlds veterans: Both are making their seventh appearance this year. “There is an intense, electric feel to the event that is both intimidating and exciting at the same time,” says TeeKing, of Brookfield, Connecticut. “The scene is beautiful and terrifying, as you walk into the hall seating thousands of spectators intently watching a massive stage.”
Jacob, a native of Media, Pennsylvani, adds: “There are different accents, different languages, and different clothing styles wherever one looks. Although everyone is from different places, we are all there for the same reason: the dancing. Dancers are warming up in every open space, teachers are giving their last words of advice, mothers are running everywhere. Some may say this is a chaotic time with wigs, fake tanner, and rhinestones everywhere you look — but I would say that this is normal.”
A few miles east along Commonwealth Avenue, another college-age Irish dancer is eagerly anticipating her first Worlds. “I can’t begin to describe my excitement,” says Boston University sophomore Elizabeth Morlock, a native of San Diego. “I’m looking forward to the entire experience: the hard work beforehand, the pre-dancing nerves, the post-dancing relief, being there with my dance teachers and family, and the awards ceremony.”
Morlock has another reason to be enthusiastic, as the first from her Irish dance school — the Rose-Ritchie Academy of Irish Dance — to compete in the Worlds. “I am so excited to welcome my dance teachers, Patricia and Rori, to Boston. It means so much to me that they are flying across the country so that I can experience the Worlds alongside them. I’ve dreamed of this experience for 13 years and I can’t wait to be wrapped up in this crazy, extremely Irish event.”
Morlock’s comment underscores one of the key facets of the Worlds, and of Irish dance itself: the teacher-student relationship. Dancers and teachers alike will tell you that, when the rapport is right, it can lead to wonderful things — and that includes reaching Worlds-level status. Sometimes, maintaining and nurturing that kind of bond requires life-changing commitments.
Such is the case with Brighton native and Irish dance teacher Attracta Quinn and two of her Worlds-bound students: Emily Stewart, 19, the North American champion in her age category, who has competed in the Worlds five times — including last year, her first as a student of Quinn, when she placed 11th overall; and 11-year-old Zenaida McKinney, who will be in her first Worlds.
Quinn, whose parents are from Roscommon and Sligo, began dancing at age 7 under the tutelage of Rita O’Shea, founder and director of the O’Shea-Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance. She qualified for the Worlds every year and went several times, in an era when few Americans would compete in the Worlds. Right after high school, she spent two years in the cast of “Lord of the Dance,” then returned to Brighton, got her Irish dance teacher certification in 2002, taught at O’Shea-Chaplin while attending Boston College — she graduated in 2006 — and in 2008 opened up her own school, Scoil Rince Naomh Attracta, Gaelic for “St. Attracta’s Dance School.” (Explaining the choice of the school name, Quinn says her father’s family is from Tubbercurry, the birthplace of St. Attracta, for whom she is named. “There are already a lot of ‘Quinns’ in business, so I thought I’d try something a little more distinctive.”)
It was during these past several years when Quinn crossed paths with Stewart and McKinney, who share key characteristics: Both are from California, grew up in families with little or no roots or involvement in Irish culture, and were inspired by performances of Irish dance at their respective elementary schools to take it up themselves. Both had the opportunity to work with Quinn when she spent time in California teaching and giving workshops, and both found their connection with her was so good they relocated to Boston to maintain it.
These decisions to uproot, however, were not hastily or impulsively made. Stewart was nearing the end of high school, and since attending college was in her plans, Boston presented a wealth of educational opportunities (she wound up enrolling in Emmanuel College). Zenaida and her mother, Beth, also had other considerations for moving to Boston: It brought them closer to other family members, and put them in an area with vast offerings of activities that appealed to Zenaida’s considerable artistic interests.
Make no mistake, though, the chance to have Quinn as a full-time teacher, and the shot at going to the Worlds, was the decisive factor for Stewart and the McKinneys.
“Zenaida was raised in a family where, if you have a love of something, you give it everything you can,” says Beth. “I was amazed when she got so interested in Irish dance; she pulled it out of nowhere — or, actually, I think the dancing picked her. But she kept at it, and once you could see how connected she was with Attracta, and how Attracta helped to bring out her best, all the signs pointed to us coming here.”
“Irish dancing has become part of me,” says Zenaida. “It’s a way I can really express myself , and Attracta has helped me to improve how I do that. One of the best things she told me about competitions was, ‘Just go out and dance your best, and if you feel good inside then you’ve already won.’ And if I don’t win, I know what things I didn’t do well.”
Stewart also is grateful for the role Quinn has played in her development. “I owe a lot to her. She played a huge part in my becoming good enough to win the Nationals. Attracta just helped me to focus on my goal, and to believe that I was a good enough dancer to make it happen.”
Quinn, for her part, is glad she has been a positive force in Stewart and Zenaida’s lives, and flattered that both felt strongly enough to want to come to Boston to maintain their connection with her. But, she emphasizes, she’s made it clear that however much she might able to do for them, in the end they are the ones who will determine the extent of their success, or failure.
“I never force or expect any of my students to do competitions,” says Quinn. “If I see they’ve learned the steps, I’ll tell the parents that they can try out a competition — and I’ve never had a kid say they don’t want to. I don’t push it, but my message is, if you want to advance, you have to put in the work. And because there are now so many others in Irish dancing who are also working hard, you have that much more competition to face.”
Quinn says the footwork and other aspects of the dance technique are important, obviously, but she also has dancers pay attention to strength and posture, and those elusive, intangible and oh-so-critical elements of confidence and self-esteem.
“I think everyone has a certain amount of natural talent for dance, but it takes a good work ethic to do something with that talent,” she says. “You can have beautiful footwork, but if you don’t come out and absolutely love what you do — and show that you love it — you won’t get the most out of dancing, whether in competition or in performance.
“Fortunately, Zenaida and Emily have shown they are capable of doing the work, keeping their minds on what they have to do, and most of all, loving Irish dance. It may sound like a cliché, but I tell them, like all my students, not to worry about winning or where they place, but to be confident that they will dance the best they can.”